Inside Biden’s Anti-Trump Battle Plan (and Where Taylor Swift Fits In)
“It’s game on, the beginning of the general election,” said Representative Ann McLane Kuster of New Hampshire, the chair of the New Democrat Coalition, a group of 97 centrist House Democrats. “We’ve got to win this.”
In a race without historical parallel — a contest between two presidents, one of them facing 91 criminal charges — Mr. Biden is making an extraordinary gamble, betting that Mr. Trump remains such an animating force in American life that the nation’s current leader can turn the 2024 election into a referendum not on himself but on his predecessor.
Resurrecting a version of the argument that worked for them in 2020, Mr. Biden’s team and his top allies plan to paint Mr. Trump as a mortal threat to American government and civil society, and are banking that fears of another turbulent Trump administration will outweigh worries about Mr. Biden’s age and vitality. Polls have shown Mr. Biden trailing Mr. Trump in a head-to-head contest, with many Democratic voters reluctant to back him again.
The president’s aides plan to couple a direct assault on Mr. Trump with a heavy focus on abortion rights, casting the issue as symbolic of larger conservative efforts to restrict personal freedoms.
They believe that the more the public sees and hears Mr. Trump, the less people will be inclined to vote for him, and the more the Biden campaign will be able to use his words on issues like abortion and health care against him.
Mr. Biden’s aides argue that voters remember the events of Jan. 6, 2021, all too well, making the day a touchstone akin to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. They think an anti-Trump message about democracy can persuade Democratic voters to line up behind Mr. Biden and win over independents who backed Mr. Trump in 2020 but disapprove of his behavior since.
The Jan. 6 attack hangs over the Biden campaign in another way as well: Unlike in 2020, the president and his team believe that the end of the election will not be in November but on Jan. 6, 2025, when Congress will count the Electoral College votes.
Mr. Biden’s team is building out a legal strike force in battleground states to prepare for a range of challenges — including matters of basic voting rights but extending to the certification of the election under the Electoral Count Reform Act, the 2022 federal law that was meant to stave off any repeat of Mr. Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election.
Democrats have successfully wielded a Trump-centric message even with the former president out of office, including in the 2022 midterms and more than two dozen elections last year. Now that he looks likely to return to a presidential ticket — and as he continues to shape the direction of Republican politics — top Biden allies see an opening to draw a sharp contrast.
“Once again,” said Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota, the chair of the Democratic Governors Association, there is a “binary choice: democracy, freedom versus extremism and chaos. Real kitchen-table issues that affect people or just nonsense things that they dream up.”
Yet the election will not be about Mr. Trump in a vacuum.
Many Democrats continue to worry that training their attention on him will fail to energize voters who are already pessimistic about Mr. Biden. Polling shows that some of the Black, Latino, young and suburban voters who lifted him to victory in 2020 have since turned on him, in part over misgivings about his age, economic record and support for Israel.
Campaign aides and top officials largely brush off those concerns, believing that attitudes on the economy, at least, will change as it shows more signs of improvement.
To rally the growing number of voters who do not consume news through traditional media, the campaign is trying to reach them on social media, with videos from influencers and even those with smaller followings.
During a stop in North Carolina this month, Mr. Biden made an hourlong visit to the home of a supporter who had his student loans canceled through a federal program. The man’s son later posted a video of Mr. Biden’s visit on TikTok, which drew millions of views — a template for how the campaign hopes to reach voters in new ways.
The campaign has begun discussions with celebrities and social media stars about promoting Mr. Biden on Instagram and TikTok. When Mr. Biden took a fund-raising swing through Southern California in December, the campaign carved out time to meet with influencers to pitch them on posting pro-Biden content. There are also plans, first reported Sunday by NBC News, to hold a fund-raiser with two Democratic former presidents: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, according to two people familiar with the discussions.
The biggest and most influential endorsement target is Ms. Swift, 34, the pop sensation and N.F.L. enthusiast, who can move millions of supporters with an Instagram post or a mid-concert aside. She endorsed Mr. Biden in 2020 and, last year, a single Instagram post of hers led to 35,000 new voter registrations. Fund-raising appeals from Ms. Swift could be worth millions of dollars for Mr. Biden.
Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, a top Biden surrogate, all but begged Ms. Swift to become more involved in Mr. Biden’s campaign when he spoke to reporters after a Republican primary debate in September.
“Taylor Swift stands tall and unique,” he said. “What she was able to accomplish just in getting young people activated to consider that they have a voice and that they should have a choice in the next election, I think, is profoundly powerful.”
The chatter around Ms. Swift and the potential of reaching her 279 million Instagram followers reached such intensity that the Biden team urged applicants in a job posting for a social media position not to describe their Taylor Swift strategy — the campaign had enough suggestions already. One idea that has been tossed around, a bit in jest: sending the president to a stop on Ms. Swift’s Eras Tour.
Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, a key Biden ally, said Democrats needed to press an affirmative case for the president, reminding voters that tangible changes to their lives — a cap on insulin costs, a road or bridge repaired for the first time — could be tied to the administration’s accomplishments.
In the 2020 campaign, Mr. Clyburn said, “people were voting against Trump. Our job this time is to convince people to vote for Biden.”
“We just can’t rely on this anti-Trump stuff because Trump’s supporters are going to turn out big, because they are emotionally tied to Trump,” he went on. “We’ve got to get our voters emotionally tied to Biden.”
And Representative Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat running for the Senate, said candidates must demonstrate that they grasp voters’ pocketbook anxiety.
“The lesson of the last seven years for us in Michigan after Trump won was, a Democrat with outrage is fine — a Democrat with a plan is powerful,” said Ms. Slotkin. “You need to understand the mood of people on the ground.”
Other Biden supporters argue that voters want to hear not only about his record but also about what he would do if re-elected.
Representative Chris Pappas, a New Hampshire Democrat, urged the campaign to lay out a “forward-looking vision” of how Mr. Biden would tackle concerns about housing affordability, child care costs and immigration.
“It can’t just be about relitigating the past. It can’t just be talking about bills we passed,” he said. “It has to be about responding to the immediate concerns people have in their day-to-day lives.”
To help assuage those Democratic anxieties, Mr. Biden dispatched Jennifer O’Malley Dillon and Mike Donilon, two top White House aides, to Wilmington, Del., to devote their entire focus to the campaign. For months, donors and other allies had expressed frustration with an arrangement in which the top decision makers in Mr. Biden’s campaign were still in their White House roles while top officials in Wilmington were left to carry out orders.
The campaign has also answered gripes about its slow pace of hiring by bringing on a slew of new staff members. It now has more than 100 staff members, with teams on the ground in six battleground states and South Carolina, which will hold the first recognized Democratic primary on Saturday.
Yet many new hires are working jobs roughly similar to what they did at their state parties.
In Wisconsin, the six new Biden campaign staff members all came from the state’s Democratic Party, and they are all still working in the same offices and conference rooms. The spokesman for a super PAC behind the push to write in Mr. Biden’s name on Democratic primary ballots in New Hampshire will be the campaign manager for Mr. Biden in the state.
Ms. O’Malley Dillon, who managed Mr. Biden’s 2020 campaign, is widely viewed as a stabilizing force and will arrive in Wilmington with decision-making authority that was not afforded to the campaign manager, Julie Chávez Rodríguez.
Kirk Wagar, a Democratic donor who served as ambassador to Singapore during the Obama administration, said, “Having 100 percent of a mind like Jen O’Malley’s thinking about the campaign can’t be anything other than a great thing.”
Shane Goldmacher contributed reporting.