Feb 19, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Biden's reset moment

President Joe Biden speaks to pilots aboard Marine One as he arrives at the Wall Street Landing Zone in New York, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024, to attend fundraisers

President Biden speaks to Marine One pilots as he arrives at a Wall Street heliport on Feb. 7 to attend fundraisers. Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

Biden officials see next month's State of the Union address as a big, public reset moment — a chance to overcome or at least neutralize concerns about President Biden's age and vitality.

Why it matters: Many top Democrats are convinced that if the election were today, Biden would lose a rematch with former President Trump. Biden's address on March 7 is his biggest chance to shift public perceptions.

What we're hearing: Biden's SOTU address played well last year — he seemed agile and riffed about the GOP and Social Security. Officials close to him, needing a repeat triumph, will spend hours on everything from the text to his physical preparation to exploit the prime-time moment.

  • "Everyone around him is well aware — well aware — of the need to jack this campaign up," a source close to Biden said. "The only way to deal with the negative aftershocks of the special counsel's report [slamming Biden's age] is for the president to be out there, to be visible — to be strong of presence and strong of voice."
  • One bold move that Biden has considered, we're told, is an executive order that would dramatically stanch the record flow of migrants into the Southwest. This could even happen in the two weeks before the address, allowing Biden to say he took action while Republicans just talk.

Between the lines: Inside Biden's campaign, there's a belief that things are turning around — internal morale is up. But even some super-loyalists have lingering worries that it's all happening too slowly — and could be too late.

  • Some valued campaign hands didn't like commuting to campaign HQ in Wilmington, Del. Now officials are being more flexible about allowing remote work. A small campaign office has opened near the White House.

Behind the scenes: A new window into the Biden campaign's flux comes from CNN, which reports that some leading Democrats fear the campaign "might be stumbling past a point of no return." They've been heartened by listening sessions by Vice President Kamala Harris, which they view as a "surprising and welcome change, after months of feeling sloughed off by the White House and Biden campaign headquarters."

  • The outreach sessions included six Democratic governors who gathered around the dining room table of Harris' official residence two Saturdays ago. She's using the intelligence from the sessions to break through what she has called the "bubble" of Biden campaign thinking and to "push for changes in strategy and tactics that she hopes will put the ticket in better shape to win," CNN reported. Another Naval Observatory session featured Black men — a group Harris is working to energize.
  • Ashley Etienne, former communications director for Harris and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, told Axios the sessions led by Harris are "finally starting to play to her strength." Etienne said "convener-in-chief" is a role long envisioned by Harris allies, who point to her high approval with some of the party's most vital constituencies — women voters, Black voters, younger voters.

Reality check: Mark Zandi and his fellow Moody's Analytics experts said in a paper last month that although a Biden-Trump rematch would be a nail-biter, they "feel confident" in their state-by-state model's prediction of a Biden win.

What they're saying: Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) a first-term progressive who was mayor of Long Beach, told Axios that Biden should use his SOTU address to spotlight domestic victories to appeal to younger voters.

  • "It's gonna be a good moment for the president to re-engage on these domestic issues," Garcia said. "He's got a huge record and I think it's important to remind folks what he's done. Insulin prices, infrastructure — those are going to be critical."
  • Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.), chair of the center-left New Democrat Coalition, told Axios the address will be consequential for the entire party — not just Biden's reelection bid. "The world is watching," Kuster said. "This is the moment to show Democrats are leading and succeeding."

What to watch: Biden's ownership of the national spotlight will be brief. Just five days after his speech, House Republicans will hold a hearing with special counsel Robert Hur, whose report cleared the president of mishandling documents but called him a "well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory."

  • Republicans tell Axios they hope to make the hearing a blockbuster, including pressing Hur about Biden's fitness.

White House spokesman Andrew Bates told Axios: "As New Yorkers showed [in the special election] last week, President Biden is in a position of strength and congressional Republicans are on the run, even leaving Washington for an early, undeserved vacation ... The President is standing where the mainstream of the country is."

The bottom line: Democrats recognize that Trump and Republicans don't fear Biden and don't fear his campaign. Biden insiders know that needs to change — fast.

  • Axios' Stephen Neukam contributed reporting.
Go deeper