Campaign season is truly upon us. This weekend, President Joe Biden left the White House to rally the Democratic Party base and other constituents on whose behalf he’s spent the past two years working, getting them fired up and organized for what will be a fierce election contest. No, he wasn’t barnstorming the key Rustbelt states where for the past two elections, the swing of a few tens of thousands of votes have effectively decided the result. Rather, he was hobnobbing with one hundred fifty ultrarich party donors at a luxury hotel in Washington, DC.
It was a marked exception in the president’s schedule. Biden has spent most of his weekends as president outside of DC, at one of his two homes in Delaware or at Camp David in rural Maryland. So far this year, he’s spent a full twelve weekends without doing any public events and has only attended a dozen public events that were scheduled after 6 p.m., many of which were meetings with foreign leaders.
Clearly, this meeting was a high priority for the embattled president, who gave his gratitude to the assembled oligarchs and made clear he saw them as the backbone of his political ascent. “It’s because of you, I’m standing here. And it’s because of you, we’re going to win this time around,” Biden reportedly told the collection of one-percenters over a dinner of “roasted beetroot salad, prime New York strip loin with tiger shrimp, and orange mousse cake,” according to NBC.
“You raised significant amounts of money to allow us to compete” in 2020 and beat back Republicans in last year’s midterms, the news outlet reported him saying. “We’re going to do it again in 2024 together.”
“It’s very simple,” Biden told them. “We need you. Our democracy needs you.”
It’s hard not to hear the echo of a now-infamous pre-campaign event Biden attended in 2019, where he told a group of Wall Street financiers and other ultrawealthy potential donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he became president. “I need you very badly,” he told them then. “I hope if I win this nomination, I won’t let you down.”
Once president, Biden was as good as his word, abandoning or sabotaging the campaign promises most fiercely opposed by corporate America, implementing no new permanent social programs and presiding over a drastic undoing of the more generous expansion of the US safety net, carried out under his far-right predecessor due to the pandemic.
This time, Biden is aiming to beat the record fundraising total of $1.1 billion he notched up in 2020, campaign cochair and DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg told CNN. But this group of opulent donors aren’t just being asked to fork over a bunch of cash. They also reportedly got strategy briefings from White House advisors and party officials and took part in discussions to create a “winning strategy that will fund winning campaigns” for all Democrats.
Compare this to Biden’s engagement with grassroots activists, the ordinary people who had spent untold hours in 2020 organizing and door-knocking in crucial states like Michigan, Georgia, and Arizona to deliver him the presidency. Last Thursday, he attended a twenty-minute-long virtual call with such campaigners, speaking, together with the First Lady, to those assembled for a total of just under six minutes, in what appeared to be a prerecorded video inserted into a live stream.
Meanwhile, the megadonors who had the pleasure of spending an entire weekend with the president and other Democratic bigwigs were effusive in their praise for the president.
“I’ve emphasized what he has accomplished and his leadership, and how essential it is in this moment in time for him to, one more time, saddle up and go do this,” Katzenberg told CNBC. Biden should be reelected for a “well-deserved second term,” said entertainment billionaire Haim “I’m a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel” Saban. “No one since FDR has accomplished as much for Americans,” gushed hedge fund executive Donald Sussman.
Outside of the world the country’s wealthiest people inhabit, the mood is different.
A February poll found that 62 percent of Americans think the president has accomplished “not very much” or “little to nothing” over his term. The vast majority don’t want Biden to run again, including 51 percent of Democrats, and a little less than a third of them think the president deserves to be reelected, including only 26 percent of the young voters who were key to powering Biden’s 2020 win.
Despite this, the president has embarked on a series of moves this year that are set to further alienate this cohort of Democratic-leaning voters least enthusiastic about his reelection. Earlier this year, Biden approved a series of rightward moves on crime, immigration, and climate, including approving what Al Gore called the “recklessly irresponsible” Willow oil project on Alaskan public lands. His administration is now set to go forward with another massive Alaskan fossil fuel project, what one environmentalist has labeled “a carbon bomb ten times the size of Willow.”
The president can afford to do this because the surprising results of the 2022 midterms convinced Democratic elites that they can return to the unambitious strategy they’d first used to accidentally bring Donald Trump to power in 2016. Biden made this clear to the assembled donors this weekend.
“In a bizarre way, all we got to do is point out, in many cases, comparison with what these guys want to do,” Biden told them. “Look what they just introduced, what they just passed in the House.” As Alan Kessler, a longtime Democratic fundraiser and corporate lawyer who defends firms in class action lawsuits, put it, “It’s just like it was four years ago. . . . The more Donald Trump opens his mouth about something, it just reminds people that we can’t go back to five years, six years of that.”
This strategy has been evident in the president’s campaign pitch so far, which has been conspicuously free of any new policy proposals or even promises about what he might do as president and has instead been laser-focused on emphasizing the danger of putting Trump and “MAGA Republicans” back into power. Misleadingly framing the strategy as a repeat of 2020 — when a robust policy agenda was in fact a major part of Biden’s pitch, core parts of which he quickly abandoned once he won — Biden insiders told the New York Times this year would see the party frame the choice as between a competent if uninspiring leader, and a chaotic, conspiracy-addled opposition.
One thing’s for sure: it’s certainly got the hedge fund managers of the world excited. But no matter how much money you raise, it’s not possible (yet) to literally buy elections in the United States, and Biden will still rely on millions of people to leave their homes or rush off after work to stand in line for hours at polling sites if he wants to win. And it remains to be seen if he’s convinced those people that’ll be worth the effort — or if he’ll even bother to try.