President Biden may appear to be in cruise control until the heat of the 2024 general election. Nearly every top Democrat in the nation has lined up behind him, and the fight for the Republican nominations looks set to revolve around Donald J. Trump.
But he’s still addressing his version of the primary: a campaign to bolster support among skeptical Democratic voters.
As much as the president wants to devote himself to his looming fight against a Republican — he’s signaled he’s looking forward to a rematch with Trump — his Democratic allies warn he has significant work to do with voters in his own party. He has yet to find ways to promote his successes, appease voters wary of his age, and fend off his Democratic challengers without drama.
Those emerging rivals include Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the anti-vaccine activist with a celebrated Democratic lineage who emerged with unexpected strength in early polls even as he spreads conspiracy theories and partners with right-wing figures and billionaire donors. Democrat support for Mr. Kennedy, as high as 20 percent in some polls, serves as an invigorating reminder of left-wing voters’ healthy appetite for a Biden alternative and a glaring symbol of the president’s foibles.
« It’s clear that there is a weakness that perhaps stems from a concern about eligibility in 2024, » said Julián Castro, the former housing minister who ran for president against Biden in 2020. people feel like he hasn’t quite delivered on what was promised on voting rights, immigration reform, police reform, and some aspects of the climate. »
The White House is taking steps to strengthen Biden’s political hand, planning a summer of events furthering his legislative accomplishments. This week, he’s taking his first overnight campaign trip since announcing his bid for reelection in a fundraising swing across Northern California. Last week, he accepted endorsements from the country’s largest environmental organizations and labor unions, which his campaign says will help him rally Democratic support.
This month, his campaign kicked off online ads emphasizing his record. Biden’s team even paid for a truck with billboards to go around the Capitol and park in front of the Republican National Committee headquarters.
Yet some of Biden’s allies say they fear the president’s fledgling campaign doesn’t fully capture the depth of his problems with Democratic voters, who have consistently he told pollsters they would prefer Mr. Biden not to seek re-election. Voters remain uneasy about inflation and its handling of the economy.
Some allies have even decided not to wait for the president’s team, kicking off freelance voter awareness campaigns intended to boost his support in key places.
This month, Mayor Paige Cognetti of Scranton, Pa., and three other Pennsylvania mayors hopped in a rented van for a cross-state trip promote projects funded by the Biden administration because they were worried that the voters didn’t know them.
They met in Harrisburg with Lieutenant Governor Austin Davis, a Democrat who won office last year. Mr Davis said Mr Biden had done « some extraordinary things » but he feared voters were unaware of it. He recalled campaigning in Philadelphia’s black barbershops and heard that voters felt the country was better off under Mr. Trump.
« They’ve done a terrible job of telling Americans and Pennsylvanians what they’ve done, » Mr. Davis said.
Mr. Kennedy’s popularity in the polls is largely due to his family, which includes three Democratic senators, a president, and a host of other high-profile figures. A CNN poll late last month which showed Mr. Kennedy with 20% support against Mr. Biden found that the main reason voters liked him was because of the Kennedy name.
Polls have suggested that a large number of Democratic voters are willing to tell pollsters they would take anyone over Biden. A poll from a Baltimore TV station last week it found that 41 percent of Maryland Democrats preferred their governor, Wes Moore, over Mr. Biden, even though Mr. Moore supports the president’s reelection.
However, if Mr. Kennedy can maintain this level of support, it could cause Mr. Biden embarrassment in the primary.
“Could Bobby Kennedy catch a spark? Maybe,” said Michael Novogratz, a billionaire Democratic donor who backed Biden in 2020 but pledged not to back any candidate over the age of 72. “He’s alienated because of some of the anti-vax stances, but he’s a brilliant, articulate, articulate, connected man, has the name Kennedy and would attract many Trump voters.”
Where Mr. Kennedy could prove to be the biggest nuisance is New Hampshire, where the president has alienated core supporters by shuffling the Democratic presidential nomination calendar to put the South Carolina primary in first place, ahead of the Granite State .
New Hampshire Democrats fear Mr. Biden could miss the primary, which will likely come before the slot allotted to the state by the Democratic National Committee. They also fear that if Mr. Biden participates, enough independent voters angry at him for trying to elevate South Carolina might cast a protest vote for Mr. Kennedy to inflict an early but cosmetic primary defeat on the president.
« If people feel hurt or offended, that goes a long way for people in New Hampshire, » said Lou D’Allesandro, a Democratic state senator and a longtime Biden ally, who warned that the president’s rejection of his state could lead to a Kennedy victory there .
An attorney who rose to prominence in the 1990s as an environmental activist in New York, Mr. Kennedy, 69, has gotten a boost from conservative figures like Elon Musk, the owner of Twitter who recently hosted him in an online audio chat two-hour time, and David Sacks, a venture capitalist and supporter of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis who held a Kennedy fundraiser last week in California.
Mr. Kennedy has adopted positions that pit him against virtually all Democratic voters. He has opposed a ban on assault weapons, has spread pro-Russian talking points about the war in Ukraine and has suggested that US presidential campaigns are rigged. He has also trafficked extensively in vaccine conspiracy theories.
A super PAC in support of Mr. Kennedy raised at least $5.7 million, according to John Gilmore, its executive director.
Kennedy’s campaign is led by Dennis Kucinich, the left-wing former congressman and mayor of Cleveland, who has launched Mr. Kennedy’s cornucopia of right-wing opinions as proof that he is best positioned to win a general election compared to Mr. Biden, who won in 2020 with significant support from moderate Republicans skeptical of Trump.
« Mr. Kennedy is the only person who has the qualities that can bring about the unity most Americans crave, » said Kucinich. « Speak a language of conciliation and compassion. »
Other than fundraising efforts, the Biden campaign hasn’t had much public presence since its formal launch in April. Senior officials have spent time in Wilmington, Del., in recent days buying office space for a campaign headquarters slated to open in July, according to two people familiar with the discussions. The campaign, which has only a few employees on the payroll, is expected to add more staff once its offices open.
White House officials are planning a summer tour under the banner of « invest in America » in which Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, their spouses and cabinet members will travel the country to promote the results of the legislation Biden has signed up to finance infrastructure and climate projects across the country.
They believe those trips will generate positive local news coverage that will be the first step — surely followed by hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising from the Biden campaign and its allies — toward educating Biden-skeptical Democrats and rebellious independent voters who Mr. Biden deserves a second term.
« The more Americans learn about the president’s investment agenda in America, the more they support it, » said Ben LaBolt, White House communications director. « This is a great opportunity for us. »
It is not unprecedented for an incumbent president to face dissension in his party before being reappointed. At the end of 2010, Gallup found Hillary Clinton with 37% support in a hypothetical 2012 primary against President Barack Obama, even though it was months before he announced his re-election bid.
The White House, the Democratic National Committee, and Biden’s re-election campaign have all refused to speak publicly about Kennedy, a coordinated effort to avoid giving him oxygen.
However, Biden’s allies are less reticent.
« That campaign is a joke, » said Rep. Robert Garcia of California, a Democrat Biden referred to his campaign’s national advisory board last month. « He’s running in the wrong primaries and has no chance of getting any kind of support. »
Mr. Garcia added, « His views and worldview are dangerous. »
However, Mr. Kennedy’s early strength highlights Biden’s weaknesses that Republicans are eager to exploit.
A poll conducted in May for Way to Win, a Democrat-aligned group, found that only 22% of Latino voters and 33% of Black voters were aware of « anything specific » Mr. Biden had done in office to improve your life.
« There’s not a single line that everyone can repeat that resonates, » said Tory Gavito, president of Way to Win. “What is happening is that the GOP is flooding the airwaves with a narrative of economic failure, and it is starting to resonate.«
Rebecca Davis O’Brien contributed report.