He’s 80 years old. He’s got a demanding day job. And he was never the world’s most electric campaigner to begin with. To win re-election, President Joe Biden plans to tap an expansive stable of friends and allies to go where he can’t, say what he won’t and be what he’ll never be.
Campaign surrogates are nothing new. William McKinley deployed 1,400 when he campaigned for the White House in 1896, while he mostly greeted supporters from the front porch of his home in Ohio.
But Biden’s nascent re-election campaign has invested early — before it even has a headquarters and ahead of what former President Barack Obama did in 2012 — in what veteran operatives say is an unusually robust operation to tap the star power of the Democratic Party, most of which is outside the White House.
“President Biden, as he has proven this week, is very busy being president,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a campaign co-chair who was one of several surrogates who made themselves available to cable news bookers and other journalists while Biden was overseas this month. “Our president has assembled a group that includes some truly promising up-and-coming leaders from across the country.”
At their best, campaign surrogates are a win-win: The campaign gets force multipliers, validators and access to their grassroots networks. The surrogates, meanwhile, get important entrees, a bit of spotlight and some chits to cash in.
But surrogates also have their own interests and proclivities — and a well-documented tendency to go off-script. And an overreliance on them could open Biden to criticism that he’s reprising the so-called “basement campaign” of 2020 because he’s unable or unwilling to hit the stump himself. (Former President Donald Trump frequently taunted Biden for not being out campaigning more.)
“Part of a re-election campaign means that the president is actively governing as president. That’s the reality. So I think smartly addressing the reality means you have to leverage the networks and other voices in the party,” said a source familiar with the campaign’s planning, who was granted anonymity to discuss the inner workings.
The campaign said it has already coordinated over 185 interviews in a wide variety of national and local media, in both English and Spanish, a broad-spectrum multiplatform approach that it hopes will help the message break through in a fractured media landscape.
The campaign’s core surrogates — its six co-chairs and the 50 members of its National Advisory Board, in addition to Vice President Kamala Harris — were chosen not just for loyalty or stature or political needs, but also because they all agreed to be available and do the work.
“We anticipate being very active,” said Rep. Maxwell Frost, D-Fla., 26, a progressive freshman who is a rising star on the left. “It’s definitely more than a list of 50 names. I think the president really wants to put together a list of people who are ready to work.”
That will mean appearing at fundraisers and in-person events, participating in media interviews, posting on social media and tapping their own local support networks. Administration officials and many others will be included, too, such as when Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg appeared at a recent Biden fundraiser in New York.
Jim Messina, who ran Obama’s re-election campaign, said surrogates are critical to fundraising efforts and as outside validators for an electorate increasingly cynical about politics. And the sheer number of media and social media platforms these days means the campaign needs lots of help to reach them all, he said.
“What is true, and this was not true 10 years ago, is you can’t just recycle the usual talking points. That won’t go viral. It won’t break through. So you need people that can speak in their own voice,” Messina said. “Will it work every time? No. Will there be times when someone says something you wish they hadn’t put it exactly that way? Of course. But overall, this will be more real and authentic.”
Frost is one of several members of Biden’s advisory board who come from different ideological wings of the party or have even criticized him at times, along with familiar names like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif.
“I still think he’s our best bet in Pennsylvania, in Michigan, in Wisconsin to win those states,” Khanna, who has been traveling to Iowa and New Hampshire as he eyes a potential future presidential bid, said of Biden on NBC News' "Meet the Press" last month.
Also on the list are the two Democratic officials who seemed closest to considering primary challenges to Biden last year, Govs. Gavin Newsom of California and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, in keeping with a Lyndon Johnson-style philosophy of keeping frenemies close. The list also includes potential future presidential candidates, like Govs. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan.
“He’s making a very concerted effort to bring everyone in,” said Chris Huntley, a Democratic speechwriter and strategist. “There’s nothing wrong with getting together the Avengers of surrogates, who all have different powers and different abilities ... showcasing the present and future of our party.”
Four years ago, Republicans mocked and Democrats fretted about Biden’s pandemic-era “basement campaign,” in which he largely eschewed in-person events in favor of Zoom meetings and recorded video messages. And he would hardly be the first president to wage a so-called Rose Garden campaign that focuses more on governing from the White House than on barnstorming in swing states.
Of course, Biden’s low-profile campaign won in 2020, and most presidents get re-elected, with the most recent exception, Trump, being the incumbent who campaigned the most.
Biden’s heavy reliance on surrogates is sure to face similar criticism this time around, especially as Trump and other conservatives argue that he lacks the physical and mental vitality for the job.
But allies say Biden should try to stay above the fray of the campaign and leave the messier work of responding to Trump and other Republicans to them.
“I think you will see a real team effort to support the president and to be able to convey his message out into the world, so everything doesn’t rely on him alone,” Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Hollywood mogul and Democratic megadonor who is also a Biden campaign co-chair, said in an interview. “I think that’s the most important thing that he can do in terms of his candidacy for re-election — do what you’ve been doing. As opposed to the person who last occupied the White House.”
Still, relying on others to do the work for you has its limitations, which was underscored this month when New York Mayor Eric Adams wasn’t added to the Biden advisory committee after he criticized the White House’s handling of migrants, though the campaign says he remains a supporter and is still considered a surrogate.
And surrogates, especially political ones, sometimes come with their own parochial demands. For instance, Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams told the Biden campaign in 2020 she would agree to be a surrogate only if it agreed to invest millions to try to win her state, according to her former campaign manager.
Frost said he’s been lobbying to make sure Florida remains a priority for the campaign, even as some Democrats say Biden should write off the extremely expensive state, which has sided with Republicans in recent years. “If you look at the numbers, Florida is a state you don’t want to give up,” he said. “I’ve made that case, and I’ve been reassured by many people.”
He’s happy to get a chance to make that case, even if it means talking constantly about Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who just entered the presidential race. “I already talk about DeSantis about every day, and I anticipate that will continue,” Frost said.