Former president Barack Obama has raised questions about the structure of President Biden’s reelection campaign, discussing the matter directly with Biden and telling the president’s aides and allies the campaign needs to be empowered to make decisions without clearing them with the White House, according to three people familiar with the conversations.
Obama grew “animated” in discussing the 2024 election and former president Donald Trump’s potential return to power, one of the people said, and has suggested to Biden’s advisers that the campaign needs more top-level decision-makers at its headquarters in Wilmington, Del. — or it must empower the people already in place. Obama has not recommended specific individuals, but he has mentioned David Plouffe, who managed Obama’s 2008 race, as the type of senior strategist needed at the Biden campaign.
Obama’s conversation with Biden on the subject took place during a private lunch at the White House in recent months, one of the people said, a meeting that has not been previously reported. Biden, who has long used Obama as a sounding board, invited his former boss to lunch, and the two discussed a range of topics including the 2024 election.
During the lunch, Obama noted the success of his reelection campaign structure in 2012, when some of his top presidential aides, including David Axelrod and Jim Messina, left the White House to take charge of the reelection operation in Chicago. That is a sharp contrast from Biden’s approach of leaving his closest aides at the White House even though they are involved in all the key decisions made by the campaign.
Obama also recommended that Biden seek counsel from Obama’s own former campaign aides, which Biden officials say they have done, the people said.
Obama has been even more explicit with people close to Biden, suggesting the campaign needs to move aggressively as Trump appears poised to quickly wrap up the Republican nomination. His concerns about the campaign structure were not tied to a specific moment, but rather his belief that campaigns need to be agile in competitive races, the people said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential conversations.
Spokespeople for Obama and the White House declined to comment.
Obama has long harbored worries about Trump’s political strength, telling Biden during a different private lunch last summer that Trump is a more formidable candidate than many Democrats realize. He cited Trump’s intensely loyal following, a Trump-friendly conservative media ecosystem and a polarized country as advantages for the former president in 2024.
Obama, who commands enormous loyalty and star power in the Democratic Party, is not alone in worrying about Biden’s weak poll numbers and his unorthodox bifurcated campaign structure.
Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Biden’s campaign manager, is based at the campaign headquarters in Biden’s hometown of Wilmington, while the president’s top political advisers — Anita Dunn, Jen O’Malley Dillon, Mike Donilon and Steve Ricchetti — work more than 100 miles away at the White House. That means any important move by the campaign is run by the White House first, prompting concern among some Democrats as they head into a turbulent contest that is likely to require immediate responses to fast-moving developments.
Axelrod said Friday he could not speak to Obama’s discussions with Biden, but that each president approaches his reelection differently, and Biden’s campaign structure may yet evolve.
“Jim and I started building the structure in Chicago in the spring of ’11. President Biden has chosen to keep many of his key political advisers in the White House,” Axelrod wrote in a text message. “But by necessity, I would expect several of them will move fairly soon to the campaign itself.”
But some Democrats running on the ticket with Biden are worried. Michigan Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who is running for her state’s open Senate seat, has expressed concern to allies that she may not be able to win if Biden is at the top of the ticket, according to people familiar with the conversations. A spokesman for Slotkin’s campaign said she “looks forward to running with President Biden.”
Outside of urging structural changes, Obama’s sense of urgency about the upcoming presidential race has been reflected in his push to raise money for Biden’s effort. He has helped the Biden campaign raise $4 million in small-dollar donations, including $2.6 million through a “Meet the Presidents” contest where donors have the chance to meet Obama and Biden, Biden campaign officials said.
In a statement this summer, Eric Schultz, a senior adviser to Obama, said the former president “looks forward to supporting Democrats up and down the ballot next fall, and no race has bigger stakes than President Biden’s reelection.”
“We place a huge emphasis on finding creative ways to reach new audiences, especially tools that can be directly tied to voter mobilization or volunteer activations,” Schultz said. “We are deliberate in picking our moments because our objective is to move the needle.”
On Thursday, the Biden campaign released a new fundraising video featuring the two leaders. “We need your help to ensure Joe’s leadership continues to guide us forward,” Obama says in the video. “We know the other side won’t rest, so we can’t either.”
The relationship between Obama and the man who served as his vice president for eight years is a complex one. The two men developed a strong working relationship and their families bonded well, but aides to both men say the “bromance” depicted in some pop culture accounts was always an exaggeration. These days, Biden and Obama check in with each other periodically, and Obama remains close to many of his former staffers who now work in the White House.
Some Biden allies who have heard about Obama’s musings on their campaign structure are dismissive, still feeling burned by Obama’s decision to support Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election instead of Biden.
The mention of Plouffe in particular irritates some longtime Biden aides, because it was Plouffe whom Obama dispatched to warn Biden that he faced long odds if he decided to seek the presidency in 2016. “The president was not encouraging,” Biden wrote in his memoir, “Promise Me, Dad.”
The Biden aides note bitingly that Clinton, despite Obama’s support, lost to Trump in 2016, a defeat that remains traumatizing for many Democrats. Plouffe declined to comment but has told friends he is retired from active campaign work.
But even Biden is frustrated by his public standing, frequently complaining about his low poll numbers in private conversations with aides. In one meeting shortly before Thanksgiving, he demanded to know what his team and his campaign staff were doing about it. The low approval ratings have persisted despite a humming economy, as the country added 216,000 jobs in December.
Just before year’s end, Biden’s rating tied his record low, with 38 percent approving his performance and 58 percent disapproving, according to a Washington Post average of 17 polls in November and December. Voters, including a majority of Democrats, say they are particularly concerned about Biden’s age and consistently rank it as a bigger problem for the president, 81, than for Trump, 77.
Democrats are also concerned about Biden losing support among younger voters and communities of color because of his handling of the Israel-Gaza war. In December, a New York Times-Siena College poll found that 57 percent of voters disapproved of his handling of the conflict, while 33 percent approved.
Biden’s aides, however, say that if Trump becomes the Republican nominee as analysts on both sides expect, a clear majority of voters will find Biden preferable, given Trump’s chaotic style and anti-democratic tendencies. And in the Times-Siena poll, while all registered voters supported Trump over Biden, those likely to vote favored Biden.
On Friday, Biden held his first major official campaign event, traveling to Valley Forge, Pa., to give a speech blasting Trump as a threat to democracy on the eve of the anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Biden launched his reelection campaign in April, but to date his political activity has largely been confined to fundraisers and a few appearances at political rallies hosted by outside groups.