Choosing to have Joe Biden deliver his stump speech at a living-history museum in Fort Dodge, Iowa, in front of a fake frontier opera house on a strip made up like an old-town Main Street, would seem to be a questionable choice for a campaign seeking to demonstrate that the candidate is up to the challenges of the present moment. Given the increasing concerns about Biden’s candidacy—his age, his penchant for gaffes, his sometimes complex relationship with the truth—the wisdom of situating him in a museum whose goal is the presentation of a kind of embalmed fantasy history seems ill-advised. Yet there he was, on Halloween day, standing on what looked like the set of a 1940s Western, speaking to a crowd heavier on people with walkers and canes than with children of trick-or-treating age.
After his speech, I asked Biden about reports that his campaign is in trouble, and failing to attract large numbers of people to events.
He smiled and gave me the partial headshake and chuckle that he uses when he’s trying, not too hard, to hide that he’s annoyed.
“I don’t find that at all. I just don’t see it. And we’re doing fine. I mean, we feel good. I think we have one of the best organizations in this state and around the country,” he said. “We’re in a position where we’ve opened up an awful lot of headquarters. We are doing very well in terms of fundraising. I’m not going to prognosticate—it’s just, you know, as that old expression goes, the proof of the pudding being the eating. But I feel good. I feel good about where we are.”
Biden’s campaign lives in a dual reality, like Schrödinger’s cat, where the former vice president is at once being written off as finished and yet still a front-runner in most national and state polls; at once trailing other Democrats in early-primary states and yet performing the best against President Donald Trump in the key swing states; the candidate whose electoral viability was why Michael Bloomberg bailed out of the race, and the candidate whose electoral weakness is why Michael Bloomberg is now getting back in. His supporters also say, with reason, that he’s the only candidate among the front-runners whose big policy proposals bear at least a passing resemblance to legislation that could realistically pass Congress—and yet, they lament, he’s the only candidate who gets dismissed as both stuck in the past and naive about the future. (They also say he’s the only plausible candidate with even the slightest experience in foreign policy.) His critics say, also with reason, that his stumbling debate performances would probably be disqualifying for anyone else; his glitches have become so frequent that he’s now graded on a curve, with political observers and even his own aides greeting his bad days with “Could have been worse!” and his good days with “Better than I expected!”
In short, Biden is poised to become the next president of the United States—or on the verge of an epic humiliation.
What’s the real story? Biden has always been a storyteller. The problem he faces now is that he seems to have lost control of his own story.
Here is the story Biden would like you to believe: Everything is going much better than anyone has given him credit for, and even if it isn’t, he could lose Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada and still turn things around in South Carolina. He could, this tale goes, limp his way past the other Democrats through the unsexy process of racking up delegates rather than splashy outright primary victories. Then, the story continues, even though he’s burned through so much of the too-little money he’s raised by spending on private jets and a big entourage, he’ll have enough left over to drag himself across the finish line to the nomination. Then, despite repeatedly being caught unprepared in the primary campaign, he’ll be totally ready to handle the attacks when Trump and his allies really crank up their assault next year. The fairy-tale epilogue: He’ll still be serving effectively as president at 86, since he’s declining to say he’ll limit himself to one term.
It’s a heroic story. It’s got perseverance, resilience in the face of tragedy, Biden fulfilling his late son Beau’s dying wish that he win the presidency to achieve a kind of Restoration of the Obama Era. (It even has an element of poetic justice, with him defeating the man who got himself impeached in his zeal to take him down, the man who came into politics questioning his good friend Barack’s birthplace and has built a presidency mostly out of trying to tear down Obama’s legacy.) But while the story also has a veneer of plausibility, lately neither he nor his campaign always seems to fully believe in it. Some of his aides have told me privately that they feel like they’re just spinning one another in staff meetings about how well things are going; they say they can sense that Biden is realizing with dread that the race might be slipping away.
Biden’s doubts about the staff he started with, according to several people who’ve spoken with him, have reached the point that Steve Ricchetti, who served as Biden’s chief of staff when he was vice president, has been telling people that the candidate asked him to take charge of the situation and steady it. (Other Biden staffers told me they were surprised to hear that Ricchetti has been saying this.) The campaign is running low on money: His fundraising has been so weak that he’s been able to pay for an organization smaller than Pete Buttigieg’s or Elizabeth Warren’s in Iowa, and his team has also been forced to cut back on TV and online ads in the state. This is causing a predictable vicious circle, which threatens to turn into a death spiral: Not having enough organizers and ads has caused Biden’s poll numbers to drop, which has hurt fundraising, which has led to a cash shortage, which has led to anxious operatives in the early-primary states getting turned down when they ask for more resources.
“He’s aware that there are issues with the campaign, especially as it relates to money,” one person who’s discussed the race with Biden told me recently.
Aides have started to sound vaguely Trumpian in their complaints about elites and the media, which, the aides say, cover only bad news about Biden and fail to understand what actual heartland voters want. These aides argue that it’s not that the campaign has a problem, or that the candidate has a problem, but that the coverage is the problem.
They’re not completely crazy. We just went through this in 2016, they observe, when nearly every reporter for every major outlet—along with just about all of Twitter—got Trump and Bernie Sanders wrong: Trump was a sideshow, Sanders was a novelty, and both were mocked for running ridiculous campaigns. It was only in retrospect, looking back at the entrails of the 2010 and 2014 elections, that evidence of the populist hunger for protectionism and anti-immigration policies that Trump tapped into could be seen to have been there all along. Biden’s team says that, when we look back a few years hence to the election results of 2017, 2018, and 2019, it will be clear that what voters were hankering for was a stable and familiar centrist.
That Biden is being told how politics works and what the Democratic Party should stand for by people who weren’t yet born when he was first sworn into the Senate in 1973 clearly galls him. “We can’t let this outfit of ours, the Democratic Party, slide into a position where if you don’t agree, you are not a good guy,” Biden said at a fundraiser in Washington on Wednesday night, talking to about 90 Obama alumni and their friends. Pete Rouse, the former Obama strategist and White House chief of staff, said of the event: “I think the turnout tonight demonstrates the high regard in which the vice president is held in the extended Obama family. And I think that message is not out as far as it should be.”
Staffers at the Biden campaign headquarters in Philadelphia draw confidence from their candidate’s seeming so far to be, despite the incoming fire, “bulletproof.” They note that, starting with the inappropriate-touching “scandal” in the spring, none of the things that were supposed to destroy their candidate has had any lasting impact. Yes, they know that other campaigns believe the Biden campaign has taken on so much water that it’s only a matter of time before it capsizes. Yes, they hear the smart political commentators saying the polls are lagging indicators that don’t reflect the current reality of a sinking campaign. But the Biden skeptics have been saying that for months, and he’s still trundling along as a front-runner, still polling better against Trump than any of the other candidates. One Biden confidant who spoke to him recently insisted the candidate himself remains confident, while conceding that maybe some anxiety had crept in about the primary race. “There’s a little insecurity that every human being would have before knowing where the roulette ball lands,” the confidant said, and Biden is frustrated that it’s hard to “run a general-election campaign and a primary campaign at the same time. But he has no doubt that he would beat Trump, and he believes that to the core.”
What about the observation, registered both by other campaigns and by reporters, that Biden’s crowds are smaller and less exuberant than, say, Warren’s or Buttigieg’s? His team insists it’s choosing to have him appear in small venues in small towns mostly in the middle of workdays because that’s how they get to their voters; they say that polling in Iowa shows his strength is in rural areas, and that they expect to run up the score there.
“It’s not a problem if they’re older, because Iowa caucus-goers are older, so that aligns well,” Pete Kavanaugh, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, told me. “We feel perfectly fine with the crowds we’re getting.”
The people who do come to Biden’s events tend to say they’re committed.
Melanie Weatherall, a 50-year-old retired nurse who showed up at his campaign-office opening in Des Moines last weekend wearing a full-body bald-eagle outfit with BIDEN embroidered on the back and carrying a handful of Stars and Stripes balloons, told me she has no doubts about Biden: “It touches my heart that he got in. He could be on the beach in Hawaii drinking a margarita.”
“He has wonderful experience,” Charlotte Leick, a 59-year-old nurse who’d just watched him in Dubuque, told me. Her friend Patty Kowalske, who’s also 59 and works as a receptionist in town, walked up while we were speaking. “Joe’s the man,” she said, then started quietly chanting, “Go, Joe! Say it’s so!”
Another friend of theirs, who looked slightly older, beamed as she showed off the spot on her chin where Biden had kissed her. “She was saying on the way in she wanted to lay him,” Kowalske said with a laugh. “She got close!”
This isn’t the race Biden wanted to run. He didn’t want to apologize to Anita Hill. He didn’t want to change his position on the Hyde Amendment. He didn’t want to call the president names, as he did last week on 60 Minutes (“He’s an idiot”). He definitely didn’t want to have a super PAC. He dislikes ripping into other Democrats, to the point of convincing himself he isn’t. “I’ve never, ever run a negative campaign,” he said last weekend, shortly after hammering Warren for being “condescending” and “representative of an elitism that working and middle-class people do not share.”
“Yes, this is not the way he would have written it, but he also wouldn’t have predicted that Donald Trump is using the entire apparatus of American foreign policy to drum up false charges against Joe Biden,” said Anita Dunn, the former Obama communications director and longtime Biden friend who’s been advising him from the start of the campaign. “If in the spring as a staff we had gone to him and told him this would happen, I think he probably would have looked for a new staff and suggested we get some therapy for looking for conspiracy theories.”
Biden has rationalized all this; these are the compromises he has to make to get to where the country needs him to be. Aides call it adapting to an evolving race. Staffers for Democratic rivals call it desperation; they shake their heads ruefully at the party elders who pleaded with them for months not to beat Biden up too much, because he was sure to be the nominee and it wouldn’t be a good idea to soften him up for Trump. Some of those around Trump, for their part, tell me they see a prospective opponent proving himself to be nowhere near as strong as they’d feared.
“Those of you who do know me know you’ve never, ever heard me talk about a president the way I am talking today,” Biden said in Iowa last week. “I had significant disagreements with W. He’s a decent guy; I just had real disagreements with him. I had disagreements with President Reagan, who I knew well. But I never quite thought we’d be where we are.”
Where does Biden actually think we are? For that matter, where does he think he is, and how does he think he got there? Once again, he doesn’t seem to have a handle on his own story. Occasionally he says he never would have run for president in 2016 against Hillary Clinton—but, in fact, he was actively exploring a run through the fall of 2015, pulling out only because he felt like she was too far out ahead of him. This time around, he has said both that he didn’t decide to run until shortly before he announced in the spring of 2019 and also that he decided he had to run after the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. (At the time, he wrote an essay for The Atlantic that read almost like an announcement that he was running.)
The last time Biden contemplated getting into a presidential race, in 2015, a person who knows him well observed to me that he has never been very good at running for president. This is hard to argue with: He has ruminated about getting into six different presidential races—and the two previous times he actually did run, he flamed out ignominiously in a plagiarism scandal (1988) and a 1 percent showing in Iowa (2008). And yet the person who made this observation is backing Biden’s current campaign. The loyalty Biden has accrued through a long political career may keep a lot of Democrats in his camp even when the campaign seems shaky. So too, perhaps, will the shiver of fear engendered last week by a New York Times poll showing every candidate but Biden losing to Trump in battleground states.
Late last week, as I was talking to people for this piece, Biden’s campaign suggested I call Alan Kessler, a Philadelphia attorney who’s on Biden’s national finance committee. “There are going to be times like this when he’s going to give uneven appearances during debates, when there will be questions about whether he has enough money, when some young guy seems to be rising in Iowa and people wonder if it’s at his expense,” Kessler said. If you’ve been through enough campaigns, “you don’t get giddy during the good times, and you don’t get down in these times.” He added, “It is inconceivable to believe that the vice president will not be there in the end. He’s not getting out of this thing, one way or the other.” Maybe, I thought, the story Biden wanted people to hear was starting to take hold more solidly: The candidate was not a superannuated museum piece from a bygone political era, but a steady, beloved Cincinnatus with a clear path to victory.
Five minutes after we got off the phone, the news broke that Bloomberg was preparing to jump into the race. Biden’s narrative was scrambled again.