WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden has devoted much of his first six months in office to a sweeping agenda on COVID relief, infrastructure, voting rights and social and environmental policy.
But behind the scenes, the chief executive is playing another role: Democratic Party leader.
As Democrats face a challenging set of congressional elections next year against well-funded Republicans and adverse historical trends, Biden is taking a hands-on approach to party organization, officials said, a contrast to the more laissez-faire approach of his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama.
The president has been a driving force as the Democratic National Committee sets fundraising records, strengthens its ties to state parties, and reaches out to more voters. Biden’s big push comes as the Democrats face an uphill battle to keep control of Congress, where their narrow majorities have already made it hard for him to achieve major parts of his far-reaching legislative ambitions.
Biden is set to deliver a speech Friday on behalf of Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe – his first public campaign event as president and perhaps a preview of more presidential politicking to come for congressional Democrats.
Biden has already been very involved in quieter efforts to strengthen and upgrade the DNC, aides said, from speaking at virtual fundraisers – which are closed to the public – to making regular calls with party officials. Aides say he has a vision for how to position Democrats heading into the midterms.
“He wants to help make sure the DNC has the resources they need, so he stays regularly engaged on this,” said Jen O’Malley Dillon, the White House deputy chief of staff who serves as one of the president’s liaisons to the DNC.
Biden’s first priority is being president, O’Malley Dillon said, but “he does wear the hat of the head of the party, and he takes that very seriously.”
Jaime Harrison, whom Biden hand-picked to be chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said the president is “the glue that is holding us all together” as the DNC and its affiliated committees look to a tough election season.
The DNC is in “constant communication” with Biden and his staff, Harrison said, and he expects the president to be active on the campaign trail next year for Democratic candidates.
“The president has always been a party guy,” Harrison said.
The DNC in previous elections has struggled to keep up with its GOP counterpart in fundraising, technological savvy, voter outreach and organization.
Obama and his aides clashed with the DNC during his tenure, with critics accusing the Democratic president and fundraising powerhouse of neglecting the committee in favor of his own group, dubbed Organizing For America.
A former Obama campaign official conceded that the 2008 campaign’s near-exclusive focus on the candidate didn’t translate into long-term enthusiasm for the party as a whole, but said it made sense to put an exceptional politician at the center of their organizing efforts.
“When you have this once-in-a-lifetime figure like Barack Obama, it’s a blessing and a curse,” the campaign official said. “The blessing is obvious, but the curse is he brings a lot of people into the political process and into active voting who are more about him than the party.”
A former Obama campaign and administration aide contended OFA was an extension of the campaign, a way to activate Obama’s supporters to pass his legislative agenda, including the Affordable Care Act and the Recovery Act.
The Biden and Obama campaign approaches were also structured differently because Biden was an establishment Democrat, working within the party to motivate moderate voters, while Obama was an outsider candidate who built a grassroots movement, the aide said.
Biden has always been a cheerleader for the party structure, working with the DNC and its affiliated organizations as far back as his first U.S. Senate election in 1972.
During the 2018 election cycle, with Donald Trump in the White House, Biden endorsed 130 candidates and campaigned at a breakneck pace, appearing with 65 candidates in 24 states.
Part of the DNC’s reboot under Biden began with his drive to defeat Trump, aides said, but the president has also made clear the party and down-ballot should benefit from his administration’s popularity in the near term.
“I think any of us would say that we … wish that we had built structures that better served the long-term benefit of the DNC,” a former Obama campaign said.
During the 2020 Democratic primaries, as Biden closed in on the nomination, he had his campaign staff meld with the DNC ahead of a unique fall campaign conducted in the shadows of a COVID shutdown.
The DNC was “ready for us when (Biden) became the nominee,” said O’Malley Dillon, who served as the executive director for the DNC under Obama, adding the committee came out of the campaign “sitting on a strong foundation.”
During his first half-year in office, Biden has urged aides to give the DNC whatever help they need ahead of elections in which Democratic control of both the House and Senate are at risk.
The Democratic National Committee raised $11.2 million last month, ending June with $63 million in cash on hand, according to the latest Federal Election Commission filings.
But the numbers fall short of the $16.3 million raised by the Republican National Committee, which reported more than $81 million in party coffers at the end of June, according to FEC disclosures.
The DNC also cites $3.8 million raised by the joint federal-state fundraising committee it operates with state parties, called the Democratic Grassroots Victory Fund.
DNC officials said they are using the money to build out campaign infrastructure, particularly get-out-the-vote projects designed to identify and motivate voters to go to the polls.
Harrison said the committee plans to spend more than $20 million in key battleground states next year, particularly those with close Senate races. So far, that list includes Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Wisconsin – states that will also be key to Biden’s re-election hopes in 2024.
One priority, officials said: Fighting efforts in Republican-controlled state legislatures to restrict mail-in balloting or otherwise make it harder for people to vote.
Earlier this month, Biden delivered a searing speech condemning new election laws adopted by GOP-led legislatures, describing them as reminiscent of the Jim Crow era and an assault on democracy. He has called on Congress to pass sweeping federal legislation that Democrats say would make it easier for people to vote, but the proposal is stalled in the Senate, where Democrats have the narrowest possible majority.
Biden tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to work on voting rights, and with her support, the DNC has begun an “I Will Vote” initiative. It calls for $25 million to be spent on “voter protection, targeted voter registration, and technology to make voting more accessible,” according to a DNC statement.
Among other Biden-approved DNC initiatives are “training sessions” for state party officials and allies on how best to promote Biden’s agenda and a campaign-style media blitz touting the administration’s COVID response. The latter includes television and Internet ads, traditional billboards and digital ones mounted on vehicles, one of which rolled up and down the highway outside a major Republican donors’ meeting in Palm Beach, Fla., in April.
Over the Fourth of July holiday, the DNC flew airplane banners that read: “America’s Back Together Thanks to Biden & Dems,” in South Carolina, Georgia and Wisconsin.
The DNC has even deployed an “America is Back” ice cream truck to raise money and awareness of Biden’s agenda. Honoring Biden’s favorite snack, and emblazoned with an image of the president in his signature Ray Ban sunglasses, the ice cream truck drove from Trenton, N.J., to Roanoke, Va., with a stop in Philadelphia, before winding up in Washington, D.C., for Independence Day.
The DNC has committed more than $23 million to state parties and “grassroots infrastructure” organizations. That includes $2 million for a “Red State Fund” targeting Republican-leaning states that do not have a Democratic governor or senator.
The DNC claims it is “building the infrastructure needed to win in 2022 and in 2024.” In many ways, it is expanding on programs designed to benefit Biden during the 2020 campaign, including the collection of tens of millions of cell phone numbers from potential voters.
Of course, the Republican National Committee is doing many of the same things and has been since Trump’s election victory in 2016.
Republican National Committee officials said they have noticed the DNC’s stepped up efforts. They professed no fear, saying the Democrats’ party structure was in desperate need for improvement after the problems it had more than a decade ago.
In a statement, the Republican National Committee said it has made “a multi-million dollar investment” in its voter turnout operation ahead of next year’s elections. The party said it has also stepped up advertising buys and outreach to minority voters.
“The RNC continues to be light-years ahead with our early investments in battleground states coupled with our data-driven ground game,” said Republican Chief of Staff Richard Walters. “We look forward to taking back the House and Senate in 2022.”
Democrats know they are underdogs in the 2022 election, especially when it comes to holding the U.S. House. Armed with new Census data, Republican-controlled legislatures are redrawing congressional lines to create more GOP-leaning districts.
History is also against Biden and the Democrats. The president’s party tends to lose seats during midterm congressional elections.
There are exceptions, some Democrats noted. In 1934, two years after Franklin Roosevelt was elected president, the Democrats picked up congressional seats as the country remained mired in the Great Depression.
And in 2002, George W. Bush and the Republicans gained congressional seats in midterm elections a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The COVID pandemic is another unique time, Democrats believe, and give them a chance to promote Biden’s record and score campaign surprises.
“We understand history, but we also think that there’s real opportunity for the wind to be at our backs across our party because the president is leading and connecting with people.” O’Malley Dillon said.
Harrison, the DNC chairman, said he doesn’t worry about the past: “We just use the history as part of our strategy so that we can make our own history.”
Department of International Relations and European Studies https://www.ibu.edu.ba/department-of-international-relations-and-european-studies/