Biden's 'unusual' midterm strategy favors low-key approach over high-profile rallies

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WASHINGTON — When President Biden arrived in Pennsylvania on Thursday, he first went to Pittsburgh’s Fern Hollow Bridge, which is being rebuilt with funds from his $1 trillion infrastructure plan. Then he flew across the state to Philadelphia to host a reception for John Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor and the Democrats’ nominee for the U.S. Senate.

This is how the president has been spending, and intends to spend, the precious few days remaining before the congressional midterms: quietly. Sort of.

Fetterman is in a tight race with the celebrity physician Dr. Mehmet Oz, while the state’s attorney general, Josh Shapiro, looks to maintain the Democrats’ control of the gubernatorial mansion in Harrisburg. But there would be no presidential rallies for either candidate that day, nor for the three Democrats now competing in close races for the U.S. House in Pennsylvania. No legions of placard-waving supporters. No soaring rhetoric at county campgrounds. No hands extended toward the president between the shoulders of burly Secret Service officers.

President Biden is greeted by Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. and Democratic senatorial candidate John Fetterman upon arrival at Pittsburgh International Airport on Oct. 20.
President Biden is greeted by Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. and Democratic senatorial candidate John Fetterman at Pittsburgh International Airport on Thursday. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Not in 2022, with the president experiencing stiflingly low approval ratings from the American public. It’s the economy, or crime, maybe the lingering pandemic funk. Whatever it is, the nation is not happy with its president, which makes the president a less-than-ideal pitchman for his party, at least in the kind of high-profile, high-energy pitches presidents are expected to make at this stage on candidates’ behalf.

“If anything, most seem to be keeping their distance from him, even as they celebrate his legislative achievements,” Penn State political scientist Christopher Beem observed in an email to Yahoo News. Those legislative achievements — the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, $370 billion for climate change, prescription drug pricing, microchips, gun control, debt relief — enjoy popularity with the American public.

The man behind those wins, not so much.

So with the midterm elections only three weeks away, the White House and the Democratic Party have alighted on a low-key approach to deploying the president, using him to raise funds in battleground states and districts but avoiding the kinds of big rallies staged by his predecessors.

“It is unusual,” says David Barker, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. But the strategy may also be effective, Barker told Yahoo News, because Biden appears to recognize that he is “a drag on a lot of candidates, who are making some hay with swing voters by distancing themselves from him. In general, he has been trying to reduce the degree to which voters are thinking about this election as a referendum on him.”

To critics, the Democrats are playing keep-away with the leader of their party. After all, it was weeks ago that Charlie Crist, upon becoming the Democratic nominee for governor in Florida, went on CNN and, when asked about whether he wanted Biden to campaign with him, practically gushed about the president.

Charlie Crist, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate for Florida, and his fiancée, Chelsea Grimes, during a campaign stop on Oct. 17 in Miami.
Charlie Crist, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate for Florida, and his fiancée, Chelsea Grimes, on Monday in Miami. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

“He's a good man. He's a great man. He's a great president. I can't wait for him to get down here. I need his help, I want his help,” Crist said on air. The appeal could not be clearer: If Biden wanted to stop likely 2024 presidential contender Ron DeSantis, the Republican gubernatorial incumbent, he needed to invest time in Florida.

To be sure, Hurricane Ian disrupted campaigns, not to mention lives (Biden had planned a stop in Florida right around the time Ian made landfall). But there were plenty of opportunities before the storm to campaign with Crist, whose appeal had been made in August.

And when Biden does go to Florida next week, it will be to hold what is likely to be a private reception for Crist, which will do little to directly court moderates and galvanize the Democratic base. The proceeds from Biden’s fundraiser will do the work on his behalf.

Some Democrats simply do not share the conventional wisdom that rallies ahead of elections are a sign of political vigor. "It’s myopic to count the number of rallies as the only metric of how you can support candidates," says Eric Schultz, a senior adviser to former President Barack Obama.

Biden supporters point to the speeches he has given in recent days, including a Tuesday address on reproductive rights, during which he promised to codify Roe v. Wade and reinstate the assault weapons ban — that is, if Democrats can expand their congressional majorities. He has also given speeches on his economic policies in battleground states like Ohio.

President Biden speaks about the importance of electing Democrats who want to restore abortion rights, during an event hosted by the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 18.
Biden, at a Democratic National Committee event in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, speaks about the importance of electing Democrats who want to restore abortion rights. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty images)

“He's not a dazzling speaker who generates rousing crowds,” says Democratic strategist Christy Setzer of New Heights Communications. In an email exchange with Yahoo News, she praised the president and his political advisers for recognizing that reality and focusing instead on policy.

“He has a tremendous record to stand behind,” she said.

In the most charitable assessment of the president’s tactics, the Democrats believe that those policies are popular enough to effectively sell themselves, as long as candidates are able to stick on message and avoid culture-war issues in which Republicans tend to have an advantage.

"President Biden and Democrats are running on their historic successes, from finally passing legislation to lower prescription drug costs and help bring manufacturing jobs back home to strengthening our economy and supply chains,” senior Democratic National Committee adviser Cedric Richmond, who until recently worked in the White House, told Yahoo News in a forwarded statement. “You can count on the president to keep traveling the country and talking about the issues that matter most to Americans.”

There is also Biden’s direct predecessor, who offered a case study in the follies of the full-steam-ahead approach. As the 2018 congressional midterms approached, then-President Donald Trump barnstormed the nation, seeking to bolster Republican candidates. Like Biden, Trump had bad approval ratings, but the GOP president professed that he didn’t trust those polls, and wasn’t about to start now. With the election just two weeks away, Trump vowed to hold 10 more rallies.

Former President Donald Trump arrives at a campaign rally on Oct. 9 in Mesa, Ariz.
Former President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Mesa, Ariz., on Oct. 9. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

“President Trump is all-in for the midterms to lead the GOP to victory on Election Day,” his own campaign manager said at the time. The rallies kept Trump in the news, which was precisely the problem for the Republican candidates who were desperate to distance themselves from the president, much as some Democrats are doing today with Biden.

Trump persisted, and the Democrats easily took over the House of Representatives. Afterward, Trump mocked the Republicans who had tried to detach themselves from his unpopular presidency, leaving no room for the possibility that he could have done more to help their candidacies — by doing less.

"The president's most valuable asset is his time, and the White House’s mission is to maximize the impact of that asset,” one person familiar with Biden’s political considerations told Yahoo News. He and others say that while a rally may provide an immediate thrill, the sensation quickly vanishes.

Raising money for candidates like Fetterman allows them to purchase airtime for advertising, which could prove crucial in a campaign’s final days, or to execute get-out-the-vote strategies. "These are dynamic, complicated races,” says Schultz, the Obama adviser. “You have to defer to the people on the ground."

Biden has recently staged receptions for candidates in Los Angeles and Oregon. As is custom, the press was on hand for these events — but public access was restricted. The president may meet with volunteers, or a candidate’s supporters, but a significant portion of his time is dedicated to courting the wealthy donors necessary to sustain a political operation in modern politics.

President Biden speaks during an Oregon Democrats grassroots phone banking event at SEIU Local 49 in Portland on Oct. 14.
Biden during an event at SEIU Local 49 in Portland, Ore., on Oct. 14. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

A veteran of the Senate, Biden is more accustomed than either of his two predecessors to ask for money — and get it. “Thanks in large part to President Biden, the DNC has raised $271 million — a midterm record,” an official with the Democratic Party told Yahoo News. She added that the party had “committed at least $70 million to investments in states for 2022 midterm programs. That’s much more than the $30 million spent by the DNC on its entire 2018 midterm strategy.”

Still, the lack of prominent campaigning by the president has raised questions, and if those questions are largely generated by Beltway pundits or cable news producers in Manhattan, they are nevertheless difficult to avoid. Biden will soon turn 80, and some Democrats have openly wondered if a younger standard-bearer is needed for the 2024 presidential race. The president’s under-the-radar approach to the midterms could exacerbate that speculation.

At the same time, he is famously given to misstatement. A slip-up at a high-profile event, especially in a battleground state like Florida or Ohio, could easily become an unwelcome social media sensation, adding to the narrative — forcefully disputed by Democrats — that Biden is losing some of his acuity.

The White House has generally declined to answer specific questions about the president’s midterm-related strategy, citing Hatch Act provisions prohibiting government officials from political activity.

“He’s been on the road nonstop, and he will continue to be on the road nonstop,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a press briefing earlier this week. “And, you know, where he is needed, he will go."

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaks during the daily news briefing on Oct. 19.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre at the daily news briefing on Wednesday. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

But some in the White House press corps have been rankled that it was at an event with donors, not a public venue, that Biden mused about the possibility of nuclear “Armageddon” unleashed by Russia. After all, if nuclear war is imminent, should only six-figure donors have the benefit of that knowledge?

For most Americans, however, the president’s appearances on the campaign trail — or lack thereof — are not a significant concern. Press access at presidential fundraisers is not what keeps people up at night.

“Biden is not what’s in their mind when it comes to voting. They’re not thinking about him,” the pollster Rich Tau told the Washington Post earlier this month.

If anything, Democrats in swing districts may reasonably want to distance themselves from the figure who, in the eyes of his critics, shoulders the blame for the inflation that remains voters' top concern. Inflation had been rising before Biden became president, but it has risen more sharply in the past two years, and the White House has struggled to tame runaway prices. Until it can — if that’s even possible, given the global forces at play — the prospect of being tagged with responsibility for “Biden-flation,” as Republicans call it, is not likely to prove an attractive prospect for Democratic candidates.