The merchandise stand at the Democratic National Committee meeting where Joe Biden delivered his reelection soft launch this weekend had three tote bag options, two T-shirts, two sweatshirts and a donkey baseball cap, but nothing with any reference to the president himself.
There were no vendors selling unofficial Biden gear on fold-up tables in the Philadelphia streets outside. Only one leftover from the 2020 campaign was spotted: the navy blue Biden-Harris jacket that Cedric Richmond, the former congressman and White House adviser, was wearing as he arrived in the cold.
The Democrats who came to cheer Biden on said they didn’t need to feel the same personal passion they did for Barack Obama, or even Bill Clinton – not when they’ve got Biden’s record, and a Republican Party still dominated by Trumpism, to run against.
“At the end of the day, you can see Donald Trump’s face on a T-shirt, but he lost the 2020 election. That’s not what’s important. What’s important is, ‘Are we changing the lives of the American people?’” said DNC chair Jaime Harrison, pushing back on any hesitation about Biden as he rattled off statistics about the economy improving and Democrats doing much better than expected in the midterms.
The DNC members – the state party chairs and other super-involved Democrats who traveled the country to attend meetings of the committee’s Rules and Bylaws panel – were loudly chanting, “Four more years” as Biden spoke Friday evening at a dreary Sheraton. Even among this crowd, many saw Biden in 2020 as a candidate of pragmatic compromise, rather than devotion and excitement. Now they’re embracing him as the candidate of calm and competence, even if not love, as they rally around his reelection, multiple members told CNN.
“The fact of the matter is – and I love Barack Obama – [Biden] has actually got more through Congress and has done more to deliver to the people that I represent,” Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell said as she got ready to listen to Biden’s DNC speech.
Dingell said “it’s all our faults” that Democrats haven’t stood up for Biden more.
“Joe Biden’s a nice guy. And what gets more attention is the vitriolic-ness,” Dingell said. “I’d rather have real. I’d rather have the healer. I’d rather have the person that cares more about actually getting the job done than being that.”
Many congressional Democrats privately say they still wish their party had a fresher, more heart-thumping candidate – and a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Sunday showed that 58% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents would rather have a different nominee. But Biden’s record is why many lawmakers will likely be jumping up over and over again for standing ovations during the president’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, with his remarks expected to be structured similarly to the “Are you with me?” message he delivered in Philadelphia.
In his speech Friday, Biden ran through the highlights of his first two years in the White House, from the bipartisan infrastructure law, lowering health care costs through capping insulin prices for many at $35 per month, record diversity in his judicial appointments, the first significant gun safety legislation since the 1990s, and the largest investment in mitigating climate change ever – all while presiding over dropping unemployment and rising job creation.
“He has done everything he has said he was going to do and more. And he doesn’t get the credit he deserves,” echoed South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson.
Robertson chalked up at least some of that to “Covid malaise” and to Democrats pulling back from intense door-to-door organizing to explain to the much less politically engaged who Biden is and what he has been doing.
“I think you’re going to see all that turn around, to the point where we are not only excited about him, but excited about the programs and the things he’s doing,” Robertson said.
Biden can be touchy about the lack of love and credit he gets, according to several who have spoken to him. A chip on the shoulder about that has become part of his and the West Wing’s mentality. Yet at the same time, White House aides point to an established perception of the president – with his aviator shades and his heart on his sleeve – to explain opinion polls that so far show Americans’ sense of him hasn’t changed much, including in the last few weeks of polling, even as voters say they disapprove of the classified documents found in his home and old office.
Several who attended the DNC meeting said the Biden 2024 model should be Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, another restrained older White man who presided over four years of low-key governing, ran for reelection last year against a proudly “Make America Great Again” candidate by focusing on results rather than frills, and went on to win by 3 points. Evers declared with an awkward fist pump in his victory speech that “some people call it boring,” but “as it turns out, boring wins.”
“Gov. Evers isn’t flashy, and he knows what people want isn’t ultimately flash. They want their highways repaired and their schools to teach their kids and their phones not to vibrate at 5 in the morning with something that’s going to stop them from going back to sleep,” said Ben Wikler, the Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman. “President Biden has the same thing going for him: decency and a sense of steady leadership rather than chaos and any kind of ideology that might be proceeded by the word ‘ultra.’”
And even if people aren’t in love with Biden, that may be enough, Wikler argued.
“In an era where the radicals on the right inspire revulsion and anxiety and the most vicious kind of cheers, having a Democratic leader who gives you the sense that things are going to be OK is exactly what the doctor ordered,” he said.
Biden tries to sell a message about government
Biden spent last week tackling consumer junk fees and talking up long-term train tunnel construction. That’s not “the magic,” in the words of one person at the DNC meeting who spoke only under cover of anonymity, as did any others who expressed anything but full-throated support for a Biden 2024 run. But it’s all part of the president’s effort to make people start believing again that government can work.
Part of Biden’s anticipated reelection pitch, according to advisers, will be extending the specific kind of political triangulation he’s been pushing since he kicked off his 2020 campaign with a rally at a Philadelphia park about three blocks from the Sheraton. It’s not Bill Clinton-style jamming Republican and Democratic officials by forcing compromises in the middle, but instead trying to unite Democratic and Republican voters exhausted by the animosity in their own parties.
And if none of that is enough, Biden advisers repeat like a mantra that elections are a choice – and they feel that the new Republican House majority and prospective Republican presidential candidates are together giving Biden ample material to be the preferred choice.
Unlike the Republican National Committee meeting a week earlier in California, the DNC meeting was a calm and settled affair. People walked the hallways with smiles. Their only real complaints were that the hotel bar was too small and some of the rooms were not well air conditioned enough when members packed in for sessions full of perfunctory applause and parliamentary procedure. California Rep. Maxine Waters declared to the Women’s Caucus that she was already feeling revitalized in the minority, and Harrison leaned on a riff he has about how House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Republicans are “just Airbnb-ing the House of Representatives” for two years.
Even the reordering of the presidential primary calendar ended without much drama, and before the meeting ended, members had passed a resolution supporting Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris for reelection.
Darlene Crowe, a physical education teacher from Piscataway, New Jersey, stood starstruck in the crowd on Friday, then pressed to the front to get close to Biden.
“I said, ‘Mr. President, I love you.’ And he reached out and he said, ‘God love you, too.’ And he reached out to me,” she recalled after running back to a friend, shouting, “He shook my hand.”
Crowe joked that she wasn’t ever going to wash the hand that touched the president.
“When he’s speaking,” Crowe said, “it really touches a space that I say to my children, I say to my students, ‘We have hope. We have possibility. Work hard, be a good person, show respect.’”