Donald Trump’s CNN town hall on Wednesday night was viewed as a gift from the political gods inside Biden world.
But within broader Democratic circles it fed a nagging and growing concern. Is the president’s team a touch too confident about a Trump-Biden rematch?
For more than a year, White House aides and Joe Biden allies have beat the same drum about the coming election: The world doubted us before and we’ll prove them wrong again. That conviction has only been fortified by the last two years, in which major legislative strides and a better-than-expected midterm came in the face of routine skepticism.
But as the campaign gears up, other Democrats are warning that the past cannot be considered prologue. Top officials privately have expressed anxiety about the state of the president’s reelection operation. There was internal debate among party luminaries about launching the campaign in April, with fears that the pieces were not yet in place and that the White House needed more time for the transition. Chief of staff Jeff Zients had wanted Julie Chávez Rodríguez, the incoming campaign manager, to stay for an additional month in her current role as director of the White House’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, but was talked out of it, a White House official confirmed.
Currently, there is no headquarters and only a handful of full-time staffers in place, not one of which is a finance director. The president’s political team refuses to discuss its fundraising numbers in public, sparking anxiety among donors that the number is underwhelming and could continue to lag as the summer months approach.
And then there are the polls.
“The ABC poll, while it is an outlier, it’s also a warning, right?” said Terrance Woodbury, CEO of HIT Strategies, a public opinion firm with a number of prominent clients in the progressive and labor ecosystem. “They are a very confident White House. They are most confident in their record. He is a creature of the legislature and he believes that passing legislation is good governing and he’s passed some damn good legislation. But that ain’t always good politics.”
The concern for Woodbury and others isn’t that this White House hasn’t proven itself to be competent, it’s that they seem to have grown too self-assured. The assumption that Trump’s continued presence on the scene — and his likely ascension to Republican nominee — will cure a lot of the current ailments is a recipe for complacency. That is especially problematic amid an economy Americans still feel unsure about, and as investigations into the president and his family have the potential to further complicate the election.
“After 60 years in politics, he’s surrounded by people who are insular by nature. And so it’s not a huge surprise that the White House doesn’t feel receptive to messages other than the ones that they want to believe in,” said Stephanie Murphy, a former moderate Democratic House member. “It’s easy to blame the media but what is important is being able to listen to what the American people are saying to you. I mean, it’s not that every poll is wrong.”
Aides close to Biden bristle at the criticism and even the critics themselves, arguing their track record should allow them some leash.
“If you’re the sort of coward who’d rather throw stones at the people wrestling with the devil than at the devil himself, and who has no comparable record of success, it makes sense you’d confuse strength with overconfidence,” a 2020 campaign alum said. “Reporters aren’t your therapists, kids.”
Other Biden world officials insist they are taking nothing for granted. Though there is a growing belief that Trump is a shoo-in to be the Republican nominee for president, they don’t believe he is a shoo-in to lose in a general. They say that an element being lost in the hand-wringing about the state of the campaign is that a lot of the work is being done by a DNC that has been bolstered during Biden’s tenure.
“The Biden-Harris reelection campaign is building on the work of a historically strong DNC and state party operation, unified after the best midterm performance of a sitting president since FDR, and on the offense against a deeply unpopular MAGA agenda,” said Biden campaign spokesperson Kevin Munoz. “The pundits and Beltway media have always underestimated Joe Biden, and he’s proven the doubters wrong every time.”
Those closest to Biden like their chances in a 2020 rematch with Trump. They believe Trump is no longer viewed as an outsider change agent, but as a disruptive force, one a large swath of the country considers embarrassing. That Trump spent Wednesday night scoffing at his legal troubles, defending the Jan. 6 riots — pledging to pardon many of those rioters — articulating a defense for his infamous “Access Hollywood” tape and mocking a woman he was found liable to have sexually abused, only reinforced those beliefs.
“Fear is a good motivator and Trump rightfully scares the majority of Americans,” said Bradley Beychok, president and co-founder for the Biden-supportive Super PAC American Bridge 21st Century. “When Americans are reminded of the danger Trump poses to our democracy, that fear translates into more enthusiasm for Biden and the Democrats — including a deluge of donations.”
Fears about complacency, strategy, and overall political viability are nothing new for Democrats. It may be part of their DNA.
“Democrats are bedwetters historically. There’s like, just full-throated fucking panic,” said Jim Messina, the campaign manager for the Obama reelection campaign. “It is [also] fair to say that Team Biden has been the most underestimated political operation in the country.”
Messina, who says the White House calls him periodically to check on what he’s hearing and what advice he may have, believes that what some Democrats may read as overconfidence is actually just “a very small team of people the president trusts in who are calm and realize they’re going to go through 100 storms between now and November 2024.”
But the current round of internal party agita is unique in how Democrats are perceiving the stakes. Party officials have wrestled with the idea that Trump as the Republican nominee represents both political opportunities and larger threats. There is also an unshakeable fear that Biden is both inherently flawed (due to his age) and irreplaceable atop the ticket.
Four years ago, these calculations and concerns did not exist. Biden rode an anti-Trump sentiment to the White House along with popular anxiety about the state of the economy and the fight against the pandemic.
White House aides believe that even voters who may be lukewarm about now President Biden will still turn out to vote against Trump. But some Democrats feel the dynamics are different now. David Simas, Obama’s White House political director toward the end of his presidency, says that Democrats shouldn’t anticipate that Trump’s presence on the trail and the airwaves makes Biden’s path easier than it was in 2020.
“In 2016 at this stage, 18 months before, [Trump] was trailing Secretary Clinton by double digits. In the polling in 2020, where he was the incumbent, Joe Biden was getting into the race, Trump was trailing by nine or 10 percent. In the polling today, in a Trump vs Biden matchup, what you essentially see is either a tied race or a slight advantage [for] Trump,” Simas said at the Sedona Forum.