(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden’s recent campaign shakeup came after growing concerns from allies and private warnings to his inner circle about his weaknesses in a matchup against Donald Trump.
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Biden this week dispatched two of his closest aides from the West Wing to Wilmington, Delaware, to beef up his campaign, a move that came as Trump all but clinched the GOP nomination.
Democratic lawmakers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in interviews that Biden’s campaign has so far fallen flat, that his age — 81 — is a concern and that the party is losing votes over high prices and the war in Gaza. They believe Biden is an underdog right now.
While Trump is the opponent many Biden backers believe he would fare best against, those lawmakers and some party officials say they are nonetheless anxious about the president’s chances as a drumbeat of polling shows the Republican in the lead.
The behind-the-scenes alarm underscores concerns about Biden’s path to a second term and makes for a contrast to public shows of solidarity. Biden’s campaign on Wednesday said the New Hampshire results lock in a Biden-Trump rematch and that the campaign would ramp up now that its opponent is clear.
“We’re going to run like we’re behind,” said Cedric Richmond, a former congressman and Biden aide. “Do we think we’re going to win? Absolutely, because there’s too much on the line not to.”
Biden’s campaign has hit several bumps in the road since last year. The candidate’s selection of Julie Chavez Rodriguez as campaign manager made clear that a substantial amount of authority would rest in the White House with his foremost political aides, like Anita Dunn and Jen O’Malley Dillon, who ran the 2020 bid. Democrats have complained that the split structure risked mixed messages, officials said, while Biden allies said the campaign was always going to be ramped up around now.
Still, this week’s move of O’Malley Dillon and another top adviser, Mike Donilon, to the campaign offered an example of an apparent disconnect: Biden’s campaign took pains to insist that Chavez Rodriguez was still campaign manager, but Biden’s own statement said O’Malley Dillon would be “guiding our campaign to victory again in 2024” and made no mention of Chavez Rodriguez.
The campaign, meanwhile, has continued to preach patience while they’re stockpiling cash and their polling shows that voters aren’t yet tuned in to the election.
“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,” Biden spokesman Kevin Munoz said in a statement.
Jim Messina, who ran Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection, privately cautioned Biden aides earlier in the cycle to watch their spending. Obama’s campaign spent freely and hired aggressively at this stage, and later had to implement a hiring freeze as donations underwhelmed, he said, according to officials familiar with the conversations. Biden’s team obliged, ending the quarter with a record $117 million war chest.
“This campaign is now laser-focused on presenting that direct choice to the American people,” campaign spokesman Michael Tyler said Wednesday, saying they’re staffing up in battleground states and preparing to go after Trump on issues like abortion and democratic values. “It’s all hands on deck now.”
In an interview, Messina — a surrogate for the Biden campaign — urged calm. “The campaign is doing it right and being smart about how and when to scale up to November,” he said. “The fact is, incumbent presidents start out with a handicap — they own the economy, they own all of their decisions.”
Still, concerns are swirling in the party that in some way echo the public pronouncements of Biden’s long-shot primary challenger, Minnesota Representative Dean Phillips.
“We’ve got to wake up from this delusion that Joe Biden is an electable candidate,” Phillips told Bloomberg Television this week. “We all know what’s going on in Washington. I think I’m just saying the quiet part out loud.”
While Biden allies have dismissed Phillips as essentially a traitor and an amateur — and his New Hampshire defeat was an emphatic rebuke — some have delivered guarded warnings or hints publicly.
For instance, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer said Biden should take a more forceful stand in favor of abortion rights.
Her state is among the most critical battlegrounds and a crucible of Biden’s risks. It has a large Muslim-American population that makes it particularly exposed to voters upset about US aid for Israel during its operations in Gaza: In a Biden speech Tuesday, hecklers repeatedly interrupted him with calls for a ceasefire.
Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in a recent CNN interview, said the campaign needed to scale up its visibility. In a joint appearance with Biden in battleground Pennsylvania, Senator Bob Casey zeroed in on grocery costs as a key issue, almost egging on the president to do the same. And in battleground Wisconsin, Governor Tony Evers and Representative Mark Pocan told the Associated Press that Biden should visit more frequently. Biden will appear in the state Thursday.
Other allies brushed aside the grumbling.
“My recommendation to people who have concerns is: Anyone in politics can state the problem. Be part of the solution,” said Ro Khanna, a California congressman and Biden campaign advisory board member. “I have had great conversations with Anita Dunn, who I think really understands what needs to be done and is brilliant and is very, very open to feedback.”
The president’s campaign also got a major boost Wednesday when he secured a long sought-after endorsement of the powerful United Auto Workers union, whose president unleashed a pointed critique of Trump.
Read more: Biden Secures Sought-After UAW Nod After Turn on Picket Line
Democrats also cheered a recent poll showing Biden with a wide lead over Trump in Pennsylvania, the state where he clinched his win in 2020. “The President has shown through his words and actions that his administration is delivering results for everyday Americans,” Representative Dwight Evans, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said in a statement.
Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, says the case for a polling rebound is clear: Consumer sentiment is improving, the economy remains strong, and Trump’s arrival as the nominee will crystallize the choice. Trump remains deeply polarizing, and early-state results show him hemorrhaging support among the independent or unaffiliated voters who could decide the election.
“I would much rather have Biden’s cards than Trump’s cards,” Messina said.
--With assistance from David Welch and Kailey Leinz.
(Updates with campaign, lawmakers statements starting in 10th paragraph)
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