WASHINGTON — White House officials are closely tracking the political activity of at least half a dozen Democrats seen as potential alternatives to President Joe Biden in the 2024 election.
The administration appears to be parsing the words and deeds of the rising Democrats across the nation, deploying a charm offensive in response to those who seem to be getting a bit too ambitious on their own.
The strategy — which some Democrats close to the White House say leans too heavily on soft power, and lacks a traditional enforcer — hasn’t been especially effective. Biden hasn’t been able to stop Democrats from raising their national profiles or silence doubts within the party about his inevitability.
This article is based on interviews with more than two dozen current and former White House officials, lawmakers, Democratic donors and other sources close to the Biden operation.
When Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois and Gov. Gavin Newsom of California gained traction by dabbling in national politics, the White House was quick to host them at separate events.
In Washington this month, Newsom assured White House chief of staff Ron Klain in a private conversation that he is “not interested” in running for president in 2024, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
Days later, Newsom began running political ads in Texas attacking Gov. Greg Abbott on abortion rights and guns.
On Capitol Hill, Biden and top White House officials have had to spend time co-opting progressive critics who have also spurred talk of 2024 ambitions, including Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., with private praise.
And inside the West Wing, the Biden press team has compiled a list of quotes from would-be rivals insisting they back the president. (Pritzker, Khanna and Newsom’s remarks are all from the same article in early July.)
“Nobody likes seeing somebody taking out coffins for you. It’s just like — ‘Not so fast. I’ll make this decision,’” Democratic donor John Morgan said. “It’s like they’re going to the swim meet and Biden is the defending gold medalist. But they all got their swimsuits on underneath the pants. They’re ready to get up there and jump as soon as he says ‘go.’ They can’t be walking around the arena just in a swimsuit because that would really piss Biden off.”
The keep-frenemies-close approach is a sign that the White House is more worried about his potential rivals drawing contrasts with him on policy, which they’ve done, according to Biden allies. Several White House officials insisted in interviews that the administration is not concerned with or preoccupied by the possibility of a rare intraparty challenge for an incumbent president.
But the tactic also reflects the limits of the White House’s power at a time when Biden’s approval ratings are in the tank and as many as three-quarters of Democrats tell pollsters they would prefer a different nominee in 2024.
And with the president making a quick recovery from Covid and striking a deal with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to enact more of the White House agenda, the White House is revisiting plans for what it says will be a robust travel schedule this fall on behalf of Democratic candidates up and down the ballot.
That belies a recognition, sources close to the White House political operation say, that the president is at a weak political moment — including Biden himself. When a reporter asked the president recently what his message was to Democrats who don’t want him to seek a second term, the president snapped back: “Read the polls, Jack. You guys are all the same. That poll showed that 92% of Democrats, if I ran, would vote for me.”
But in the poll Biden cited, conducted by The New York Times and Siena College, 64% of Democrats reported that they would rather the party nominate someone other than him. That figure was at 75% in a CNN poll published Wednesday.
Such polls provide an obvious incentive for other Democrats to start warming the engines of their campaign machines. But White House allies say there’s no opening.
“This is bordering on stupidity,” said Democratic strategist Philippe Reines, a longtime adviser to Hillary Clinton. “If for any reason Biden’s not at the top of the ticket, good luck to anyone denying Kamala the nomination. Especially a white guy,” he said, referring to Vice President Kamala Harris.
Still, some Biden allies worry that he isn’t equipped temperamentally to crush potential threats himself, and say that he hasn’t outfitted his political operation with an invaluable tool: a hatchet man.
In 2012, then-President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign worked to pre-empt a possible challenge from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, said in an interview. He used then-Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid as an intermediary to “shut down Bernie” and dissuade him from running.
“There’s no hammer,” in Biden’s camp, one former Biden White House official lamented.
“There’s no one in the administration anyone is afraid of,” a longtime Biden ally added. “They don’t have an enforcer inside the White House that anybody takes seriously.”
Without that leverage, the White House has struggled to shut down narratives that Biden, at 79, is too old or too politically weak to run for re-election. And that puts him in danger of being viewed as a lame duck in just the second year of his term.
Biden himself has used more honey than vinegar in approaching the 2024 potential hopefuls.
In the wake of the July Fourth mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, the president invited Pritzker to the Oval Office where they discussed the need for broader gun reform and he again offered the city any federal resources that were needed, according to Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering, who was also in the meeting.
But Biden then took a moment to heap praise on the governor, who just a week earlier suggested that the president could face a primary and that there is historical precedent for it, though he added that he wasn’t encouraging a challenge.
“You guys have a great governor in Illinois,” Biden said, according to a person who was briefed on the meeting. “He’s passing what we need to pass in D.C. and across the nation.”
Biden then took photos with the group and they sat on the patio before walking out to the event together.
Top Pritzker aides had also called the White House’s external affairs team before the governor headed to New Hampshire in June, realizing the optics of the visit. Along with the heads-up, aides shared a video clip of the governor publicly stating he wasn’t interested in running against Biden, according to a person with direct knowledge of the communications. They did the same before Pritzker’s subsequent address to Florida Democrats, during which he lobbed attacks on Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Those trips only generated more headlines and speculation about 2024.
While sources close to Newsom say that he could easily change his mind about running in 2024, he has nonetheless made it a point to try to scuttle speculation about presidential ambitions in conversations with party insiders.
“He said he’s not running,” said Christine Pelosi, a Democratic National Committee member from California and daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who texted Newsom earlier this month to ask about his plans.
“He’s just frustrated at the way that Republicans have been able to take over this debate [on certain issues] and how Democrats have to fight harder to take it back and showcase our successes,” she added. “That’s what he said.”
Biden has recently been drawing sharper contrasts with former President Donald Trump, who could announce a 2024 bid before November’s midterm elections, to signal to Democrats who question his political viability that he’s the one who can beat Trump.
In virtual remarks to law enforcement officers Monday — the day before Trump returned to Washington to deliver a “law and order” speech — Biden slammed the former president over the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“You can’t be pro-insurrection and pro-cop,” Biden said. The event was one where he had been scheduled to speak in person, part of a planned two-city swing in the key battleground of Florida that was to also include his first campaign rally of the midterms. The Democratic National Committee said that trip would be rescheduled.
Trump is the backbone of Biden’s argument to fellow Democrats that he’s their best bet for holding the White House.
“I maintain that you can’t get into [the] Trump contrast too soon. It’s the best backdrop for us,” one White House official said. “Gavin Newsom has a more compelling argument about why he would beat Trump?”
In a Yahoo! News/YouGov survey earlier this month, Biden held a 42% to 40% lead over Trump. Newsom edged Trump 40% to 39%, while Harris tied with Trump at 41%.
Terry McAuliffe, a former governor of Virginia and an ex-chairman of the Democratic National Committee, shot down any notion of a primary challenge.
“The president has said he’s running for re-election. His staff are preparing for him to run for re-election and we all need to rally behind Joe Biden. With Democrats, there’s this constant state of negativity,” said McAuliffe, who is being considered for a Cabinet or other senior position in the Biden administration.
He also noted that elected officials have a lot at stake in taking on a sitting president.
“Every Democratic governor wants to keep the White House and the president on their good side. They want one of these new [computer] chip plants in their state. They want to make sure they get infrastructure money and they’re not going to do anything that would jeopardize their relationship with the White House.”