He is 80 years old. He has a demanding day job. And he was never the most electric activist in the world to begin with. To win re-election, President Joe Biden plans to call on a vast stable of friends and allies to go where he can’t, say what he won’t, and be what he will never be.
Campaign surrogates are nothing new. William McKinley fielded 1,400 people during his campaign for the White House in 1896, when he mostly greeted his supporters from the porch of his home in Ohio.
But Biden’s fledgling re-election campaign invested early — even before it had a seat and before what former President Barack Obama did in 2012 — in what veterans say was an unusually robust operation to harness star power. of the Democratic Party, most of whom reside outside the White House.
“President Biden, as he proved this week, is very busy being president,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a campaign co-chairman who was one of many surrogates who stepped up available to cable news bookers and other reporters while Biden was overseas last week. “Our president has assembled a group that includes some really promising up-and-coming leaders from across the country.”
At best, campaign surrogates are a win-win: the campaign gets force multipliers, validators, and access to their base networks. Substitutes, meanwhile, get major entries, a bit of the spotlight, and a few vouchers to cash in.
But surrogates also have their own interests and inclinations and – a well-documented tendency to go off-script. And an overreliance on them could open Biden to criticism that he’s taking over the so-called 2020 “basement campaign” because he can’t or won’t hit the stump himself. (Former President Donald Trump has often mocked Biden for not campaigning more.)
“Part of a re-election campaign means the president is actively governing as president. It is reality. So I think approaching reality smartly means you have to leverage networks and other party voices,” said a source close to campaign planning, who was granted anonymity to discuss the inner workings.
The campaign said it has already coordinated more than 185 interviews across a wide range of national and local media, in English and Spanish, a broad-spectrum, multi-platform approach that it hopes will help the message break through into a landscape. fractured media.
The campaign’s top surrogates — its six co-chairs and all 50 members of its National Advisory Board, plus Vice President Kamala Harris — were chosen not just for their loyalty, stature or political needs, but because they all agreed to be available and to do the work. .
“We plan to be very active,” said Rep. Maxwell Frost, D-Fla., the 26-year-old progressive freshman who is a rising star on the left. “It’s certainly more than a list of 50 names. I think the president really wants to put together a list of people who are ready to work.
This will mean appearing at fundraisers and in-person events, participating in media interviews, posting on social media, and tapping into their own local support networks. Administration officials and many others will also be included, such as when Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg appeared at a recent Biden fundraiser in New York.
Jim Messina, who led Obama’s re-election campaign, said surrogates are essential for fundraising efforts and as outside validators for an increasingly cynical electorate about politics. And the sheer number of outlets and social media platforms these days means the campaign needs a lot of help to reach them all, he said.
“What’s true, and it wasn’t true 10 years ago, is that you can’t just recycle the usual talking points. It won’t go viral, it won’t break through. So you need people who can speak with their own voice,” Messina said. “Will it work every time? No. Will there be times when someone says something you wish they hadn’t said exactly that way, of course. But overall it will be more real and authentic.
Frost is one of several members of Biden’s advisory council who come from another ideological wing of the party or have even sometimes criticized him, with household names like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif. .
“I still think he’s our best bet in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin to win those states,” said Khanna, who has traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire as he contemplates a potential future presidential bid, about Biden on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” last month.
Also on the list are the two Democratic officials who seemed closest to considering a primary challenge to Biden last year, California Governor Gavin Newsom and Illinois Governor JB Pritzker, in line with a Lyndon-style philosophy. Johnson of keeping enemies close. The list also includes potential future presidential candidates, such as governors. Josh Shapiro from Pennsylvania and Gretchen Whitmer from Michigan.
“He’s making a very concerted effort to get everyone on board,” said Chris Huntley, a speechwriter and Democratic strategist. “There’s nothing wrong with bringing together the alternate Avengers, all of whom have different powers and abilities…showcasing our party’s present and future.”
Four years ago, Republicans scoffed and Democrats worried about Biden’s pandemic-era ‘basement campaign’, when the candidate largely avoided in-person events in favor of meetings Zoom and recorded video messages. And he would hardly be the first incumbent president to run a so-called “Rose Garden campaign” that focuses more on governing from the White House than on the barn in a swing state.
Of course, Biden’s low-key campaign won in 2020 and most presidents win re-election, with the most recent exception, Trump, being the most campaigned incumbent.
Biden’s heavy reliance on surrogates is sure to face similar criticism this time around, especially as Trump and other conservatives claim Biden lacks the physical and mental vitality for the job. .
But allies say the president should try to stay in the campaign fray and leave the more complicated job of responding to Trump and other Republicans to them.
“I think you’ll see a real team effort to support the president and be able to get his message out to the world, so it’s not all on him alone,” Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Hollywood mogul and mega- Democratic donor who is also a Biden campaign co-chair said in an interview. “I think that’s the most important thing he can do in terms of running for re-election – do what you did. Unlike the person who last occupied the White House.
Yet relying on others to do the work for you has its limits, which was highlighted this month when New York City Mayor Eric Adams was not added to Biden’s advisory board after criticizing the White House’s handling of migrants, although the campaign says he remains a supporter and is still seen as a surrogate.
And surrogates, especially politicians, sometimes come with their own parochial demands. For example, Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams told the Biden campaign in 2020 that she would only agree to be a surrogate if they agreed to invest millions to try to win her state, according to his former campaign manager.
Frost said he’s been pushing to make sure Florida remains a campaign priority, even as some Democrats say Biden should roll back the hugely expensive state that has sided with Republicans in recent years. “If you look at the numbers, Florida is a state you don’t want to give up on,” he said. “I made this case and was reassured by a lot of people.”
He welcomes the opportunity to champion this cause, even if it means constantly talking about Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has just entered the presidential race. “I already talk about DeSantis every day, and I anticipate that will continue,” Frost said.
This article originally appeared on NBCNews.com