President Joe Biden officially turned the page Wednesday to the general election, looking ahead to a race against former President Donald Trump that will test his ability to reenergize key corners of his winning coalition in a race his team views as nothing less than a fight for democracy itself.
The campaign believes results from New Hampshire’s primary were enough to indicate Trump would be the Republican nominee. As the starting gun fired, the contours of Biden’s efforts and challenges in reconvening critical voting blocs that helped propel him into office were coming into sharper view.
Biden’s path to victory will not be an easy one. His campaign advisers readily acknowledge the race this year will be exceedingly close and say their efforts will accelerate over the coming weeks. He faces a party that, according to polls, would have preferred a different candidate. And divisions within his coalition, most visibly over the war in Gaza, have increasingly spilled into public view.
On Tuesday, those ruptures were on vivid display during a speech in Virginia about abortion rights – otherwise a galvanizing issue for Democrats. Biden was interrupted more than a dozen times by people protesting the war in Gaza, who were eventually drowned out by supporters cheering Biden on. Hours after, he was projected to win the New Hampshire primary race even though his name wasn’t on the ballot.
On Wednesday, he secured the key backing of the United Auto Workers, which had initially held off endorsing Biden amid concerns about his push toward electric vehicles. The backing was vindication after Biden’s appeals to union members and working-class voters – including a visit to a UAW picket line last year. The announcement could have its biggest effect in Michigan, which Biden won by 3 points in 2020.
And on Thursday, a pair of events will be aimed at bolstering Biden’s standing on economic issues, which have proven frustratingly difficult for the president to gain traction on over the past year. He will travel to battleground Wisconsin to tout infrastructure investments while his Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen will draw a rare contrast with Trump in a major address.
The series of engagements illustrate the opportunities and challenges Biden faces as he enters a contest against an opponent he has openly labeled a threat to democracy, yet whom some polls show with a small nationwide lead.
As the campaign begins in earnest, the president’s team says they are braced for battle.
“In politics, you run like you’re down when you’re winning or when you’re losing,” Biden campaign co-chair Cedric Richmond said Wednesday. “We’re going to run like we’re behind.”
Biden’s advisers had been itching for a one-on-one contest with Trump, believing their choice argument is easier to make when he is seen as having tied up the nomination.
They viewed Trump’s grievance-laden speech Tuesday evening – in which he complained about Nikki Haley’s decision to remain in the race, and insulted her choice of dress – as a perfect example of the split-screen they hope will be on display frequently over the coming months, as the former president vows to run a campaign of retribution. Campaign officials have also parsed the results from Iowa and New Hampshire, finding signs of unease among independents about Trump and facing an enthusiasm deficit among some Republicans.
“He is struggling to make himself palatable to these key constituencies that will ultimately decide the election this November,” deputy campaign manager Quentin Fulks said.
Biden appears to face a similar issue with some groups of Democrats who remain furious with his handling of the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
The protesters at Tuesday’s event in Northern Virginia shouted, “Genocide Joe” and unfurled Palestinian flags, reflecting unease among some progressives at how the president has handled the conflict. It has now become routine for Biden’s public events to be interrupted by similar protests – including as he was accepting the UAW’s endorsement Wednesday – though the volume of demonstrators at the abortion speech was higher than previously seen.
Last year, Biden met with Arab-American leaders at the White House who called on him to endorse a ceasefire in Gaza. His advisers say he is not viewing the Gaza war through a political lens, but as commander in chief.
On Wednesday, he held a “very respectful conversation” with UAW members who raised the Gaza issue, according to Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who said Biden and fellow Democrats would have to grapple with the topic.
“I know he knows how to talk to people. It’s an issue we’re going to have to talk about and deal with. It’s going to be a contrast and we need to remind people of the facts,” she said on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper,” pointing to Trump’s pledge to reinstate a entry ban on people from Muslim-majority countries.
Dingell said Biden would ultimately be a help to fellow Democrats, including in Michigan. But she said there was a long road ahead.
“I think President Biden’s going to help people win, in the end. We’ve got to roll up our sleeves, we’ve got to do a lot of hard work, we’ve got to educate people about what the issues are,” she said. “It’s a long time between now and November.”
Democratic jitters about Biden’s reelection prospects have been smoldering for months, leading to anxious conversations among party leaders and donors about his campaign’s strength and structure heading into the general election.
That is part of what influenced the decision, announced Tuesday, to shift two key West Wing advisers from the White House to Biden’s campaign. Jen O’Malley Dillon and Mike Donilon were long expected to play critical roles in Biden’s reelect effort no matter where they were sitting, and the moves were hardly surprising. But there had been increasing concern among strategists and donors that the president’s political firepower was centered at the White House and not at his campaign headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware.
“A lot of folks, Democratic operatives and so on, would say these are really good moves. This is going to be a really tough campaign. And it’s hard to do two jobs at once,” said David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama and a CNN senior political analyst. “They need their 100% presence, in that campaign, and interacting with the various elements of the campaign.”
Leading Democrats have been vocal that many of Biden’s accomplishments — including new laws on infrastructure and manufacturing, student debt relief and Covid-19 relief — haven’t yet broken through to voters, leading to depressed approval ratings and voter dissatisfaction.
“All of these things make up legislative successes that’s been unrivaled by anything. You have to go all way back to Lyndon Johnson to find anything close to it,” said Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, a top Biden ally whose endorsement helped revive Biden’s 2020 primary bid. “We have got do a better job of penetrating this because the misinformation is great.”
Biden’s allies see signs of a coming shift. Consumer sentiment is improving, inflation is easing and wages are rising, all providing optimism inside the West Wing and campaign headquarters that Americans’ views of the economy could soon catch up to indicators that have long been trending positive.
How or whether the president can move the needle with Americans on the economy remains to be seen. After months of travel, policy announcements and campaign advertisements, voters still have negative perceptions about Biden’s handling of the economy with less than a third of voters saying they approve of his approach.
Biden has privately voiced frustration that some of the infrastructure improvements he’s trying to sell to voters have been slow to physically materialize.
But one thing Biden’s teams believe will help center their arguments is a clearer race between Biden and Trump. The emergence of Trump as the likely Republican nominee has led to a surge in confidence among Biden’s campaign team that once voters see the choice in front of them, they will be reminded of the tumult and divisiveness that helped lead to Trump’s defeat in 2020.
Like all incumbents, Biden has struggled at moments to break from the White House bubble. The concluding months of 2023 were consumed by Israel’s war against Hamas. At one point, Biden was telling fellow Democrats that he was spending as much as 75% of his time dealing with foreign issues.
The president’s team has been experimenting with new ways to utilize his time. In addition to podium speeches about his policies, he’s begun ramping up his retail politicking, visiting milkshake stands and coffee houses to meet people in more intimate settings.
He’ll be campaign in South Carolina this weekend ahead of the state’s primary, the first official contest in the DNC’s primary process. Democratic contests in Nevada and Michigan will follow.
With his name on a ballot for the first time this election season, those states will provide early clues of Biden’s strengths and weaknesses ahead of the uphill climb ahead.
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