WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden devoted much of his first six months in office to a sweeping agenda on COVID-19 relief, infrastructure, voting rights and social and environmental policy.
Behind the scenes, the chief executive plays another role: Democratic Party leader.
As Democrats face a challenging set of congressional elections next year against well-funded Republicans and adverse historical trends, Biden is taking a hands-on approach to party organization, officials said, a contrast to the more laissez-faire approach of his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama.
The president has been a driving force as the Democratic National Committee sets fundraising records, strengthens its ties to state parties and reaches out to more voters. The Democrats face an uphill battle to keep control of Congress, where their narrow majorities have made it hard for him to achieve major parts of his far-reaching legislative ambitions.
Biden is set to deliver a speech Friday on behalf of Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe – his first public campaign event as president and perhaps a preview of more presidential politicking to come for congressional Democrats.
Biden has been involved in quieter efforts to strengthen and upgrade the DNC, aides said, from speaking at virtual fundraisers – which are closed to the public – to making regular calls with party officials. Aides said he has a vision for how to position Democrats heading into the midterms.
“He wants to help make sure the DNC has the resources they need, so he stays regularly engaged on this,” said Jen O’Malley Dillon, White House deputy chief of staff who serves as one of the president’s liaisons to the DNC.
Biden’s first priority is being president, O’Malley Dillon said, but “he does wear the hat of the head of the party, and he takes that very seriously.”
Jaime Harrison, whom Biden hand-picked to be chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said the president is “the glue that is holding us all together.”
The DNC is in “constant communication” with Biden and his staff, Harrison said, and he expects the president to be active on the campaign trail next year for Democratic candidates.
“The president has always been a party guy,” Harrison said.
‘Time is running out’: President Joe Biden wants to go big like FDR, but window may close
Joe Biden wants to spend $2 trillion on infrastructure and jobs: These 4 charts show where the money would go.
Biden is a ‘party guy,’ Obama an outsider
The DNC has struggled to keep up with its GOP counterpart in fundraising, technological savvy, voter outreach and organization.
Obama and his aides clashed with the DNC during his tenure, when critics accused the president and fundraising powerhouse of neglecting the committee in favor of his own group, Organizing For America.
A former Obama campaign official conceded that the 2008 campaign’s near-exclusive focus on the candidate didn’t translate into long-term enthusiasm for the party as a whole but said it made sense to put an exceptional politician at the center of their organizing efforts.
“When you have this once-in-a-lifetime figure like Barack Obama, it’s a blessing and a curse,” the campaign official said. “The blessing is obvious, but the curse is he brings a lot of people into the political process and into active voting who are more about him than the party.”
A former Obama campaign and administration aide contended OFA was an extension of the campaign, a way to activate Obama’s supporters to pass his legislative agenda, including the Affordable Care Act and the Recovery Act.
The Biden and Obama campaign approaches were structured differently because Biden was an establishment Democrat, working within the party to motivate moderate voters, and Obama was an outsider candidate who built a grassroots movement, the aide said.
Biden has always been a cheerleader for the party structure, working with the DNC and its affiliated organizations as far back as his first U.S. Senate election in 1972.
During the 2018 election cycle, while Donald Trump was in the White House, Biden endorsed 130 candidates and campaigned at a breakneck pace, appearing with 65 candidates in 24 states.
Part of the DNC’s reboot under Biden began with his drive to defeat Trump, aides said, but the president has made clear the party and down-ballot should benefit from his administration’s popularity in the near term.
“I think any of us would say that we … wish that we had built structures that better served the long-term benefit of the DNC,” a former Obama campaign said.
During the 2020 Democratic primaries, as Biden closed in on the nomination, he had his campaign staff meld with the DNC before a unique fall campaign conducted in the shadows of a COVID-19 shutdown.
The DNC was “ready for us when (Biden) became the nominee,” said O’Malley Dillon, who served as the executive director for the DNC under Obama, adding the committee came out of the campaign “sitting on a strong foundation.”
During his first half-year in office, Biden has urged aides to give the DNC whatever help it needs before elections.
DNC beefs up under Biden
The Democratic National Committee raised $11.2 million last month, ending June with $63 million in cash on hand, according to the latest Federal Election Commission filings.
The numbers fall short of the $16.3 million raised by the Republican National Committee, which reported more than $81 million in party coffers at the end of June, according to FEC disclosures.
The DNC also cited $3.8 million raised by a joint federal-state fundraising committee it operates with state parties, called the Democratic Grassroots Victory Fund.
DNC officials said they are using the money to build out campaign infrastructure, particularly get-out-the-vote projects.
Harrison said the committee plans to spend more than $20 million in battleground states next year, particularly those with close Senate races. That list includes Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Wisconsin – states that will be key to Biden’s reelection hopes in 2024.
Joe Biden proves an elusive target for Republicans: After Cheney fight, their focus is back on the president
Amid fights over Donald Trump, Republicans unite to bash Joe Biden and his 100-day speech
One priority, officials said: fighting efforts in Republican-controlled state legislatures to restrict mail-in balloting or otherwise make it harder for people to vote.
This month, Biden condemned such election laws as reminiscent of the Jim Crow era and an assault on democracy. He called on Congress to pass sweeping federal legislation that Democrats said would make it easier for people to vote, but the proposal is stalled in the Senate, where Democrats have the narrowest possible majority.
Biden tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to work on voting rights, and with her support, the DNC began an “I Will Vote” initiative. It calls for $25 million to be spent on “voter protection, targeted voter registration, and technology to make voting more accessible,” according to a DNC statement.
More: Harris steps into high-wire act on voting rights as pressure builds on election bills
‘Have you no shame?’ Biden against efforts in GOP-led states to restrict voting rights
Among other Biden-approved DNC initiatives are “training sessions” for state party officials and allies on how best to promote Biden’s agenda and a campaign-style media blitz touting the administration’s COVID-19 response. The latter includes television and internet ads, traditional billboards and digital ones mounted on vehicles, one of which rolled up and down the highway outside a major Republican donors’ meeting in Palm Beach, Florida, in April.
Over the Fourth of July holiday, the DNC flew airplane banners that read, “America’s Back Together Thanks to Biden & Dems,” in South Carolina, Georgia and Wisconsin.
The DNC even deployed an “America is Back” ice cream truck to raise money and awareness of Biden’s agenda. Featuring Biden’s favorite snack and emblazoned with an image of the president in his signature Ray Ban sunglasses, the ice cream truck drove from Trenton, New Jersey, to Roanoke, Virginia, stopping in Philadelphia before winding up in Washington for Independence Day.
The DNC committed more than $23 million to state parties and “grassroots infrastructure” organizations. That includes $2 million for a “Red State Fund” targeting Republican-leaning states that do not have a Democratic governor or senator.
The DNC claims it is “building the infrastructure needed to win in 2022 and in 2024.” In many ways, it is expanding on programs designed to benefit Biden during the 2020 campaign, including the collection of tens of millions of cellphone numbers from potential voters.
GOP says it is ‘light-years’ ahead
The Republican National Committee is doing many of the same things and has been since Trump’s election victory in 2016.
RNC officials said they have noticed the DNC’s stepped-up efforts. They professed no fear, saying the Democrats’ party structure was in desperate need for improvement after the problems it had more than a decade ago.
In a statement, the RNC said it has made “a multi-million dollar investment” in its voter turnout operation before next year’s elections. The party said it stepped up advertising buys and outreach to minority voters.
“The RNC continues to be light-years ahead with our early investments in battleground states coupled with our data-driven ground game,” said RNC chief of staff Richard Walters. “We look forward to taking back the House and Senate in 2022.”
Democrats know they are underdogs in the 2022 election, especially when it comes to holding the U.S. House. Armed with new census data, Republican-controlled legislatures are redrawing congressional lines to create more GOP-leaning districts.
History is also against Biden and the Democrats. The president’s party tends to lose seats during midterm congressional elections.
There are exceptions: In 1934, two years after Franklin Roosevelt was elected president, the Democrats picked up congressional seats as the country remained mired in the Great Depression.
In 2002, President George W. Bush and the Republicans gained congressional seats in midterm elections a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The COVID-19 pandemic is another unique time, Democrats said, giving them a chance to promote Biden’s record and score campaign surprises.
“We understand history, but we also think that there’s real opportunity for the wind to be at our backs across our party because the president is leading and connecting with people,” O’Malley Dillon said.
Harrison, the DNC chairman, said he doesn’t worry about the past: “We just use the history as part of our strategy so that we can make our own history.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden embraces political role ahead of 2022 midterm elections