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Biden team faces challenges to fill top job with a complicated set of duties

The decision-making power is likely to remain in the White House.
President Joe Biden in Lanham, Md., on Feb. 15, 2023.
President Joe Biden in Lanham, Md., on Wednesday.Yuri Gripas / Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Finding a campaign manager for President Joe Biden’s re-election remains a problem for his top aides, according to multiple sources familiar with the discussions, underscoring the difficulty of finding someone who can run the operations while the decision-making power remains in the White House.  

The campaign manager and other top staff are likely to function more as implementers than deciders, a reality that has been a tough sell for some seasoned political professionals.

“Do you want to take on a job that has five bosses?” said one source familiar with the process, granted anonymity to discuss internal conversations.

In response to characterizations that the Biden team faces problems filling the campaign manager job, White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said “That’s untrue.”

Top Biden advisers are talking to several candidates for campaign manager and other senior leadership roles, the sources said. So far, three sources close to the process said, recruitment has focused on individuals who ran some of the most competitive 2022 midterm races as well as veterans of Biden’s 2020 campaign and the Democratic National Committee. 

One person familiar with the process said the informal nature of the conversations at this late stage suggests Biden advisers are trying just to “get the right people on the bus, and then figure it out from there.” 

The staffing struggle is taking on new urgency with Biden potentially launching a campaign as soon as April, according to two people familiar with the matter. The completion of the president's physical on Thursday crossed another item off of the pre-announcement “to-do” list. 

But asked about key campaign decisions that are still outstanding, Bates responded: “This is as inaccurate as NBC’s earlier reporting on the subject.”

Robby Mook, who managed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, which was fraught with its own competing power centers, said the role of campaign manager will still be critical for Biden’s re-election — even if the person who takes the job is not calling all the shots.

“Yes, a lot of messaging will come out of the White House,” Mook said. “But that doesn’t mean that the manager of the campaign is not important. What it means is that the manager of the campaign needs to do a really good job of exploiting all the advantages they have.” 

Those advantages include being able to focus on accumulating money, conducting opposition research, and building the campaign’s infrastructure while Republicans sort out who their nominee will be. The platform of the White House, and all the benefits of incumbency, also provide a potential advantage to Biden this time around.

“You can’t build your field campaign in Wisconsin or Michigan from the White House,” Mook said, as an example. “So I think it’s a very important job. But I think appropriately the campaign is going to seek a manager who is going to understand that profile.”

Inside the White House, senior adviser Anita Dunn and deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon will play a large role, as well as counselors Steve Ricchetti and Mike Donilon. Recently departed White House chief of staff Ron Klain also has already made clear he intends to be involved with a Biden re-election campaign on the outside, as was the case four years ago.

There’s also Biden’s family, including first lady Jill Biden and his sister, Valerie Biden Owens, who have both been intimately involved in his political career.

Biden fosters a decision-making process that seeks input from that senior group on key decisions before final sign-off, a dynamic that would continue in his 2024 campaign. And so the challenge for Biden’s team is finding a campaign manager who can operate in that system, and do so miles from the White House.

“They’re not the quickest decision makers,” the source said of the president and his core team, meaning Biden’s campaign manager ultimately needs to be someone who feels confident making calls on their own and “asking forgiveness later” if necessary.

A Biden adviser cast it differently, saying that Biden’s 2020 campaign showed that campaign leaders and longtime Biden advisers worked well together within clearly defined roles. The adviser also pointed to the significant accomplishments and lack of significant turnover in the administration as an effective model that would continue.

Dunn and O’Malley Dillon have experience with working on a presidential campaign while top decision-makers served in the White House. O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s 2020 general election campaign manager, was a deputy campaign manager for President Barack Obama in 2012; Dunn also served as a senior adviser to Obama’s re-election.

“They know what both the opportunities and challenges are,” said Stephanie Cutter, who worked with O’Malley Dillon in Obama’s Chicago re-election headquarters. “The structure between the White House and the campaign has to be extremely streamlined with designated people at the White House to be leading on the coordination with the campaign, and vice versa.”

Several individuals who have been approached about the campaign manager job have pivoted the conversation to pitch themselves for other roles or as outside advisers, according to multiple Democrats with knowledge of the process.

At the same time, those who are volunteering their interest in the job are seen by some members of Biden’s tight-knit team as lacking the experience they want for the role, people close to the process say. That experience, these people said, includes having overseen a sprawling campaign organization, and serving as a public face on camera.

“I don’t know that they can’t find a campaign manager, so much as that they can’t find the one they want,” one of the sources familiar with the discussions said.

To be clear, serving in the role does have appeal to many operatives — and should.

“You’re running a major operation,” a veteran Democratic operative said, citing the value the post had for Obama’s re-election campaign manager, Jim Messina. “It’s a great chance to advance your career.”

Some of the conversations with staff candidates have included in-person interviews in Washington while others have taken place virtually, according to two sources familiar with the process. The sources also noted the informal nature of the ongoing discussions, with potential candidates receiving occasional emails or texts from Biden aides seeking their perspective on strategic decisions.

Biden intends to continue to rely on the Democratic National Committee as well. The DNC is currently hiring staff — some on a temporary basis and others who may remain longer term — to help build the initial infrastructure needed to launch the campaign.

Another major factor affecting Biden’s ability to lure a top-flight staff is where the campaign will be based. In 2020, Biden was determined to have his campaign based in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, before advisers won him over on having headquarters in Philadelphia. This time, however, Wilmington appears to be a leading choice.

A Biden adviser said it was also likely that the campaign would have office space in Washington, as has been the case with past incumbent re-election efforts. A decision could come sooner on the site of the 2024 Democratic National Convention, with Chicago and Atlanta the leading two choices, according to another Biden adviser. Of course, Biden’s team also conducted most of the 2020 campaign virtually.