President Biden’s low profile on the campaign trail reflects a low approval rating that makes him unwelcome in some congressional districts and states at a pivotal moment before the midterms.
There is nothing quite like having a president at a big, boisterous campaign rally. And Democrats in four cities — Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee and Las Vegas — will get that chance this month, in the final days of voting that will decide who controls Congress, governors’ offices and statehouses.
But it won’t be President Biden. It will be former President Barack Obama.
Mr. Biden has not held a campaign rally since before Labor Day, even as the future of his agenda and his own political career are at stake in the midterm elections. His low profile on the campaign trail reflects his low approval rating, and White House officials say the president has made a point of delivering speeches on the party’s accomplishments, rather than taking part in rallies sponsored by political campaigns.
With less than three weeks until Election Day and polls suggesting Democratic enthusiasm is waning, Mr. Biden’s strategy is clear: He will help Democrats raise money and will continue to hopscotch the country talking about infrastructure, negotiated drug prices, student debt relief and investments in computer chip manufacturing. But his decision not to participate, so far at least, in rallies that are normally a staple of campaign season highlights how little the president can do to help his fellow Democrats, even with the megaphone of the Oval Office.
It is a remarkably low-key campaign effort by a president facing what could be among the biggest rebukes of his political life: Republicans are poised to retake control of one or both houses of Congress, an outcome that would reshape politics in Washington and likely end any hope that Democrats have of making progress on abortion rights, gun control, police reform, voting rights or tax fairness.
Mr. Biden is by no means holing up in Washington. In the last week, he has gone to Colorado, California and Oregon. He heads to Philadelphia on Thursday to support John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s Democratic candidate for the Senate — but there will be no crush of voters packed into a stadium, no sea of colorful campaign signs, no presidential exhortations to “Vote! Vote! Vote!” captured by TV cameras.
Instead, Mr. Biden and Mr. Fetterman, the lieutenant governor, will gather in a closed-door reception for invited guests only, the president’s brief remarks captured by a handful of reporters who will quickly be escorted out before the rest of the event. Mr. Biden will also give an official speech on infrastructure in Pittsburgh on Thursday, hours before the private reception.
Mr. Biden’s plans for the final stretch of the election season are in stark contrast with those of his immediate predecessors in both parties. Former President Donald J. Trump held 26 rallies in October 2018, including nine in the final four days of the midterm elections that year. Mr. Obama held 16 campaign rallies in October 2010, even though his approval rating was about the same then — at 44 percent — as Mr. Biden’s is now.
Mr. Obama’s office has announced that the former president will headline at least four major rallies in the run-up to Election Day. In Nevada, he will join Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, who is trailing in the polls, and other candidates for an early vote rally on Nov. 1.
Other Democrats have fanned out to amp up crowds and raise funds. Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary and onetime presidential hopeful, led a get-out-the-vote rally in Kansas on Wednesday. Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont and another former presidential candidate, is embarking later this month on an eight-state blitz with at least 19 events across the nation.
Asked to name the best surrogate hitting the campaign trail for Democrats, himself aside, Mr. Sanders at first demurred and then said that Mr. Obama “certainly can and will play a very important role.”
But asked specifically about whether Mr. Biden should be doing more rallies, he replied: “I don’t want to speculate on that either.”
Mr. Biden’s advisers reject the idea that he is being too low-key and say they have crafted a midterm election strategy that fits his brand as a politician who tries to be above the political fray. They argue that the president and Democrats have accomplished more than his predecessors in a short period, and that it’s better to boast about those accomplishments in official venues, not highly partisan ones.
When Mr. Biden delivers official speeches, they said, his successes are captured in headlines in local newspapers and TV broadcasts that benefit the Democratic candidates in the area. In recent days, Mr. Biden’s speeches have been front-page news in The Times Leader in Pennsylvania, The Columbus Dispatch, The Denver Post and elsewhere.
“What he’s doing is showing people why it mattered that they took the time to stand in line and vote,” said Cedric Richmond, a close confidant of Mr. Biden’s and a senior adviser at the Democratic National Committee. “It’s because they voted that Ketanji Brown is on the Supreme Court. It’s because they voted that he’s lowering prescription drug costs and that we’re building roads and bridges.”
Mr. Richmond conceded that Democrats will not know how effective Mr. Biden’s strategy is until after Election Day. But the president’s advisers note that Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump both suffered steep midterm losses despite robust political campaigning in 2010 and 2018.
“The best way to get people excited about going to vote is to show them what he’s been able to accomplish on their behalf,” Mr. Richmond said.
Not so long ago, Mr. Biden was the kind of Democrat who was welcomed in red states, swinging through more conservative places like Montana and Kentucky in 2018. In 2014, The Los Angeles Times noted that Mr. Biden, as vice president, participated in more than “114 campaign events for 66 different candidates, committees and parties” and had emerged as “a patron saint of the embattled House Democrat.”
Republicans are eagerly holding rallies. Mr. Trump has crisscrossed the country for near-weekly rallies that draw thousands. Former Vice President Mike Pence has campaigned for more than 30 candidates for Congress and governor’s mansions, as well as headlining events for state and local Republican parties.
And Republican governors with national brands, like Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, have headlined rallies and fund-raisers for fellow governors in some of the country’s most competitive races.
Mr. Biden’s four-day trip to the West Coast last week was an example of a different approach.
At a community college in Orange County, Calif., where Representative Katie Porter is locked in a fierce re-election fight, Mr. Biden talked about health care prices a day after attending a closed-door fund-raising reception for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“I’m here today because I wanted to share the progress we’re making to bring down health care costs for everybody,” he told the crowd at the community college event in Irvine, using the opportunity to give credit to Ms. Porter. “Everybody respects you. And it’s a big deal, because you get a lot done.”
One benefit for Democratic candidates like Ms. Porter is financial. The costs of an elaborate campaign stop involving the president, like a rally, require the party or the candidate to pick up some of the expensive tab for Mr. Biden’s travel — including Air Force One, Secret Service security and other expenses.
When the president travels for an official White House event, like the one in Irvine, campaigns don’t bear the costs, even if the candidate attends the event.
Mr. Biden’s advisers played down the cost savings for candidates as a reason for his approach to the midterms, calling it at best a “benefit” of his travel schedule.
The president’s final push comes at an ominous time for Democrats.
The most recent polls show that Republicans have an edge going into the final weeks of the election, with concern about inflation and the economy surging. In a New York Times/Siena College poll, voters most concerned with the economy favored Republicans overwhelmingly, more than two to one.
In Ohio, Representative Tim Ryan, the Democratic nominee for Senate, has said he would not welcome Mr. Biden to his home state, preferring to keep himself as the “face of the campaign.”
Representatives for Senate candidates in Georgia, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, New Hampshire, Arizona and Nevada either declined to comment or did not answer in response to questions about whether their contenders would welcome campaigning with Mr. Biden.
This week, Vicki Hiatt, the chair of the Kansas Democratic Party, gushed about the arrival of Mr. Buttigieg, calling him a “very strong, energizing person” and adding that “he’s young, intelligent. He just — I think he has lots of energy.”
Asked if it would be helpful for Democrats if Mr. Biden came to the state in a political capacity — he did have an official event in Kansas City, Mo., last year — Ms. Hiatt hesitated.
“I don’t think he would hurt,” she said. “I don’t think there’d be any harm done. And I think that overall, there would be a great turnout.”
She added that “he really is doing good work for the American people.”