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Biden’s campaign launch is immediately overshadowed by other events — and his team loves it

U.S. President Joe Biden acknowledges his supporters.

“Also this morning…”

That was CNN’s lead-in to its script Tuesday morning about President Joe Biden officially launching his reelection campaign with a video. The oldest president in American history seeking another four years is, under all objective definitions of the term, major news. And yet, in the swirl of other sensational stories dominating the headlines, it was not always the lead.

The president and his team are fine with it.

Biden’s announcement came on a day when the leading Republican contender to challenge him, former President Donald Trump, began a trial where he is accused of rape. Another GOP hopeful, Nikki Haley, delivered a speech reaffirming the party’s commitment to restricting access to abortion, an issue that continues to galvanize voters on both sides perhaps more than any other.

The most powerful Republican on Capitol Hill, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, is fighting to wrangle his unruly caucus to get behind a proposal to tie major spending cuts to any debt ceiling increase, setting up another dramatic vote on the House floor as early as Wednesday. And the smoke is still just clearing from the sudden firings Monday of two outsized media personalities, Tucker Carlson by Fox and Don Lemon by CNN.

The chaotic tableau was not just a revealing snapshot of a particularly frenetic American moment — it may foreshadow the campaign to come, too. Biden, as he was at times during last year’s midterms, could find himself relegated to the background, as more extreme characters dominate the news and the nation’s collective consciousness. Rather than fret their second-fiddle fate, the president’s advisers find it advantageous.

“I go back to the first election, where he presented himself as… someone who is steady, someone who is thoughtful, someone who keeps his eyes on the prize,” said Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.), one of the Biden campaign’s co-chairs. It is not, she added, about “the antics of the moment.”

For an incumbent eager to frame the next election, as he did last year’s, as a choice and not a referendum on his own record, being somewhat out of the spotlight’s glare has its benefits. Biden’s team wants to present him as a trusted, experienced politician; the drama-free alternative to extremism on the right. The media’s focus on louder, more strident voices — and his own innate unobtrusiveness — are not just an outgrowth of circumstances but also a key part of his campaign’s strategy.

“None of this backdrop to Biden’s announcement is a coincidence. It’s all part of the same reckoning that the country is going through,” said Jennifer Palmieri, who served as communications director on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “When Biden ran the first time, he was talking about being a transitional president. He’s talking about ‘finishing the job’ because we have not completed this transition. We are still in this epic fight where big questions about democracy and fundamental rights are at stake.”

Biden’s 2020 victory over Trump and Democrats’ ability to defy historical headwinds last November and far surpass the party’s midterm expectations, Palmieri added, showed that “Biden and Democrats don’t have to be top of the news to win. They just have to make sure voters understand what’s at stake.”

Executing such a strategy is a bit easier when running against a sitting president rather than running as one. And, over the coming months, Biden world’s efforts to run as the drama-free, more competent alternative to what the Republican Party is offering will be tested by that Republican Party’s attempts to create drama and frame him as inept.

In his campaign launch video, Biden took the first step towards trying to set the contours of the debate. The video focused on Republican extremism in setting up the rationale for his campaign. It highlighted the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, the conservative Supreme Court’s decision striking down federal protections for abortion and GOP efforts at the state level to ban books, limit early voting and restrict transgender rights, as well as Republicans’ inaction on gun safety amid a surge of mass shootings. “MAGA extremists,” Biden says in the video, are “lining up to take away those bedrock freedoms.”

That’s a shift from last year’s focus on Democrats’ legislative accomplishments over Biden’s first two years in office. The White House has launched a major publicity blitz to tout the benefits of new laws — the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Chips Act boosting America’s tech sector and the Inflation Reduction Act, which has led to $200 billion in new investments in renewable energy projects. But none of those laws were referenced in the president’s three-minute launch video.

Instead, Biden focused on those accomplishments during a lunchtime speech at the annual meeting of the North America’s Building Trades Unions, a gathering that represents a critical piece of the president’s political base. The speech was an official address, with the only flourish from the just-launched campaign effort being Biden’s new “finish the job” catchphrase.

“Under my predecessor, Infrastructure Week was a punchline. On my watch, we’re making Infrastructure Decade a headline,” Biden said, addressing the audience directly. “Union workers will build roads and bridges, lay internet cable, install electric vehicle chargers. Union workers are going to transform America. And union workers are going to finish the job!”

Those remarks occurred, however, shortly after CNN cut away from live coverage of the speech, which was a familiar rehash of the president’s well worn economic message.

Biden world has long scoffed at the notion that they should gear their approach around the whims of cable or Twitter at that. And the campaign’s strategy with its launch day, which also featured Vice President Kamala Harris speaking about reproductive rights at an event in Maryland, appeared to reflect a broader awareness about how Americans consume their news now. With the initial video push, followed by two events featuring Biden and Harris that could practically be turned into videos themselves, the campaign will be able to reach a number of constituencies with multiple messages. Creating banner headlines on cable TV, it seems, was not the point.

Biden’s former communications director Kate Bedingfield, who CNN opted to interview from a Washington studio rather than carrying Biden’s remarks, made it clear that the president isn’t especially reliant on the mainstream media. His team often prefers to engage with content creators with large followings or to package the president’s comments themselves for distribution via social media platforms and email lists.

“We’re living in an incredibly fractured media environment, and so the president and his team have to think about how do we reach people where they’re actually getting their news,” Bedingfield said.

With polls showing a majority of Americans preferring that Biden not seek a second term, the campaign team has its work cut out for them. The task being to gin up support from your own base while keeping yourself off of center stage can, at times, be in conflict. But there is one way to do both: focusing attention on the Republican alternative.

“Republicans nominating Trump again plays right into Biden’s message,” GOP pollster Whit Ayres conceded. “Biden only won in 2020 by a hair in the Electoral College, and he has significant problems now. But his unobtrusiveness is not one of them. In part, that’s what he ran on: not being in your face every day.”

Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.


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