IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.
Image: President Joe Biden waves with Vice President Kamala Harris at the Pennsylvania Democratic Party's 3rd Annual Independence Dinner in Philadelphia on Oct. 28, 2022.
President Joe Biden waves with Vice President Kamala Harris at the Pennsylvania Democratic Party's 3rd Annual Independence Dinner in Philadelphia on Oct. 28, 2022. Matt Rourke / AP

White House memo: Facing a wave, White House plotted a one-two punch 

Just like 2020, the president's strategy came under fire as the W.H. pursued a two-front focus on abortion and the economy.


At the heart of White House aides’ reveling in a midterm that defied conventional wisdom has been a sense of déjà vu: just like in the 2020 campaign, their strategy was constantly questioned and their boss counted out, until voters had their say.

That strategy, which has Democrats on the cusp of retaining control of the Senate and minimizing losses in the House, will be on display Thursday as President Joe Biden joins Vice President Kamala Harris for a not-quite victory lap, showcasing a one-two punch that the White House orchestrated to withstand a red wave.

It took shape early this year, with top Biden advisers saying they were well aware of what they were up against: an economy still scarred by the pandemic that threatened to fuel the historical, anti-incumbent trend for a president’s party in his first midterm. 

But they also anticipated what was to come: the Supreme Court’s decision overturning nationwide protections for abortion rights that could motivate key voting groups typically disengaged in off-year elections.

So Biden’s team developed what they called a two-pillared strategy for the fall campaign: a sustained economic messaging campaign highlighting Democrats’ legislative accomplishments to blunt what was assumed to be a GOP advantage, while activating Democratic constituencies in defense of not just abortion rights that were now at risk, but voting rights and even the democracy itself.

“You can’t make a choice here, choose one or the other, because I think they’re both hugely consequential,” a senior Biden adviser said in August as they prepared to launch that strategy.

It was a key moment, as Kansas’ referendum protecting abortion rights in the state appeared to validate that approach. 

Meanwhile, Biden took the lead on carrying the economic message, with multiple events most weeks either at the White House or in key voting states. Since August, 17 of his 20 official events outside of Washington were focused on either specific legislative accomplishments like infrastructure, the Inflation Reduction Act or the CHIPs Act, initiatives like student loan forgiveness, or protecting entitlement programs. 

And his political stump speech highlighted threats to democracy and his vow to protect abortion rights, with a key speech at the Howard Theater in Washington where he promised to make codifying Roe v. Wade his top legislative priority if Democrats expanded majorities in Congress.

He returns to that same venue Thursday with Harris, whose schedule in the final months of the campaign was heavily focused on abortion. During a meeting with White House chief of staff Ron Klain this summer, he suggested the vice president convene roundtables with state officials on the frontlines of the abortion rights battle. And starting in June, she held 19 of them, starting with a roundtable with seven state attorneys general in her ceremonial office and then regular meetings of state lawmakers, often in those states, generating significant coverage in local media outlets.

The roundtables evolved to more informal conversations, many hosted on college campuses and featuring influencers or local officials. One of those even included a Republican governor, Massachusetts’ Charlie Baker, highlighting how the administration viewed the issue as potent even beyond their party base.

“She was everywhere where the issue was top of mind,” said Laphonza Butler, the president of EMILY’s List, who spoke with Harris on Election Night. “It gave candidates great confidence to lean in and meet this moment. And we’ve seen some incredible outcomes.”

A White House official characterized the tag-team effort as the president and vice president “playing to their strengths” that helped deliver on those key messages. 

As the White House took stock in successes on election day they often pointed to criticism they’d faced about their strategy throughout the last few months, especially why Biden was focusing on one issue over another. In reality, he was hitting multiple messages for multiple audiences through what one official described as a “surround sound” approach. 

That meant traditional presidential speeches, a stepped-up schedule of traditional media interviews with either local or national outlets, but also non-traditional platforms like the “Smartless” podcast, Jay Leno’s Garage or meetings with TikTok influencers.

But ultimately Biden advisers and allies say that while a key part of that strategy may have been to cut into a perceived GOP advantage on the economy, they may have done more than that by going on offense in key areas.

AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler credited the White House for recognizing that the economy was broader than simply jobs and gas prices. She said the president’s focus on retirement security and leaning into criticism of oil companies over high gas prices.

“I think he saw the need to come out swinging because people wanted to see folks fighting for them,” she said. “Companies are making record profits coming out of this pandemic and not a lot of people are talking about that. And workers are still getting the short end of the stick.”

Like Shuler, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said Biden’s prioritization of unions throughout his administration was also critical in securing victories in the so-called “Blue Wall” states — Minnesota, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — that were key on Election Night and also dominated Biden’s travel.

“We made a decision as a union to reorganize internally after 2016 when the Blue Wall fell to rebuild it. And I think we saw [those states] very clearly have working people, their unions and communities of color join together in a formidable coalition to rebuild that Blue Wall.”

All that being said, many in the White House were bracing for a tougher Election Night. As one official put it, most didn’t share the president’s public confidence, and that one of the chief architects of the strategy, MIke Donilon was at times “high on hopium.”

But as another top official put it Wednesday, Biden has thrived on being underestimated.

“I think the key to Joe Biden’s success is that he understands the American people and he understands what they are going through, what they care about, and what he can do to deliver for them,” Jen O’Malley Dillon told Lawrence O’Donnell.