WASHINGTON — Three months ago as Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips began to signal publicly that he could launch a 2024 campaign, he called President Joe Biden to talk through why he supports a competitive primary for the Democratic nomination, according to two people familiar with the outreach. Biden didn’t take the call, these people said.
The decision not to put the president on the phone — White House chief of staff Jeff Zients told Phillips that Biden was too busy to talk — encapsulates the incumbent’s approach to any challenges to his re-election bid: publicly indifferent and privately dismissive. With Phillips now expected to enter the presidential race on Friday by filing to be on the ballot in New Hampshire, Biden’s aides have planned a tepid response.
The subtext is to frame Phillips’ candidacy as a vanity project for one of the wealthiest members of Congress. Biden aides also cheekily cast Phillips as a Democrat who has been closely aligned with the president and until recently did nothing to distance himself from the White House or some of its perks.
“We appreciate the congressman’s almost 100% support of this president,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Tuesday.
Andrew Bates, a spokesperson for the White House, echoed that message when asked about Phillips’ expected candidacy, saying “when it comes to President Biden’s official work, the administration appreciates that Congressman Phillips has voted for nearly 100% of the president’s legislative agenda.” Bates also said in a statement that he’s prohibited by law from commenting on the presidential race as well as “primaries in Minnesota’s 3rd congressional district” — a not-so-subtle nod to Phillips’ newly complicated 2024 re-election effort for his House seat. Since suggesting he’ll challenge Biden, the congressman drew a primary opponent.
Phillips, who’s serving his third term in the House after being elected in the Democratic wave of 2018, has for months called for a serious primary challenge to Biden. He’s pointed to Biden’s low approval rating and polls showing many Americans, including Democrats, don’t want Biden to seek re-election. And he’s raised the president’s age — 80 — as a factor.
In an interview in August on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Phillips called Biden a “wonderful and remarkable man” but said it’s time for him to “pass the torch” to a new generation of Democratic leadership.
Polling shows many voters are concerned about the president’s age and Biden is essentially tied in a potential match-up with former President Donald Trump.
Earlier this month Phillips stepped down from his position in House Democratic leadership, given his position on the 2024 race, saying in a statement that he wanted to “avoid unnecessary distractions during a critical time for our country.”
Biden aides privately say Phillips has no rationale for his candidacy.
They note that in July, just weeks before calling Biden, Phillips was at the White House for an evening of bowling with Republican and Democratic lawmakers who are part of the Problem Solvers Caucus. They point out that he’s flown on Air Force One at least once since Biden took office. And one Biden aide said that in recent weeks Phillips has been in touch with White House officials who handle legislative affairs about “routine matters.”
“What kind of leadership could Phillips offer?” one person close to the White House said, when Biden is already the president.
The Biden campaign has so far been silent on Phillips’ likely campaign, but that’s expected to change if he officially enters the race.
The Biden campaign announced Tuesday that the president would not file to be on the 2024 Democratic primary ballot in New Hampshire, but said he expects to be on the ballot for the general election.
The decision followed a plan released earlier this year by the Democratic National Committee to make South Carolina the first presidential primary voting state, rather than New Hampshire. Biden, whose victory in South Carolina’s 2020 primary revived his floundering presidential campaign, recommended the shift. New Hampshire has not yet set its primary date.
Sources close to the White House said the president made the decision in part because New Hampshire’s voters are almost entirely white, compared with South Carolina’s diverse electorate which he believes is more representative of the country.
Biden has faced other 2024 challenges from within the Democratic Party, including from author Marianne Williamson and anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who recently switched his party affiliation to run as an independent. The president’s White House and campaign aides have largely ignored their candidacies.
When Phillips reached out to the president in August, he had already said publicly that he didn’t think Biden should run for re-election. But he was poised to sharpen his argument — and ramp up speculation that he might challenge Biden — in upcoming interviews, including on “Meet the Press.
Zients returned Phillips’ call instead of the president and, according to one person familiar with the conversation, “heard him out.”
Ultimately, Zients told him that Biden is the best candidate to win in 2024 and “finish the job” in the White House, this person said. A second person familiar with the call said that implicit in Zients’ message was that Biden is the only Democrat who can beat Trump.
There was no follow-up call, but one person familiar with the outreach said Phillips could call Biden again before any formal announcement of a 2024 campaign.