Standing on a raised patio in the middle of a Los Angeles backyard Friday night, President Joe Biden had a warning for the collection of movie moguls, stars, politicians and plain wealthy Democrats who had opened their checkbooks to support his reelection.
“Literally, I believe, the future of American democracy is at stake,” Biden said at the high-dollar fundraiser, speaking over the distant sound of chants, whistles, helicopters and sirens from a pro-Palestinian protest down the block.
“The greatest threat Trump poses is to our democracy,” he told the crowd, which included Steven Spielberg and Lenny Kravitz. “Because if we lost that, we lose everything.”
It was as stark a warning as Biden has offered as he rakes in millions of dollars in campaign donations ahead of the end of the year, and one he and his campaign are preparing to amplify in the coming months.
Biden’s high-dollar fundraisers this week will amount to his most lucrative cash events since announcing his intention to run for reelection last spring, drawing in more than $15 million from eager Democrats ahead of what officials believe will be the most expensive campaign ever run.
But the ritzy events he’s been holding this fall – in hotel ballrooms, backyards, on theater stages and in many a well-appointed living room – are proving useful to the president beyond just their high dollar intake. Away from cameras, Biden is trying out new material as he fine-tunes his reelection argument heading into next year.
It could be months before Biden begins holding big campaign rallies, making this moment an opportunity to evolve his stump speech in front of smaller crowds — where, under White House rules, cameras aren’t allowed. Biden is still searching for a message that can help him overcome the significant challenges facing his reelection, including a low approval rating and persistent concerns about his advanced age.
The Biden campaign and the White House have faced some criticism for not already being more forceful in their pushback against Trump from Democrats who argue voters must be reminded of the stark choice in next year’s election.
A senior administration official brushed off the second-guessing, saying there would be time to make the contrast in the months ahead.
“There’s a time and a place for everything. And I think there’s a lot of free advice out there. I think there will be a time when this decision becomes very binary for people,” the official said.
Over the last several weeks, Biden has worked in new attacks on Trump and self-effacing bits on his age, some of which have become recurring features of his pitch to donors. He has brought along his top White House speechwriter, Vinay Reddy, and his longtime messaging guru, Mike Donilon, to his fundraising events as he works on honing his reelection argument.
At a splashy fundraiser on Broadway earlier this fall, the president offered his most sustained argument to date that his age equals experience.
“When I came to office and this nation was flat on its back, I knew what to do,” he told a rowdy crowd from the set of a “Sweeney Todd” revival.
Afterwards, some attendees assumed the event was on-camera, given Biden’s forceful delivery and the timely way he addressed the persistent questions about his age. They wondered why clips weren’t airing the next day on television.
But there weren’t any cameras, in line with his other fundraisers, meaning the wider public only read his quotes in news reports. Biden hasn’t used the “knew what to do” phrasing since.
Not all of Biden’s comments to donors are likely to show up in his stump speech. His observation in Boston this week that “if Trump wasn’t running, I’m not sure I’d be running” was not necessarily the bumper sticker message his aides have planned for the upcoming campaign.
But other lines have become a reliable part of the president’s message to his deep-pocketed supporters.
“(Trump) didn’t even show up for my inauguration. I can’t say it disappointed me,” Biden told donors in varying ways in Los Angeles, Boston and Washington this week, quipping later on: “My guess is he’s not going to show up on my next inauguration either.”
At other moments, he has turned more serious, gravely warning of the threat his predecessor and likely 2024 rival poses to Democracy.
“Trump’s not even hiding the ball anymore,” Biden said at another fundraiser in Boston on Tuesday. “He’s telling us what he’s going to do. He’s making no bones about it.”
The messaging is aimed at laying out the stakes of the coming contest while also speaking to one of the principal reasons donors are writing five-and-six figure checks to the Biden campaign: fear of another Trump presidency.
Fundraising events in Los Angeles this weekend, which drew Hollywood star wattage, brought in record money for Biden’s reelection effort, campaign sources said.
“Without question, it will be the most successful 36 hours since the president announced his reelection. It will be a blowout day-and-a-half here,” said Jeffrey Katzenberg, the film mogul and Biden campaign co-chair who has been influential in Democratic fundraising circles for years.
He said donors were eager to hear from Biden about the stakes of the election and the necessity of preventing Trump from achieving a second term.
“There’s pent up interest in seeing and hearing from him. It’s been a long time and people are really, really excited,” Katzenberg told CNN in an interview, saying the pandemic and, more recently, strikes by writers and actors in Hollywood had prevented the president from holding fundraisers in the reliably Democratic enclave.
After listening to Biden speak, Katzenberg said donors walk away viewing the president as “energetic, engaged, vigorous and enthusiastic” – and not the bumbling, elderly man he is sometimes portrayed as by Republicans.
“This guy is on his A game, has a fastball, total mental acuity. All of these things … any doubt that has been put there, two minutes on stage and all goes away. You see it yourself,” he said.
Biden’s intensified criticism of his rival portends a ramp-up by his campaign of attacks against Trump ahead of the 2024 presidential election, sources told CNN, as the former president appears on a glide path to the GOP nomination.
“We’re entering a phase of the campaign where it’s becoming more clear that Donald Trump is going to be the nominee,” a campaign official said, underscoring the intent is to continue to highlight that Trump is “dangerous” and “extreme.”
This week, Biden released a statement via his campaign to condemn his predecessor’s proposal to reinstate and expand a travel ban on people from predominantly Muslim countries, calling it “cruel.” It was the first time the reelection campaign issued a statement in Biden’s name responding to a Trump proposal.
And during remarks at the union hall in Las Vegas on Friday, Biden went after Trump by name — a relative rarity until recently.
“Trump just talks to talk. We walk the walk,” he said as he announced new passenger rail investments, sharpening his tone as he went on: “He likes to say America is a failing nation. Frankly, he doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.”
As the 2024 race heats up, Biden’s campaign will look to television and digital ads to ratchet up its efforts at painting Trump as a threat to democracy — an effort that will cost a lot of money, making this week’s fundraising a requisite precursor to next year’s campaign.
Biden’s team has in its sights the roughly $67 million raised by then-President Barack Obama during the fourth quarter of 2011 as a successful benchmark for its own efforts during this three-month period, a source close to the campaign said.
Back then, individual contribution limits were lower than they are today. Still, a figure in that range would put Biden and Democrats mostly on pace with the $71 million raised in the third quarter of 2023.