With stubbornly subterranean approval numbers, President Biden is taking early steps to shore up his re-election candidacy with a multipronged strategy that includes a costly advertising campaign and leveraging the powers of the bully pulpit.
During his recent trip to India and Vietnam, Mr. Biden’s aides aggressively pushed back on suggestions that he has lost a step, highlighting his busy schedule as a sign of his vigor. Back home, his campaign broadcast a television ad depicting a previous overseas trip — a secret journey to Ukraine in February that the White House has trumpeted as a triumph of daring and a foreign policy tour de force.
That ad comes three weeks into a $25 million battleground state campaign to promote Mr. Biden’s economic record to a public that remains skeptical of the so-called Bidenomics pitch he began making this summer.
Such an ad blitz is notably early for an incumbent, in the face of concerns that Mr. Biden is struggling to maintain support among young, Black and Latino voters — key parts of the coalition that lifted him to office in 2020. While Mr. Biden’s TV ads do not frontally address a central concern raised by Democratic voters — his age — they showcase his vitality and stamina.
The Ukraine ad features footage of Mr. Biden striding confidently alongside President Volodymyr Zelensky during a surprise visit to Kyiv to support the war effort. “In the middle of a war zone, Joe Biden showed the world what America is made of,” a narrator says. It ends bluntly, “Biden. President.”
Kevin Munoz, a Biden campaign spokesman, said in a statement: “As Republicans fight each other in their divisive primary, we are building a campaign that is working to break through in a fragmented media environment, and speaking to the general-election audience in the battleground states that will decide next year’s election.”
Democratic strategists say that many of the worries are overblown and that Mr. Biden has plenty of time to improve his numbers. Last week, Jim Messina, the campaign manager of President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, who has become a leading voice of the don’t-panic-about-Biden chorus, circulated a 24-page presentation suggesting that the political environment was good for Democrats and calling for “bedwetters” in their ranks to relax.
“Polling 15 months out is notoriously ridiculous,” Mr. Messina said in an interview. “If you were just playing poker, you would rather have Joe Biden’s cards than Donald Trump’s.”
But Mr. Biden gave his Republican critics some fresh ammunition to question his physical and mental competence at a news conference in Vietnam, telling reporters at one point he was ready to go to bed. He also made a meandering and culturally awkward reference to John Wayne, who last acted in a film in 1976, nearly a half-century ago.
Mr. Biden is operating in a bit of a political vacuum, as Republicans go through their primary process. Once a challenger emerges, party strategists say, Democrats will see Mr. Biden as the stronger choice and rally behind the president.
Joe Trippi, a Democrat who has worked on presidential campaigns over five election cycles, said all incumbent presidents over the past decade were nearly tied with their rivals in September of the year before the election.
“I’ve seen this movie over and over and over,” he said. “Every sitting president has been sitting exactly in the same place — in a dead heat.”
The $25 million the campaign is spending on new ads amounts to a small fraction of what is expected to be the total cost of Mr. Biden’s campaign. In 2020, he made history by raising $1 billion for his run. This time, Mr. Biden’s initial fund-raising has been slower, impeded in part by an across-the-board decline in online contributions and the absence of liberal outrage about Mr. Trump’s presidency.
Still, Mr. Biden is jumping into the political fray far earlier than his predecessors did. President Barack Obama did not begin running re-election TV ads until after Thanksgiving in 2011. His first spot was a straight-to-camera invitation to supporters to “let me know you’re in,” rather than an effort to reassure supporters about his record in office.
While Mr. Obama’s approval ratings were, like Mr. Biden’s, quite low, he did not face widespread doubts within his party about whether he should seek re-election.
In a different era of politics and television, the 2004 George W. Bush re-election campaign did not begin advertising until March of the election year — after John Kerry had effectively clinched the Democratic presidential nomination.
Mr. Biden’s campaign says it began advertising earlier than in previous cycles because it is harder to reach broad audiences in an era of cord-cutting. TV networks are not inclined to carry prime-time presidential speeches about policy developments that are often months old, and Mr. Biden is an unsteady performer in front of a microphone. Advertisements can both be seen by a target audience and prompt coverage about them in the news media, and are one of the luxuries of being the incumbent.
“Trump could easily define a narrative that kind of rewrites his own history as well as Biden’s history, and that needs to be countered,” said Teddy Goff, the digital director for Mr. Obama’s 2012 campaign.
Even Mr. Biden’s public in-person events don’t always show the president in the most favorable light. He often speaks softly or holds a microphone too far from his mouth, making it difficult for the audience to follow what he is saying — and making images of fired-up supporters tougher to come by.
“It was tough to hear,” Mayor Katie Rosenberg of Wausau, Wis., said after seeing Mr. Biden speak in Milwaukee last month. “The acoustics were bad. Having a rally in a factory is tough.”
Ben LaBolt, the White House communications director, aggressively pushed back on social media after a headline said Mr. Biden was running “a bunker campaign.” “Presidents shall never sleep,” he wrote in one sarcastic post.
Unlike the 2020 race, which was largely conducted remotely because of the pandemic, Mr. Biden’s 2024 effort will have to look more like a traditional campaign, with speeches and events that might make the president show his age.
The latest chatter about Mr. Biden’s political standing followed a poll from CNN that was full of grim numbers for the president. The findings suggested that Democratic and independent voters had concerns about Mr. Biden himself, not his legislative record. Two-thirds of Democrats surveyed said they would prefer that the party nominate someone else as president. And 63 percent of Democrats said their biggest concern about Mr. Biden’s candidacy was his age, mental acuity or health.
Just 4 percent of Democrats polled by CNN said their biggest concern about Mr. Biden was his handling of the economy — the subject that has been the focus of most of the campaign’s advertising so far.
Amanda Litman, the executive director of Run for Something, which looks to strengthen the party’s bench by recruiting Democrats to run for local offices nationwide, said that expanding the Democratic argument beyond Mr. Biden to convey the broader stakes of the election for issues like abortion rights and climate change would be crucial.
“He really has to make the campaign beyond just Joe Biden,” she says. “If it’s bigger than him, it will energize younger voters and voters of color and women.”