Jan 7, 2024 - Politics & Policy
Column / Behind the Curtain

Behind the Curtain: Why Obama, Dems fear Biden complacency

President Biden speaks near Valley Forge, Pa., on Friday. Photo: Hannah Beier/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Lots of high-level Democrats are warning that President Biden and his reelection team are too complacent — and unimaginative — about the threat of losing to Donald Trump, sources tell us.

  • The latest alarm was sounded Saturday in a leak to The Washington Post about a private meeting in which former President Obama pointed Biden to a different way to attack this campaign. We're told it was a lunch just before the holidays. Obama pushed Biden to consider moving his political operation outside of — and beyond — his White House advisers, as the former president had done with his Chicago-based 2012 reelection team.
  • "Obama also recommended that Biden seek counsel from Obama's own former campaign aides, which Biden officials say they have done," The Post added.

Why it matters: "Someone wants to light a fire under the asses of some of these people," a top Democratic strategist told us. Jim Messina, manager of Obama's reelection campaign, often warns Democrats not to be worrywart "bedwetters." The strategist added: "It's hard to call it bedwetting when it's Barack Obama."

What's happening: Biden's reelection campaign has long projected a calm confidence about beating Trump if that rematch comes to be. The gist of what you hear from both the White House and the campaign's HQ in Wilmington, Del: "It's fine. We've got this."

  • But many high-level Democrats think it's not fine. They fear the president's political machine hasn't found the sweet spot between a chill Zen and dangerous complacency — and has been way too Zen.

David Axelrod, Obama's political architect, told us the race is "winnable but worrisome." The internal optimism, he said, reflects "faith among a team that has been counted out before, that past is prologue and it will all come together in the end."

  • "There has been broad anxiety among the Democratic political class ... given the magnitude of the threat," Axelrod added.

No Democrat wants panic. But these top insiders tell us the campaign needs to project way more urgency about the reality that Trump absolutely could win.

Biden's 2024 campaign

Via X

The big picture: The Biden '24 mindset was captured by a New York magazine cover story last month about the campaign's "Alarming Calm." The cover headline, over a photo from inside the Wilmington campaign office (above): "THE CALMEST DEMOCRATS IN THE COUNTRY."

When pressed on why they think things are fine, Biden allies invoke four articles of faith:

  1. The war, they think, will be far in voters' rearview mirror by Nov. 5.
  2. By then, the economy will be so good voters can't ignore it. Voter confidence, the hope is, will catch up with the encouraging macro signs.
  3. Abortion rights: Dems will be boosted by the anti-GOP backlash following the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade — swing voters won't want to give Trump a chance to appoint another Supreme Court justice. As Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff has put it privately: "Dobbs and democracy."
  4. Biden and allies will spend more than $1 billion telling voters Trump is terrible. In the end, Biden's inner circle contends, most independents won't look themselves in the mirror on Election Day, then go vote for Trump.

Reality check: Many senior Democrats fear that optimistic catechism shows a failure of imagination about the true chance that Trump could win.

  • But people close to the White House fear there aren't enough people willing to give Biden bad news — because those who do can get their heads bitten off, as Axios' Alex Thompson has reported. That could help explain the leak about Obama, who remains very supportive of Biden.

Top Democrats were relieved Friday by Biden's passionate opening speech of '24. In fiery remarks in Valley Forge, Pa. — coinciding with the third anniversary of the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters — Biden warned: "Democracy is on the ballot. Your freedom is on the ballot."

  • Biden name-checked Trump 44 times in the half-hour speech. He drew applause when he needled the former president on his drive to overturn the 2020 results: "I had won the election and he was a loser."
  • Some of the Dems we talked to see the speech as the campaign's "we get it" moment.

The Biden campaign's TJ Ducklo told us: "The campaign is built for victory in November — we know this will be a close and competitive election."

  • "That urgency was underscored by the president in Valley Forge and fuels our work every day," Ducklo said. "We know the voters who we need to reach, where they are and how to reach them."

Behind the scenes: The disconnect behind Bidenworld and some Democratic elites was crystallized by a conference call the campaign hosted Wednesday for Democratic surrogates and pundits, some of them household names. The call was designed to convey talking points, not strategy.

  • But some of the analysts, including White House alumni, thought the points were the kind you could hear from the podium.

"We are well aware that Donald Trump is bad," one of the pundits said. "We know how to make that case. We wanted more: 'This is where we are, and we hear ya.' … If it was intended to reassure us in the wake of all these bad polls, it didn't do that."

  • Editor's note: This version corrects year of Obama reelection campaign.
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