Joe Biden
Joe Biden speaks in the White House Rose Garden in April 2023. Patrick Semansky/AP Photo

Bidenworld Is Eye-Rolling Its Way To 2024

The staffers on Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign who played a secret email game still talk about the long threads of internal messages that kept them in stitches during the darkest days of that exceptionally long march to the White House. It’s the kind of thing that is maybe “you had to be there” funny, so it helps to get back there before explaining it.

Biden announced his third run for the White House in April 2019 and enjoyed a brief period as presumptive Democratic nominee until polls started to slip amid questions about his physical and ideological ability to meet the political moment. He then spent the latter half of the year fighting for his political life. Pundits were scoffing and the press was full of quotes from Democrats declaring the campaign doomed. The first weeks of 2020 were somehow worse, with embarrassing caucus and primary shellackings.

The corps of campaign staffers whose job it was to really wallow in all this negative energy — press and political staff among others — started collectively writing their own over-the-top parody doom-and-gloom media reports, line by line, in long email threads. A favorite genre was the “Democrats are concerned” story. They would write the quotes from fake anonymous so-called allies and fake pundits and other “observers.” Veterans of the game recall they got pretty good at it, collectively writing made-up stories that eerily predicted the real thing. That was a real laugh riot for a team dealing with a lot of incoming. The laughter — of the “so you keep from crying” variety — helped keep everyone calm and made the bad stories seem not so bad. It was a game of Mad Libs, with a stoic, band-on-the-Titanic feel.

Well, maybe more like the movie “Titanic” rather than the ship. Because, of course, the Biden campaign went on to be the political blockbuster of 2020, ultimately getting more votes than any ever before in the general election.

Four years later, Biden insiders — White House officials, campaign strategists and trusted outside aides — are once again trying to stay focused as once again the bad news swirls. Yes, they’ve seen the polls. Yup, they’ve seen the punditry. They’re aware that Democrats can easily be found and quoted saying that Biden and his whole operation are doomed.

How does it feel?

“There’s a hypothetical nominee, there is not an actual GOP nominee,” said one, calmly. When that changes, “the stakes of the election and what it means for the future of our country, our democracy, become very, very clear.”

“It’s like, ‘Talk to me in fucking June when there’s a Republican nominee!’” a trusted White House ally said, less calmly.

NOTUS talked with many Biden insiders about the vibes as 2023 turns to 2024, with the outside noise growing louder and louder.

What follows is a walk in their shoes, where, they said, the warnings of “impending doom” are oh so predictable. They’re confident that there’s plenty of time left, and they’re pissed off at the outsiders telling the press otherwise.

But does it get to them? Do insiders need bucking up?

“This is a team of experienced people who have done this many times before. We’re not running some kind of therapy program,” said a senior-level insider who, as a boss type, would in theory have to deal with those lacking in buck.

Some Democrats outside the White House or campaign definitely need bucking up. More than a few of them worry next year might be, you know, it for elections in the U.S. for a long while if former President Donald Trump finds his way back to being current President Donald Trump. They look at the polls, they look at the president’s age and, well…

“What’s past panic? Terror. That’s where I am,” said Paul Begala. “Because the consequences are so extreme.”

Begala is not new here. He’s been an insider plenty of times before and has seen Democratic reelection panic up close and silenced it by winning big. When his guy, President Bill Clinton, was doomed by critics to be a one-termer because he was too liberal, Clinton could “pivot to the center,” Begala said. “The problem Biden has is he can’t pivot to being 45 again.”

That’s the story everyone who follows this stuff now knows by heart. The critics are screaming: Can’t you see what’s happening? Is your incumbency bubble so hermetically sealed that you can’t hear all of us out here trying to save you from yourselves?!

Mad Lib email thread, assemble.

“If you’ve been with Biden very long, you’ve been in even worse situations, honestly,” said Celinda Lake, a pollster who has worked for Biden since 1990.

People in Biden’s orbit say they know they have work to do. They know they need to grow enthusiasm among Biden’s base. One whispered about concerns over how the brutal war in Gaza might impact turnout among the base. Another said communicating with voters in the fractured American media environment is one of the hardest challenges they face. They talk constantly about a close election, a hard-fought election, billions of dollars flying around. They worry about misinformation, disinformation, the future of democracy. They bristle at the word “confident.” They prefer people see calm, as in “seasoned emergency room staff” — no one can predict exactly what will be on the endless stream of gurneys coming through the proverbial swinging double doors in 2024, but they say they have the experience and professionalism to handle it.

What gets on their nerves is that they feel they have handled it before and get no credit for that. And that the people who loudly tell them what to do are endlessly wrong and no one cares.

The Biden team says outsiders — reporters, detractors — are missing the big picture and falsely accusing them of being myopic and insular. The insiders speak of a campaign team that is diverse in age, background, experience and even connection to the president. Specifically calibrated, they say, to avoid groupthink. They welcome constructive criticism and suggestions, they say. In fact, they are fielding them all the time. The Democrats in the press attacking them publicly are not people they care about, aides say. The people they care about know how to reach them directly. Insiders referred to the ones that don’t as “not particularly helpful” or “performative” or “aiding the enemy.”

“It’s our favorite pastime to tear down our leaders,” Eric Schultz, one of the trusted outsiders whose calls Biden people take, said of Democrats. “We are the first ones to eat our own.”

Biden’s aides and allies have a number of takes about David Axelrod, the former Obama strategist who these days is best known for warning that Biden is blowing it. “I hope they don’t think the polls are wrong because they’re not,” he told Maureen Dowd recently. Some Biden allies think Axelrod has a personal beef with Biden, noting he was on candidate Biden’s case a lot in 2020, too. Others think Axelrod likes the media attention. Or maybe, as Biden reportedly calls him, Axelrod is “a prick.” (For his part, Axelrod has publicly denied doing anything beyond offering experienced criticism of political strategy.)

Joe Biden AP-19119744733336
Biden speaks during a 2019 campaign stop at a Teamsters union hall in Pittsburgh. Keith Srakocic/AP Photo

The insiders roll their eyes every time they see a guy like Axelrod or takes like his get media attention. They roll their eyes a lot.

Strap on an imaginary headset for the worst VR game of all time: “Biden Operative 3D,” where players see the media as the insiders do. Tap “Election Night 2023” and watch CNN cover a string of incredibly good results for Democrats before pausing to trumpet a brand new network poll showing Trump beating Biden in a hypothetical matchup, and then going back to news from the election showing Democrats getting out their voters.

“That is one of the more egregious editorial decisions I have witnessed,” one Biden ally said, recalling the feeling in the moment. “Polls exist as predictive tools. Tonight you are getting actual data about voter behavior!”

Now tap “New York Times/Siena Poll Release Day” and witness Dec. 19, with heavy media coverage of the poll’s registered voters sample showing Biden losing to Trump 46-44. Through the VR goggles, feel a wave of perception that the press cares more about that top line than the sample of self-described likely voters from the exact same poll showing Biden leading Trump 47-45. Watch helplessly as pundits and critics jump on the poll as another sign the president is toast.

The player has just unlocked the game’s “anger” and “cynicism” achievements. The many insiders we talked to all felt that the press had changed after the years of covering Trump’s candidacy and his White House. Drama beats substance, they grumble. Clicks rule above all, they say. Gas prices up? The number of reporter calls will burn through a phone battery in minutes. Gas prices down? The number of reporter calls burns through a phone battery in minutes. Gas prices down? The phone doesn’t ring. This kind of thing.

Of course, every administration, every campaign, every…human being who is even slightly literate? complains about the press. But Biden insiders say they have turned disappointment in the media into momentum.

“Ironically, the editors who’ve assigned the same two stories on a loop since 2019 — that Joe Biden’s birthday hasn’t changed and that self-described ‘strategists’ are concerned whatever he’s working on will fail — keep getting schooled about modern politics by the president,” said Andrew Bates, current White House deputy press secretary and former campaign Mad Libber. “The pattern held in 2020, then while Joe Biden earned the most significant legislative record in modern history, and as he led the best midterms performance for a new Democratic president in 60 years. These Mad Libs end up being good luck charms. Meanwhile, we keep the faith.”

There’s another game played among some Bidenworld insiders that illustrates what Bates means by “good luck charms.” The game plays out in public for everyone to see, but it helps to understand the context.

It’s not often discussed that most people on a campaign staff are really not impacted by all the external drama that keeps Washington buzzing. These are the departments that can simply turn off phone notifications and bear down on data processing or targeting or base group outreach or similar operations. Similarly, field personnel like the people executing GOTV plans or advance can’t really get their days blown up by punditry or a poll. These tasks, these staff, are incredibly vital to any campaign and arguably have a lot more to do with how well one fares than just about anyone or anything else. And all that work is just starting to whir and clank and rattle to life for Biden 2024 as operatives based in the Wilmington, Delaware, headquarters start their tasks in earnest.

Meanwhile, the operatives inside Bidenworld who actually do have to respond to the cacophony of criticism try to help those luckier aides and allies using a game they call “Pundit Accountability.”

In early 2020, a group of Biden campaign aides created a running list of pundits who had called for Biden to drop out, along with media speculation that his campaign was done, polling takes and various other doom-scroll material from the outside world.

The group had a pretty good feeling that South Carolina would be the place Bidenworld could finally dunk on everyone after months of watching the ball sail over their heads into the basket. So as the primary approached, they cracked open the vault and quietly assembled some of the most craw-stuck quotes from the press and pundits into a montage.

Then they waited.

Biden secured a nearly 30-point win in the multicandidate field, and in his victory speech poked at the “press and the pundits” who “have declared this candidacy dead.”

The campaign grabbed the clip, tacked it onto the montage and within an hour of Biden’s speech posted the creation to Twitter. Years later, it was remembered by one campaign vet as “one of our best hype videos.” Supporters were rallied, exhausted campaign staff and volunteers had pep inserted into their collective step. And a primal scream of rage was released — a double bird flipped to eight months of warnings, panics and conventional wisdom.

The tradition continued after Biden was inaugurated. After the 2022 election — which was another roller coaster ride of fear, panic and bad polling among Democrats before a historically decent midterm for a party holding the presidency — Bates used his personal account to quote-tweet a post-victory screed from a top campaign aide to Senator John Fetterman, one of the Democratic winners a lot of other Democrats assumed would never win. Bates tacked on a meme of Don Corleone admonishing his loose-lipped son Sonny to “never tell anybody outside the family what you’re thinking again.”

Multiple sources familiar with the inner workings of Bidenworld said the 2024 Pundit Accountability vault is already filling up with material for future cathartic double bird-flips. Once again, some Biden people are angry and eager to embarrass the critics by making them eat their own words at the earliest possible opportunity.

That’s just a secondary benefit, they insist — the project is really about pushing critics to think before they tweet. To put some chill in the chatter around polls. To get the media to look in the mirror and to get Democrats, especially, to let them do their jobs. Biden allies say damn right, we’re keeping a list. But we’re only trying to help.

“We’re not doing it to be mean,” said one. “The goal is to improve the coverage going forward.”

Evan McMorris-Santoro is a reporter at NOTUS. NOTUS reporters Jasmine Wright and Alex Roarty contributed reporting.