Biden camp feels a reprieve from Democratic unease

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Anxiety levels among influential Democrats over Joe Biden’s place atop the ticket have begun to ebb, with even some of the party’s loudest fretters saying that he’s taken the steps needed to calm their nerves.

A combination of a more vigorous campaign schedule and a rousing State of the Union address has left top party operatives more comfortable with the current state of the campaign, even if it has yet to produce a more meaningful bump in the polls.

“The State of the Union rarely provides much of a bounce,” said David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to then-President Barack Obama. “What was absolutely essential was that Biden show enough spark to quell the panic among his supporters, and he certainly did that.”

Axelrod has been among the most vocal in his concerns about Biden’s electoral prospects, even calling on the president to consider dropping out of the race after a series of polls emerged showing him trailing Donald Trump in critical battleground states. But he said he believed Biden had begun making a “good contrast with Trump.”

Doubts from leading Democrats over Biden’s prospects have long rankled the White House and the president himself, according to two aides not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.

Among Biden advisers, there was a recognition that they needed to address the fears being expressed from operatives like Axelrod and influential journalists like Ezra Klein, who penned a widely-read essay calling for Biden to step aside. That became especially true after former special counsel Robert Hur issued a report on Biden’s handling of classified documents that portrayed the president as a forgetful old man.

But Biden aides expressed confidence they could quiet the skepticism by ramping up campaign activities and performing well in the primaries.

“We were right before and we’ll be right again,” said one of the Biden advisers who was granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. “We’re staying the course.”

Aides say they now feel vindicated as they watched the party’s boldface names do an about-face to praise the State of the Union and quiet their worries.

“It was very clear that the State of the Union was geared toward one audience: calming the fears of Democrats who are nervous about this election, and the president hit a home run,” said Morgan Jackson, a senior adviser to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina. “You’ll ultimately see poll numbers rebound, but you won’t see them go up until there’s sustained paid communications around it. That’s how you move numbers.”

To get those numbers up, the Biden team is dumping $30 million in TV and digital ads over the next month across seven swing states, drilling into the contrast between Biden and Trump. One Democrat close to the campaign who is not authorized to speak publicly acknowledged that while they “don’t think we need to see massive movement” by the end of April, “we do need to see that we can move people when we have the audience and we’re spending significant money.”

“Where numbers are in five weeks — that’s what I’m watching,” the person added.

The president’s campaign schedule has also ramped up significantly in March. Biden headlined events in New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Michigan last week and then zipped through Nevada and Arizona on Tuesday and Wednesday. He swung through Texas for several campaign fundraisers on Wednesday and Thursday. Comparatively, Trump’s travel schedule has been light as his campaign tries to conserve resources.

“Would we love Biden to be up in the polls in Arizona? Of course. But we’re still at the point where voters haven’t fully tuned in yet,” said DJ Quinlan, a Democratic strategist in Arizona who worked on Sen. Mark Kelly’s recent campaigns. “It’s going to come down to who executes better in the state because it’s so closely divided, and we’ve got infrastructure we’ve built from winning statewide campaigns for years now.”

Few, if any, Democrats say that the stretch Biden has had since the State of the Union foreshadows an easy election. While he has emerged ahead in some national polls in recent days, his job approval ratings haven’t budged much over the last two weeks, and battleground surveys show him often trailing Trump by 1 to 5 percentage points. But he has picked up the lead in a few national polls following his annual address.

“You always want to raise your numbers,” said James Carville, the longtime Democratic operative who has bemoaned a lethargy among the Biden campaign.

"For the life of me — I think they should jump all over Trump right now. He doesn't have any money, and the Democrats have a huge advantage in money."

But even Carville conceded that Biden has had “a good week” and that he felt marginally less panicked about the campaign. "Maybe a little bit,” he said.

Biden’s fundraising and campaign infrastructure has benefited from the fact that he has only had nominal primary challenges. In March, the campaign is expected to open 100 offices and hire hundreds of new staffers. But there are warning signs nonetheless. Progressives upset by his handling of the Israel-Hamas war have voted “uncommitted” in significant numbers in several primary elections. And there are few remaining opportunities to make direct appeals to such a large swath of the country that Biden was afforded in his State of the Union.

Trump spokesperson Danielle Alvarez said Biden is a “failure and the American people know it.” She added that voters “are ready to elect President Trump and return to America First policies that prioritize American citizens over illegal immigrants.”

On average, presidents don’t see a significant change in their approval ratings after the State of the Union, according to Gallup. But there are a handful of notable exceptions in recent years, including Obama, who saw a 4-point and 3-point jump in 2016 and 2015 respectively. Trump, too, saw a bump — from 38 percent to 40 percent — after his address in 2018, though he still went on to preside over serious midterm losses that fall. In 2022, Biden also saw a 4-point uptick in voters’ view of him after his speech.

Biden himself pushed back on polling during a campaign stop in Reno, Nevada, on Tuesday, where he greeted volunteers and supporters at the Washoe County Democratic Party headquarters.

“None of these polls mean a damn thing this early on,” he said.

Rep. Steven Horsford, who appeared alongside the president at an event in Las Vegas on Tuesday, dismissed current presidential polling, arguing that even though surveys “can be the dominating issue,” it “can also be a distraction.” Instead, he said, what Biden is focusing on — talking to voters about what the administration has done, particularly on housing — makes him “confident that … he will be reelected as president.”

Biden aides, for their part, continue to express the belief that the president will benefit as the year moves on and more Americans who have tuned out Trump since 2020 are exposed to his incendiary rhetoric again. Kevin Munoz, a Biden campaign spokesperson, contrasted the president’s campaign travel with Trump, “who can’t seem to find his way out of Mar-a-Lago, and on the rare occasions he does, either finds himself attacking Nikki Haley voters, bragging about his support for a national abortion ban, or in the courtroom.”

For all the good that the State of the Union may have had in quelling Democratic anxiety, aides privately admit that the president’s age will likely remain a campaign issue, particularly if Biden stumbles again — either mentally or physically. But they also believe their attacks on Trump’s own age and mental acuity have begun to sink in with a voting public just now starting to pay attention to the race.

“People have pretty solidified pictures of both men — and one speech won't fix Biden's age problem,” said Mike Noble, an Arizona-based pollster, whose recent survey found Biden trailing Trump by 5 points in Nevada. “Democrats should be very worried. Trump is ahead nationally, and we know from his last two runs that he tends to perform better in the Electoral College than in the popular vote, so his real lead is probably stronger than the 1-to-3 point national lead we so often see now.”