It was just one mile and four years removed from the site where then-candidate Biden formally launched his 2020 campaign. But this time it has been more of a slow walk toward reelection, with his campaign infrastructure only now beginning to take shape.
Biden’s fundraising efforts, which got off to what insiders describe as a disappointing start, are just beginning to pick up. He is starting to name more senior staffers, but has yet to open a campaign headquarters. His events over the past week have started to provide a window into the campaign, as he has hosted core Democratic groups at the White House and boasted of some early endorsements.
On Saturday, Biden sought to continue that sense of acceleration as he held a rally with the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of unions.
“We’ve got a fight on our hands, and my question to you is simple: Are you with me?” he said as a crowd of about 2,000, clad in colored T-shirts to represent their respective trades, cheered and chanted, “Let’s Go, Joe!”
Biden cast his presidency as one that inherited a struggling economy, a devastating pandemic and frayed global alliances — and responded by creating jobs, taming inflation and reigniting diplomacy. “I didn’t come into office with a theory, I came into office with a plan,” he said more than once.
A day earlier, Biden demurred when asked if the rally should be viewed as his campaign kickoff — “I kicked it off a long time ago,” he said — but on Saturday morning he said, “I’m excited about — this is the beginning of something big, in terms of changing the economic balance.” Asked whether he expected the campaign to grow nasty, he responded, “Well, it depends on who the nominee is.”
Two months after quietly announcing his candidacy with a video, Biden is running without a traditional campaign operation. While the Republican race resembles a slugfest between former president Donald Trump and his rivals, Biden’s operation is drifting ahead at a slower pace, betting that it can rely heavily on the Democratic National Committee’s infrastructure for support until later in the summer and into the fall.
“The campaign is still building out because there’s no reason for us to have a full-fledged campaign,” said a senior Biden adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss campaign strategy. “We don’t feel that we have to be out there campaigning, mostly because we don’t have an opponent.”
This approach — in essence, campaigning without a campaign — allows Biden to stockpile money that he can spend later when the race heats up and he has a clear opponent. But the slow ramp-up may also make it harder for Biden to define his rivals early in the process, and it could be risky to rely on others to set up the ground operation for a reelection where turnout will be critical.
The Biden campaign has fewer than a dozen full-time staffers, while the DNC has about 300. The campaign is still working out of the DNC’s headquarters in Washington, though staffers have started scouting office space in Wilmington, Del., and one official said they expect to open an office later this summer. The DNC has also taken the lead in gathering opposition research on Republican presidential hopefuls and responding to their message.
Meanwhile, Biden’s events attract at least some attention because he is the sitting president.
“Joe Biden doesn’t need a big campaign operation right now, and it would be a waste of resources to try to build one,” said Lis Smith, a Democratic strategist who worked on Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. “It’s very smart to rely on the DNC, and the DNC is in a very different position than it was at this point in 2011. And that is a very good thing for the Democratic Party.”
But those involved concede the operation is hardly running at full speed.
“I’m not here to tell you that the race car is already built and it’s out running laps on the track,” DNC executive director Sam Cornale said in a statement to The Washington Post. “I am here to tell you that the chassis is, thanks to President Biden, in incredible shape — and that is what the Biden-Harris campaign is building on top of.”
Still, the reelection effort appears to have gotten off to a particularly slow start in raising money. Biden’s campaign has not yet hired a national finance director, frustrating some donors and advisers who feel the president’s aides should have finalized the fundraising apparatus before launching the campaign.
The 24-hour period after Biden officially announced, usually a moment of excitement that spurs a surge in donations, was “extremely underwhelming,” according to multiple people briefed on the campaign’s finances.
Democrats say the Biden campaign is unlikely to struggle in the long term to raise money, especially if Trump is the Republican nominee. Rather, they worry that the sluggish early fundraising may signal a lack of enthusiasm around Biden’s reelection. National polls show a majority of Democratic voters prefer someone other than Biden to be the party’s presidential nominee, although they still prefer him by a wide margin to Trump or another Republican.
The campaign is now scrambling to deliver a respectable quarter of fundraising — the period ending June 30 — as Biden, Vice President Harris, first lady Jill Biden and second gentleman Doug Emhoff traverse the country over the next two weeks to participate in more than 20 fundraisers.
The Biden campaign declined to comment on its fundraising numbers, but it will be required to disclose those details after the quarter ends.
There are other signs Biden’s campaign has decided in recent days to quicken its pace, including the announcements of several key staffers who will start next month.
Among them are Michael Tyler as communications director and TJ Ducklo as a senior communications adviser. Ducklo worked on Biden’s 2020 campaign and joined the White House as a deputy press secretary, before resigning a few weeks later after it emerged that he had inappropriately berated a reporter. Tyler has worked at the DNC as well as the 2020 presidential campaign of Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
Rob Flaherty, the White House digital director, is slated to move to a senior role on the campaign in coming weeks, a person familiar with his plans said.
The Biden campaign also has been aggressively touting a slew of endorsements. The support of labor and environmental groups is hardly surprising for a Democratic president, but Biden officials argue the early backing will let the campaign to draw on the groups’ expansive organizing network.
And Biden himself is holding more events with a political or campaign flavor, including four fundraisers scheduled for next week during a trip to California.
At a fundraiser Friday in Connecticut, Biden was alternately optimistic about the current state of politics — saying the recent debt ceiling negotiations showed that Washington “is not as vitriolic … as it has been” — and sharp in his criticism of the Republican presidential candidates. “Did you ever think we’d go through a time when the number two contender on the other team was banning books?” he said in reference to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
Throughout the past week, Biden also used the trappings of his office to court groups vital to his own campaign.
On Tuesday night, he hosted a Juneteenth concert at the White House. “I’m just so pleased, so pleased to be able to have this celebration on the South Lawn on Juneteenth. And again, thank you, thank you, thank you. You fill my heart in a way you’ll … .” He seemed too emotional to complete the sentence and his daughter handed him a tissue.
The next night, Biden spoke to the League of Conservation Voters, where he received endorsements from several leading environmental groups. On Thursday, he hosted a festive screening on the South Lawn of the White House for “Flamin’ Hot,” a new film about a Mexican American janitor who influenced the food industry. As Biden praised the country’s diversity and an audience member called out, “We’re here to stay,” the president responded, “You’re damn right you are.”
On Friday, he traveled to Hartford, Conn., to speak before an auditorium filled with gun control advocates. He grew impassioned in talking about the topic, one year after he worked with Republicans to pass the first gun control bill in years, though GOP lawmakers continue to block more sweeping measures.
“Prayers are fine … but it’s not going to stop it,” Biden said of gun violence. “We have to take action. We have to move, have to do something.”
On the Republican side, in contrast, the conversation was dominated last week by the federal charges against Trump for allegedly mishandling classified documents. On Tuesday, as Trump was appearing in federal court, Biden was meeting in the Oval Office with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
While the Trump case could come to dominate the 2024 campaign, the 2023 White House has studiously avoided questions about it, hoping to deflect any suggestion that the case is political — and to present a split-screen of Biden as a statesman and Trump as a defendant.
Asked if Biden had been briefed on the case, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “I’m just not going to speak to it from this podium.” As Biden later left a meeting with diplomats, he had a diplomatic answer when asked if he would comment on the arrest of his predecessor: “No.”
But one emerging feature of the reelection campaign is the first lady’s willingness to be more blunt than her husband. “They don’t care about the indictment. So that’s a little shocking, I think,” she said Monday of Republicans’ willingness to continue supporting Trump.
On Tuesday, during a fundraiser near San Francisco, Jill Biden said the 2024 election is a choice between “corruption and chaos” under Trump and stability under her husband. In Los Angeles the following day she added, “We know what’s in store if these MAGA Republicans win because we’ve all lived through this.”
Biden’s strength as a candidate in 2020 was not in generating enthusiastic support, but in presenting himself as a competent alternative to the Republican nominee. He became a vessel for much of the anti-Trump sentiment among Democrats, along with independents and disaffected Republicans.
But in his 25-minute speech here on Saturday, Biden never mentioned Trump and barely even alluded to him, instead focusing on his own record.
“I’ve been at this a long time,” he said. “I can honestly say, I’ve never been more optimistic.”
Pager reported from Washington.