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Thursday, August 11, 2022

Some top Democratic donors are disenchanted with Biden. So far, Trump has kept them from fleeing.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s donors are antsy  — worried about his re-election chances, annoyed that they have little access to him and, in some cases, prepared to walk away from him in 2024.

“Privately, I see a lot of donors being very nervous,” one veteran party fundraiser said. “There’s going to be a lot of pressure [for Biden to step aside] coming up post-midterms.”

The restlessness among top donors and even longtime Biden supporters comes as a clear-cut majority of Democrats want someone else to be the party’s presidential nominee in two years. 

For now, Biden benefits from the specter of former President Donald Trump.

Interviews with more than a dozen Democratic insiders paint a picture of a donor class that faces a conundrum with Biden. Some feel they’re not getting the attention they deserve, as evidenced by a hastily scheduled virtual conference between the president and major fundraisers Wednesday night. Many contributors and big-money bundlers would prefer a different nominee in 2024 but are sticking with Biden primarily because they believe he is the party’s strongest contender against Trump.

If Trump doesn’t run, though, there are concerns that Biden would have trouble beating a younger Republican nominee, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and donors would be more likely to recruit and support alternatives. Like the veteran party fundraiser, these sources spoke on the condition of anonymity to give a candid assessment of the mood.

Crucially, influential buck-rakers see his White House as indifferent to them, giving them less reason to stand behind Biden if he looks vulnerable following the midterms. Whether it’s failing to arrange for a White House tour, a grip-and-grin photo with the president, or an invitation to one of his events outside Washington, Democratic insiders say the Biden team’s engagement with donors has been anywhere from nonexistent to woefully ineffectual. That has triggered deep resentment among many of those who helped Biden win the presidency in 2020 and whose enthusiastic support is essential if he is to retain it. 

But White House and Democratic National Committee officials say Biden’s attention is exactly where it should be.

“President Biden is focused on delivering results for working families, building the economy from the bottom up and middle out — getting Americans back to work, making our communities safer, and cutting costs for families,” White House spokesman Chris Meagher said. “MAGA Congressional Republicans are advancing an extreme agenda: putting Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block, proposing a national ban on abortion, and oppose common sense proposals to raise the age to purchase an assault weapon.”

Still, one party fundraiser is mystified over the White House’s handling of what would seem the simplest of political tasks. A group of supporters hadn’t received invitations to Biden’s July Fourth celebration on the South Lawn. So, the fundraiser inquired if someone — anyone — at the White House could at least arrange a phone call with them to say thank you and make them feel appreciated. White House aides declined, this person said. “I’m like, are you f—– kidding me?” the person said. “Pretty soon you’re going to ask me to get them to give another check. It’s not too complicated.”

In certain cases, Cabinet members will arrive in a city with no forewarning to give a speech, making it impossible for Biden’s supporters to arrange the sort of quick face-to-face meetings on the airport tarmac that make donors feel valued.

Even staunch loyalists see trouble ahead if Biden’s team doesn’t do a better job of wooing his own friends.

“He needs to fire somebody,” said Biden ally Dick Harpootlian, a South Carolina state senator and a former chairman of the state party. 

“I don’t know who’s making the calls — whether it’s the chief of staff or Jen O’Malley Dillon or Anita Dunn — but the job is not getting done,” he added, referring, in order, to Biden’s top aide, Ron Klain, his deputy chief of staff and a senior adviser who has rotated between his White House and the private sector.

During the virtual meeting Biden hosted with top backers of his 2020 campaign Wednesday — a rare occurrence, according to donors who spoke to NBC News — the president laid out the reasons for them to be loyal to him and to raise money for Democrats, according to several insiders who dialed in.  

He mentioned the killing last weekend of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Citing a victory for abortion rights advocates in Kansas on Tuesday, he suggested the issue will help his party in the midterms, and said most Americans don’t agree with Trump’s “MAGA” agenda.

Implicit in Biden’s remarks was an argument that donors need not worry — that he is still their best bet for 2024 — according to some people who participated. 

A Biden adviser said the president’s message was simply about firing up donors for the midterms.

“The call this week wasn’t an acknowledgment that anyone was upset,” the adviser said. “It was a great opportunity, part of regular engagement, leading into a big week, as he continues to make his case of the choice in the election. … It was a preview of his message for the fall.”

But Democrats are worried and Biden didn’t field questions. 

“There are some donors that say Biden’s only our best candidate if it’s Trump,” one longtime Democratic donor said.

The Biden adviser declined to say whether or how Trump’s decision would factor into the president’s thinking about seeking re-election, pointing to past interviews in which Biden has suggested he looks forward to a rematch.

“I’m not predicting, but I would not be disappointed” by a second contest against Trump, Biden told an Israeli media outlet last month. He has consistently said that he plans to seek a second term, but often qualifies that by noting there are forces outside his control.

Donor complaints large and small are an evergreen of presidential politics. A candidate eager to win an election gives fundraisers ample time and attention when he needs their money. But, once settled in the White House, a president is often too busy to engage. Other presidents deployed trusted political hands to tend to their political interests.

What’s different for Biden is that the White House operation has neglected a donor network that is crucial to his electoral viability, some fundraisers warn. Alienated donors only give more fodder for the potential Democratic candidates who are circling in case Biden’s campaign jet never takes off, according to another Democratic fundraiser. Meanwhile, a growing number of Democratic lawmakers are declining to endorse their own party’s president for re-election.

“People are pissed off enough that there’s an appetite for that to happen,” the fundraiser said of the way lawmakers have demurred from forcefully backing Biden in 2024. “There should be no oxygen for that type of thing, but there is.”

Governors Gavin Newsom of California and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, for example, have stepped into the void to appeal to progressive activists across the country on issues in which Biden has disappointed donors and activists, including gun control and abortion. Newsom has run ads against the Republican governors of Florida and Texas — two states stocked with delegates to Democratic presidential conventions.

White House officials have long cited Covid protocols as a reason to limit access to Biden, who has tested positive twice in recent weeks. 

But some longtime allies say that he has never been interested in tending to the needs of supporters. Moreover, they say, Biden’s political advisers believe he doesn’t need big donors because he raised so much money from small-dollar contributors in 2020. 

“They look at it and they’re like ‘Why do we have all these headaches when we raise all this money online?’” said one donor who is more concerned about overconfidence than annoyed by a lack of access. “They have a rude awakening because it didn’t matter who was running. People would have given anything to see Donald Trump lose. And if they don’t have Donald Trump as a foil, I don’t believe they will raise nearly the money they did when they were running against Trump.”

Party officials note that Wednesday’s session with donors and a White House holiday party last year are examples of Biden tending to his allies.

“Over the last 19 months, President Biden has done numerous in-person and virtual events that have helped raise more for the DNC than ever before,” DNC Finance Chair Chris Korge said in a statement. “I know that he really enjoys seeing and spending time with our supporters, many of which are his longtime friends. We’re grateful for his time and our donors understand that he also has a very important job to do as president of the United States.”

Biden has yet to formally announce his re-election bid, and he has not begun to stand up a campaign operation. Party officials say they have raised a record amount in this midterm election cycle — nearly a quarter of a billion dollars for the DNC.

Still, fundraising efforts have been bumpy at times.

Alan Kessler, a longtime Democratic fundraiser in the Philadelphia area, said that he was asked to help arrange a fundraising event last month for Biden and the DNC. Given just two weeks’ notice, he said, he was skeptical that he could pull it off in the middle of the summer, when many reliable Democratic donors were vacationing on the Jersey Shore.

“When I got the call, I said, ‘Are you kidding?’” he recalled. “We had less than two weeks to do this. Do I really want to get into this?”

Making matters worse, Biden couldn’t attend because he tested positive for Covid.

Despite the challenges, Kessler said, the event was a success. 

“The response was very impressive,” he said. “It might be the kind of thing where people complain, but, when it comes down to it, they were there supporting the president.”

Indeed, criticism of Biden’s political engagement is not universal.

“The minute you become president, the relationship between the donor community and the most powerful person sitting in the White House changes,” said Robert Wolf, a longtime Democratic fundraiser and an outside economic adviser to the White House. “It should change. The president needs to prioritize his time to make America stronger economically and in every aspect.”

But misgivings about Biden abound. 

Minnesota Reps. Dean Phillips and Angie Craig have said in recent days that he shouldn’t run, and two House committee chairs, New York Reps. Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, who are battling each other for Democratic votes in a heated primary, declined to endorse him during a debate this week. Maloney later went on television and directly addressed Biden, repeating that she doesn’t think he will run while pledging her support if he does.

“Mr. President, I apologize,” she said. “I want you to run. I happen to think you won’t be running, but when you run or if you run, I will be there 100 percent.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, has repeatedly demurred when asked about a second Biden term — telling NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC this week that he is “not gonna talk about it.” (The White House did itself no favors when Vice President Kamala Harris gave local news interviews in Manchin’s home state last year about a proposed Covid stimulus package without telling him in advance. “Just not smart,” said a  former Democratic Senate aide who requested anonymity to speak frankly about a misstep.) 

It’s unusual for a president to face such persistent political resistance from within his own party, but Biden, who served in the Senate for 36 years, has missed opportunities to develop deeper bonds with the next generation of Democratic elected officials.

On a May trip to Uvalde, Texas, site of a mass school shooting, Biden flew into the San Antonio-based district of Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas. Despite having advised White House officials informally in advance of the trip and being in contact with mourning families, Castro never got a heads-up that the president would be in his district — much less an invitation to travel to Uvalde with Biden — according to a person familiar with the episode.

One Democratic insider said Biden’s lackluster political outreach, especially on Capitol Hill, puts him in a more perilous position if his party takes a beating in November’s midterm elections.

“I don’t know that they’ve got a strong well of goodwill to fall back on,” this person said. “Because if the midterms are like 2010 or even 2014,” when Republicans swamped Democrats, “the expectation is there will be a very loud call for Biden to step aside. … There’s a real fear of Trump winning.”

There is also a sense among some Biden allies that power is too consolidated in his inner circle and that his closest advisers are reluctant to tell him about problems.

“There’s not a single person around him to say this is not working,” one source said.

Biden still has time to recover  — and the call with his supporters Wednesday might have been a start. Harpootlian, who was among those on the call, said he was heartened by what he saw and heard from the president.

 “I was reinvigorated watching him,” he said. “Biden was animated and excited.”

“There’s a disconnect between Joe Biden and his team,” Harpootlian added. “This is politics 101. Joe Biden understands it; the people executing don’t understand it: People need to be touched.”

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