The night before President Biden departed Washington to celebrate Thanksgiving on Nantucket, Mass., he gathered his closest aides for a meeting in the White House residence.
After pardoning a pair of turkeys, an annual White House tradition, Biden delivered some stern words for the small group assembled: His poll numbers were unacceptably low and he wanted to know what his team and his campaign were doing about it. He complained that his economic message had done little to move the ball, even as the economy was growing and unemployment was falling, according to people familiar with his comments, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private conversation.
For months, the president and first lady Jill Biden have told aides and friends they are frustrated by the president’s low approval rating and the polls that show him trailing former president Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination — and in recent weeks, they have grown upset that they are not making more progress.
“We do not discuss the President’s private conversations one way or the other,” Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman, said in a statement. “The President and first lady meet regularly with their senior team for updates and to review plans.”
Since that November meeting, which has not been previously reported, most polls continue to show Biden trailing Trump nationally and, more importantly, in key battleground states. The accumulation of troubling polls for Biden has made it harder for Democrats to dismiss them, leading to a fresh set of conversations among Biden officials and allies about whether the president and his team need a shift in strategy. And now Democrats in competitive races are growing increasingly worried about Biden damaging their own electoral prospects.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), who is running for the state’s open Senate seat, has expressed concern to allies that she may not be able to win her race if Biden is at the top of the ticket, according to people familiar with the conversations. A spokesman for Slotkin’s campaign said she “looks forward to running with President Biden.”
“As Congresswoman Slotkin has often said, Michiganders care about results, and no one can argue with the results we see in Michigan: dirt is moving and plants are being built and expanded because of Democrats’ legislative accomplishments under President Biden, including the CHIPS Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law,” Austin Cook, the spokesman, said in a statement.
Adding to the challenging political landscape, Biden’s agenda hangs in the balance on Capitol Hill as his pleas to provide more aid to Ukraine and Israel are mired in partisan battles after the visit from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky failed to secure a breakthrough. House Republicans also formalized their impeachment inquiry into the president last week, despite not yet presenting evidence that Biden benefited from his son’s overseas business dealings.
Biden officials have grown accustomed to Democratic anxiety about their every move and the state of their campaign. They routinely point to comments made by lawmakers, donors and pundits who declared Biden’s 2020 primary campaign over when he was routed in Iowa and New Hampshire before he went on to win the nomination and the presidency.
But now Biden’s approval rating has tied his record low, standing at 38 percent with 58 percent disapproving, according to a Washington Post average of 17 polls in November and December. Voters, including a majority of Democrats, are particularly concerned about Biden’s age and consistently rank it as a bigger problem for the president, 81, than Trump, 77.
In the states, recent polls from CNN found Biden trailed Trump in Michigan by 10 points and in Georgia by 5 points. In early November, New York Times-Siena College polls found Biden trailing Trump in five of the six most competitive battleground states: Trump led Biden by 10 percentage points in Nevada, six in Georgia, five in Arizona and Michigan and four in Pennsylvania. Biden led Trump by two in Wisconsin. In 2020, Biden defeated Trump in all six of those states, though by very narrow margins.
“I feel the same way I did in 2015 and 2016,” Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) said. “There’s work to do.”
She added: “Next year is going to be a very competitive race. The country is angry.”
On Sunday night, the president and the first lady stopped by the campaign’s headquarters in Wilmington, Del., to have dinner with campaign staff. The two spent roughly an hour there, chatting with staff — the president also joined some FaceTime calls with family members — and eating Italian food.
The president, in brief remarks, told his staff that the election was bigger than him and about the future of the country’s democracy, according to a person familiar with his comments.
When leaving the offices, Biden told reporters who asked why he was losing to Trump in the polls that people were reading “the wrong polls.”
Publicly, Biden campaign officials and Democratic allies have downplayed the polls, telling supporters to largely ignore them. They argue the election is still almost a year away and polls are not predictive of the results, but rather a snapshot of the current moment. They say most voters are not paying attention to the election yet, and the polls will change once the race becomes a clear choice between Biden and Trump.
Only recently, though, have Biden officials started to scale up the campaign, which they launched in April, after months of warnings from top Democrats in battleground states that they were too slow to build out their operation. Since Thanksgiving, the campaign has announced leadership teams in Nevada, Michigan, Wisconsin and South Carolina and more staffers are slated to be announced before the end of the year, campaign officials said.
“The Republican primary could end quickly, and the general election could begin in weeks, not months,” said Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist. “Given Trump’s noisiness and his ability to bully his way through the daily information wars, I think it’s really important that the Biden campaign move into general election mode as soon as possible. We’re not where we want to be. Some of our coalition is wandering and we need to go get them back.”
Biden campaign officials point to their close collaboration with the Democratic National Committee, arguing they had a head start in building a national campaign apparatus. Since Biden was elected, the DNC has continued to invest in battleground states, including a recently launched pilot test of its 2024 organizing strategy in Wisconsin and Arizona.
“We are methodically and strategically building the infrastructure we’ll need to activate the broad and diverse coalition of voters that sent Joe Biden and Kamala D. Harris to the White House, and are confident that the full campaign apparatus that builds off three years of significant investments at the DNC will be a powerful force to defeat whatever MAGA Republican we face next year,” TJ Ducklo, a spokesman for the Biden campaign, said in a statement.
One bright spot in recent weeks for Biden has been his fundraising operation. People familiar with the effort say they are optimistic they will hit their target of $67 million for the final quarter of 2023, typically a difficult time to raise money because of Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Over a 36-hour period this month, the Biden campaign raised over $15 million in Southern California alone, the people said. The massive haul came after Democratic candidates, including Biden, had stayed away from fundraising in Los Angeles because of the nearly four month actors strike, which ended in early November. While in California, both the president and first lady attended star-studded fundraisers, with Lenny Kravitz performing at one with the president and Chrissy Teigen and Kerry Washington hosting an event for the first lady, with a guest list that included actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
And last week, top Biden donors gathered at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Washington, formerly the Trump International Hotel, for a national finance committee meeting where many rejoiced in taking over a space that a few years ago was the favored watering hole of Trump officials and allies during the former president’s term.
“The last several weeks have been remarkably successfully,” Jeffrey Katzenberg, the movie mogul who is a longtime Democratic fundraiser and national co-chair of Biden’s campaign.
Now Democrats in the battleground states say they want to see that money in action.
Former congressman Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), who attended the president’s fundraiser in Philadelphia last week, said Biden’s campaign needs to activate the party’s network of grass-roots supporters.
“In the minds of many Democrats, we campaigned on a set of ideas in 2020, and we went into office and executed on them,” he said. “We feel like we have a good story to tell, but that doesn’t seem to be registering yet.”
He said many Biden supporters are in “a state of paralysis” over how to get involved in the campaign and improve the president’s standing.
“I think a lot of activists feel that everyone they know is happy with the president,” Lamb said. “They’re not understanding who is in the majority of the country that is dissatisfied and what to do to change their minds.
He added: “A lot of us are looking to the campaign for leadership on how we’re going to overcome that together and what role they need us to play.”
Emily Guskin and Scott Clement contributed to this report.