WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s top aides have been quietly building a 2024 campaign effort, with increasing discussions about who might manage the operation, potential themes and structure, according to nine people familiar with the planning.
The current plan is for a Biden re-election effort to rely heavily on the resources of the Democratic National Committee and only have a small campaign staff, a cost-saving configuration that follows the model of then-President Bill Clinton’s re-election bid and dramatically differs from then-President Barack Obama’s campaign, these people said.
Biden and his top advisers also are using the homestretch to November’s midterm elections to test possible 2024 themes, the people familiar with the discussions said, such as taking on wealthy special interests and casting his achievements in office as “promises made, promises kept.”
“The implicit contrast on ‘promises kept’ is clear and sharp,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a key Biden ally. “Former President Trump talked about fixing American infrastructure so often it became a running joke on late-night shows. President Biden actually got a bipartisan, strong infrastructure investment bill into law."
The behind-the-scenes 2024 planning goes further than Biden’s verbal assurances that he intends to run again, as some members of his own party question whether he will or should.
At the same time, people familiar with the discussions said the process is quintessential Biden in that it’s painstakingly deliberative, and key components remain unsettled, leaving some Democrats still unconvinced that he’ll ultimately run. The DNC-campaign dynamic in particular suggests an approach of going through the motions to a Biden 2024 bid in that it sets up a political operation that could instantly mobilize if he runs or could transfer to a different nominee if he stands down.
“He’s running and we’re building an infrastructure for him to run and win,” said Cedric Richmond, a key Biden adviser who moved from the White House to the DNC earlier this year. “Right now, it’s all an early investment in 2024 while we’re helping 2022.”
Some key campaign decisions on strategy and personnel are on hold ahead of the midterms, and as polls show Democrats have a better chance of holding onto the House and the Senate than they did just several months ago. If the party maintains control of Congress, the president’s priority will be on his legislative agenda, and Biden would likely want his top advisers to remain in place longer to help execute plans, the people familiar with the campaign discussions said. But, they said, if Republicans win one or both chambers, that would likely trigger a quicker pivot to a Biden re-election campaign.
They said discussions about a 2024 campaign manager are focused on ensuring that moving a member of Biden’s small inner circle into the role doesn’t leave a critical void in the White House, which will need to contend with an onslaught of Republican-led investigations or push a yet-to-be-defined legislative agenda, depending on the outcome of the midterms.
Should Biden settle on someone already serving in the West Wing, the likely timing for a White House official to leave would be around February, they said, and discussions are ongoing about who that might be, with multiple Biden allies under consideration. Jen O’Malley Dillon, who ran Biden’s 2020 general election campaign and now serves as deputy White House chief of staff, is expected to play a major role in a 2024 re-election bid, people familiar with the discussions said.
The preparations for 2024 remain centralized among Biden’s core group of senior advisers, including Ron Klain, Steve Ricchetti, Anita Dunn, Mike Donilon and O’Malley Dillon — all of whom currently serve in the White House.
Biden has felt buoyed by recent legislative successes, which aides believe have helped squelch rumblings of a possible primary challenge and maneuvers by other Democrats to position themselves to step in if he doesn’t run. At the start of the summer, the president was frustrated with his slumping poll numbers and felt as if he couldn’t catch a break amid mounting crises. But now, people close to him say, he’s far more upbeat. A new Associated Press/NORC poll released Thursday found 45% of Americans approve of Biden’s job performance, up from 36% in July.
Biden himself, while involved in the 2024 planning and receiving weekly polling updates, is not expected to give a formal green light to stand up a re-election campaign until after the holidays, people familiar with the discussions said. First lady Jill Biden told NBC News this week that no formal “family meeting” on the subject has been set on the calendar yet, but echoed the emerging “promises made, promises kept” argument for seeking another term.
“Look at all Joe has done,” she said. “He has kept true to what he said he would do. And so I think he just needs to keep going.”
The president has begun test-driving the possible “promises kept” theme in recent weeks and featuring it on social media. In recent public appearances, he’s ticked through a laundry list of legislation he’s signed into law and Tuesday a video posted on his Twitter account followed the same theme, noting, “President Biden made promises to the American people and he kept them.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a liberal New York Democrat, said the theme is reminiscent of then-President Donald Trump’s “promises made, promises kept” re-election argument. “The whole Trumpian type of ideal is amusing,” she said with a laugh. “But I think what we can do is speak honestly about what’s been delivered and talk about what more we want to achieve.”
Relying on the party
Rather than focus on his own political operation as Obama did, Biden as president directed aides to ensure the DNC made investments early in building up infrastructure for the midterms. Biden advisers saw an opportunity, given how many 2022 battlegrounds for Senate and governor are the same states that will likely decide the 2024 election.
Relying on the DNC for the bulk of his 2024 operation would save a Biden campaign money, given that the committee already has a staff of several hundred, an established war room and a communications team that could be refined to focus on Biden’s re-election, the people familiar with the planning said. The DNC also is not subject to the tight fundraising limits of a presidential campaign — a single donor can give the party committee up to $875,000 per year, compared to the $2,900 cap on a contributions to a candidate, according to a Democratic official. And the DNC can transfer unlimited sums to state parties for coordinated campaigns in battlegrounds.
As of now, more than 250 full-time, paid DNC staff have been deployed to eight key states, the most to Pennsylvania, which put Biden over the 270 electoral votes he needed to win in 2020. Relying on the party apparatus would allow the Biden campaign to forgo trying to build up its own separate campaign infrastructure in each state.
The dynamic would also give Biden flexibility on the timing of an announcement because most of the work to build a campaign apparatus would already have been done by the DNC.
But while a DNC-centric campaign might seem to be a natural fit for Biden, relying on the committee poses risks. The DNC has been plagued by dysfunction in recent years and, as NBC News reported early this year, tensions between committee chairman Jaime Harrison and the White House left the former feeling isolated in the job and considering an early exit.
“I’ve been around this for 40 years and I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a good thing about the DNC,” said Joe Lockhart, a former Clinton White House press secretary. “People are always complaining about it.”
Using the DNC to complement a smaller campaign team is essentially the model that Clinton used when he ran for re-election in 1996. Obama, however, had a large 2012 campaign operation in Chicago that coordinated with it but didn’t rely on the DNC.
“Biden is more comfortable in dealing with the DNC than Obama was,” said Alan Kessler, a longtime Democratic fundraiser in the Philadelphia area. “The Biden approach is the more traditional approach.”
Far more than Obama, Biden is a creature of the Democratic Party. Obama rose to power on the strength of a small-donor movement that was inspired by his history-making candidacy and personal story. After he took office in 2009, Obama set up an outside group called Organizing for America that sought to build coalitions in support of his legislative agenda — effectively shunning the DNC. Biden has shown much more of a willingness to rely on the existing party infrastructure.
One person familiar with the 2024 planning described the idea for the official Biden campaign team as a “skeletal crew.” That team could work out of Delaware or Philadelphia, home of Biden’s 2020 campaign headquarters, or potentially in the same building as the DNC in Washington, this person said.
Biden aides say no final decisions on campaign staffing have been made, and they’re not expected to be until after the midterms.