This is the real reason for the Obama-Biden camp divide

This is the real reason for the Obama-Biden camp divide

Barack Obama veterans view his 2012 reelection campaign as a master class in political organizing, one that offers key lessons for 2024. And some believe it’s been dangerously ignored by a Joe Biden team that prides itself on its own victory over Donald Trump four years ago.

It’s an extended Democratic family friction borne of convictions and pride, but also real strategic differences over how to run a presidential campaign. The debate has been playing out in urgent private conversations and occasionally public broadsides as a looming general election re-match between Trump and Biden has Democrats on edge.

At a Chicago gathering of Obama alumni late last year, attendees quietly raised worries that Biden’s reelection operation was too bare-bones — that he hadn’t announced staff in key battleground states or dispatched any of his top White House lieutenants to campaign headquarters in Wilmington. Some, more pointedly, were concerned that Biden’s 2020 pandemic campaign, run largely from his home in Delaware, left the president and his team unfamiliar with the complexities of a true national ground game.

“The big issue I have is Biden never had an organization before. He didn’t have much in the Dem primary. Then the general was during Covid and no ground stuff was really done,” said a former 2012 battleground state director for Obama, who, like others for this story, was granted anonymity to discuss private conversations. But this election he won’t have that luxury, the director said.

Many Biden allies and operatives see these concerns among their Obama contemporaries as overstated — and the press’ coverage of them as stale. In the months since the alumni reunion, the Biden campaign has staffed up in battleground states, with leadership announced in Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada and North Carolina. Democrats’ better-than-expected showing in the 2022 midterm election, they believe, also showed the merit of building up the Democratic National Committee rather than creating an outside group like Organizing for America, the Obama-led offshoot that failed to prevent a political bloodbath in the 2010 cycle.

“We invite everyone concerned about the existential threat that Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans pose to our freedom and democracy to channel their energy toward organizing, donating and talking to their friends about the stakes of this election and President Biden’s commitment to fighting these threats head on,” said Biden spokesperson Kevin Munoz.

The differences between the two camps underscore a fundamental point of tension that has long existed between them — one that is core to each man’s political identity.

Obama, for all his lofty rhetoric, is at his heart a technocrat. His team put together the most sophisticated campaign machinery of the modern era, and prided itself on analytics and a field operation that remains unmatched. Many think Obama’s decision to shuttle key White House advisers to the campaign in early 2011 was also critical — and should be mirrored by Biden.

“There is a treasure trove of experience in that White House. I mean, one of the issues is it’s all in the White House,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s former chief strategist who left the White House himself to consult the 2012 reelect, of Biden’s operation. “Probably some of it should be sitting over at the campaign.”

Biden has never been an organizational wizard. Instead, he has often relied on his instincts and guts. He has worked within the Democratic Party — heavily leaning on the DNC apparatus, particularly in the months before he started staffing up his campaign — rather than alongside it.

Biden’s camp has also prided itself on the president’s relationships with politicians, which have helped him achieve historic legislative victories. His allies also believe that he is more down-to-earth, a quality that helps him connect with voters one on one. In the book “The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden’s White House and the Struggle for America’s Future,” Franklin Foer wrote that Biden remarked to a friend that Obama couldn’t say “fuck you” with “the right elongation of vowels and the necessary hardness of consonants; it was how they must curse in the ivory tower.”

Biden and his team felt no shortage of vindication when their approach worked in 2020 in the race against Trump. Biden advisers point out that they defeated an incumbent, became the first campaign to bring in $1 billion and broke Obama’s previous record of winning the most votes ever, all amid a global pandemic and new social media dynamics. The fear among Democrats — beyond just the Obama alumni diaspora — is whether those achievements were owed more to outside forces (Covid, a historically loathed incumbent and a Democratic Party desperate for a win) than campaign structure.

“The vibe was that the campaign didn’t have its shit together,” said a second Democrat of the mood at the Obama alumni gathering about Biden’s team. “There wasn’t infrastructure in the states. There wasn’t a beefed-up campaign headquarters. And compared to where Obama was in 2011, the campaign was fairly anemic.”

Shortly before the holidays, Biden had Obama to the White House for lunch, during which the former president himself echoed a variation of these anxieties. In their talk, which was first reported by the Washington Post, Obama noted that he had clear lines of demarcation between his White House operation and reelection effort — and that he had managed the divide by sending a select number of top advisers over to the latter.

A person familiar with the conversation between Obama and Biden downplayed the idea that the talk was critical: “His frame of reference is 2012 so that’s what they talked about.”

People close to the Biden team have said they believe a senior White House official will be moving to the campaign soon (to which Munoz scoffed: “The source close to the campaign is not too close to the campaign!”). More than anything, though, the Biden campaign feels it has time. Voters aren’t paying attention yet to the general election, and once they do, the Biden camp argues, they’ll be running on all cylinders.

“Coming off a historically strong midterms performance, the president’s campaign is doing the important, early work to build our coalition and will continue scaling up as voters begin to think more about this November’s election,” said Munoz.

For instance, the Biden campaign said, it is piloting organizing programs in a few battleground states now so it can fine-tune its ground strategies and employ them elsewhere later in the campaign.

“Knocking on doors today for an election in November doesn’t make sense,” said Bruce Heyman, a Biden bundler who served as an ambassador to Canada under Obama.

Heyman attended the alumni meeting. “Apprehensive isn’t the right word but I was curious as to what the heck is going on and where we were,” he said. “We left that meeting, you know, feeling we were in good hands and they covered the full spectrum. …. The anxiety moment is the realization that the campaign while everybody talks about 7 million votes and everything else at the Electoral College level, the number that the campaign uses, is that the president won by 45,000 votes in three states? Not very much.”

Even as the Biden campaign takes steps to build out its team, however, there remains anxiety among Democrats due to the fact that the president has never had to run a ground game before of this magnitude.

When Biden ran for president in 2008 in Iowa, where a strong field operation and fired-up volunteers are pivotal in the caucuses, he came in fifth. Obama, on the other hand, placed first after opening a flurry of local offices in small towns, rural areas and big cities.

Then, in 2020, Biden finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, where he was out-organized by Democratic opponents Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). He went on to win the Democratic nomination anyway, but not because his staff knocked on the most doors. Instead, it was thanks to the fact that he earned a game-changing endorsement from Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), locked down the all-important Black vote and convinced the primary electorate that he was the most likely to defeat Trump.

At least some operatives in Obama’s orbit, though, think Biden’s strategy is the right one.

A Biden official said that the campaign has had several conversations with Obama’s reelection leadership team about what worked, and what didn’t, in 2012. Among the insights shared, the person said, is that Obama actually staffed up its team on the ground too fast, burning through too much cash with not enough to show for it.

Jim Messina, Obama’s reelection campaign manager who is close to Biden’s team, is among those who believe that. In today’s political environment, he argued, Biden needs to instead now make the stakes clear and activate the Democratic base, something he said Biden has done in his recent speeches about the anniversary of Jan. 6 and white supremacy.

“Your average swing voter pays attention to politics four minutes a week until the few months leading up to November,” he said. “So the way they’re working to activate the base and get out their message — and the stakes of making the right choice in the inevitable Biden/Trump rematch — to other groups is smart.”

With reporting by Sam Stein, Ryan Lizza, Elena Schneider, Shia Kapos and Jonathan Lemire.

Powered by WPeMatico

Comments are closed.