President Joe Biden’s top political supporters complained of being shut out for most of his first two years in the White House, and many of them groused about the perceived lack of gratitude from a team whose victory they helped bankroll.
But that’s all changing.
With Biden and party officials looking toward the 2024 presidential election — and on the heels of legislative wins and better-than-expected midterm results — the same White House that cold-shouldered its high rollers is now warming to them.
“Is it any surprise?” Alan Kessler, a longtime Philadelphia-area fundraiser, said. “We’re over the midterms. Guess what election is next? Quite frankly, I think they’re doing the right thing.”
The White House is cranking up its donor courtship, a strategy that’s most evident in a shower of social invitations for big-dollar supporters: this week’s state dinner for French President Emmanuel Macron, the arrival and lighting of the national Christmas tree, Biden’s Christmas parties and Vice President Kamala Harris’ Hanukkah celebration among them. They’re offering more policy briefings to longtime supporters, Zoom calls with top administration officials and White House tours, too.
The donors have taken notice and already are praising the change from a team they long complained was unavailable to answer questions in darker political moments for Biden, according to interviews with more than 20 people who have contributed to Biden, raised money for him or helped secure White House invitations for his supporters.
An expanded social calendar means “they are getting down the list a little further,” in terms of who gets face time with the president, said one White House official. And that could pay dividends for Biden if he runs in 2024.
Donor maintenance is a critical step for the administration should Biden seek re-election and even beyond, when he will likely want to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for a presidential library.
Despite all of the Biden administration’s victories and the absence of a midterm shellacking, the president’s poll numbers remain underwater, with an NBC poll taken just before the Nov. 8 election showing him at 44%.
Perhaps a more ominous sign, however, is that two-thirds of midterm voters surveyed in an NBC exit poll said they did not want Biden to run for re-election.
“All of a sudden,” said Alan Patricof, a longtime Democratic fundraiser, “things start changing when we get close to the next election.”
On Thursday, when Macron arrives at the White House for his official state visit, Biden campaign supporters and fundraisers will be among a large crowd invited to watch the ceremony on the White House lawn. It is the first state dinner Biden has hosted since entering office in 2021. It will honor Macron and celebrate the United States’ long-standing ties with France. State dinners have been a hallmark of the U.S. presidency dating back to 1874, but Covid had curbed the administration’s ability to host such events until now.
“For one of the first times in this administration, the president’s supporters — some at least — will be invited,” according to a person familiar with the White House’s view of the matter. “And that, in essence, is a return to a degree of normal that you see in any administration.”
People close to the White House concede that Biden’s political operation has left longtime Democratic fundraisers feeling marginalized and unappreciated. They point to the pandemic as the main reason Biden has shunned the outreach that donors see as a reward for past labors and an incentive to reel in more campaign money ahead of the 2024 election.
The source with knowledge of the White House thinking, granted anonymity to speak freely, noted the pandemic had “proved incredibly challenging as it relates to gathering indoors in these extraordinary spaces. Now that we’re safely testing, we’re able to do it again. I do believe that there has been a much greater number of events where we’re able to bring people together again. That’s always been the vision of the first lady and the president. It’s just a matter of the right timing.”
Among those invited to the state dinner on Macron’s behalf Thursday night is Christopher Korge, chairman of the Democratic National Committee’s finance committee, people familiar with the planning said.
“This is the hottest ticket in town; everyone wants to go,” the person familiar with the White House’s view of its donor outreach said.
In the past, White Houses have rewarded donors with big-ticket perks, some of which have engendered controversies, like overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom during Bill Clinton’s presidency.
Yet some donors also make the point that Biden has never been as attentive to the buck-raking class as Clinton, the gold standard of the modern presidency.
Biden is “less concerned, less interested, less involved,” than Clinton or former President Barack Obama, Patricof said. “I’ve not been to the White House since he’s been elected. It’s not like I’m sitting here waiting. But there seems to be much less interaction with the donor community than I’ve seen in the past.”
This year, Biden donors are enthralled with something far more simple: The White House throwing open its doors for the holiday season with parties and tours scheduled throughout December. And some who talked to NBC News recognized their worth isn't what it once was, noting that Biden managed to haul in big bucks online from small donors.
"The $500,000 people like me, we’re not going to be players in 2024," said Dick Harpootlian, a longtime Democratic donor and South Carolina state senator.
For the White House, the shift is an acceleration of a courtship campaign that began more modestly before the midterm elections. As Biden racked up a handful of major legislative victories this year — including laws aimed at combating climate change and China’s edge in semiconductor manufacturing — the White House invited a broad array of supporters to celebrate at bill-signing ceremonies. Invites also went out to a White House Elton John concert.
Biden’s defenders have long said the White House was closed to many of the president’s allies because he took office during a period of much greater sensitivity to the Covid-19 pandemic. Amid concerns about the omicron variant last year, the White House was forced to abandon plans for a more full set of holiday parties. But there’s no such limitation this year.
“They are inviting just an obscene number of people” to December events, one Democratic official said.
The new level of TLC is a sign of a Biden team that’s gearing up for a potential re-elect campaign and comes after top fundraisers urged Biden’s aides to shift tactics.
“I’m encouraging them to court more large donors,” one of them said over the summer. Part of their argument has been that the president will need donors in 2024 far more than was needed in 2020 during a pandemic and when Democrats were eagerly opening their wallets to oust Donald Trump from the Oval Office.
Biden’s engagement with donors is important for another reason, top fundraisers have told his aides: Donors question whether he’s capable of running again, leaving them hesitant to continue cutting checks. One major Democratic fundraiser said donors regularly ask of the president, “Is he really with it?”
Donors who talked to NBC News said they’ve noticed a change with how they’re treated, including making a more conscious effort to set up phone calls with supporters, more regular briefings and even photo lines during visits like Obama made in pivotal states during the midterms. The amped-up effort involves both the White House and a Democratic National Committee that functions as the political arm of Biden’s operation.
“The DNC’s been virtually dormant for two years,” one member of the committee said. “They’re ramping up their game.”
Different donors have had different expectations. Tim Lim, a Democratic strategist and Biden bundler, was among those who grew frustrated over the White House's attention to donors, bringing his complaint to the Democratic National Committee.
“It’s childish, frankly. I even admit that now,” Lim said. “There’s no reason to do it. But when you’re trying to get an Easter Egg Roll ticket for your family, you kind of get desperate.”
The White House’s shift in paying closer attention to supporters was an obvious one, he said, citing invites to a garden tour, the unveiling of Obama’s White House portrait, White House trick-or-treating as well as holiday parties.
Another donor, who in the past complained of not having enough access, cited a recent Zoom call with White House senior adviser Steve Ricchetti and deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon that was directed at some of Biden’s earliest supporters. Some of those same people were invited to the White House next month for an in-person policy briefing.
Some donors, however, think the White House took too long to step up its game.
“Getting up to speed has taken longer than it should,” said Susie Tompkins Buell, a longtime high-dollar Democratic donor. She said supporters recognized the administration was consumed by “excessive workloads and traumas” early on.
“I think donors understand but communication absolutely needs more effective attention,” Buell added. She said she’s seeing more examples of the White House recognizing it needs to appreciate donors but that it “seems like it was not a natural instinct.”
A running question throughout this administration has been whether Biden, who turned 80 years old last week, will mount one more campaign or step aside.
Kessler said he spoke to Biden in late October at a Pennsylvania Democratic Party event and thanked him for having recently affirmed it’s his intention to run again.
“I know you get tired of hearing, ‘Is he really running?’” Kessler recalled telling the president. “But when you come out with strong statements like that, it’s very helpful to people like me who are asked all the time.”
And how did Biden respond?
“He liked it,” Kessler said.