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Biden is on the midterm campaign trail. But he's not welcome everywhere

President Biden works the phones during a grassroots volunteer event with the Oregon Democrats at the SEIU Local 49 in Portland, Ore., on Friday.
Carolyn Kaster
/
AP
President Biden works the phones during a grassroots volunteer event with the Oregon Democrats at the SEIU Local 49 in Portland, Ore., on Friday.

At a Union Hall in Portland, Ore., volunteers with the state's Democratic Party sat shoulder to shoulder at long tables, dialing voters on their cellphones, when in walked President Biden holding a pink and white box of doughnuts.

"Hello, Oregon," Biden said, pausing for applause. "I assume you're clapping for the doughnuts."

As the midterm elections draw closer, Biden has been spending more time on the road, trying to help Democratic candidates in tough races. This stop in Oregon was part of a Western swing that included a stop in Colorado and several in Southern California.

But there are many competitive races in other parts of the country where Biden is unwelcome. Like many presidents before him at this point in their first terms, Biden has found his approval ratings underwater. Recent polls put his approval at just above 40%. That means there are a lot of races where he could hurt more than he helps.

"The history books show that an incumbent president is not a boost to their party in their midterms. If Jesus Christ himself were an incumbent president, members of his political party would probably stiff-arm him in a midterm election," said Lis Smith, a Democratic strategist.

But Oregon is a very blue state that Biden carried handily in the 2020 presidential election. "God, it was nice winning by 16 points," Biden told the volunteers, gathered on a Friday night to help Tina Kotek, the Democratic candidate for governor.

Two years later, Democrats are nervous about the tough three-way race for governor. There's an independent candidate — a former Democrat — who could peel off enough Democratic votes to open the door for the first Republican governor of Oregon in more than a generation.

President Biden pays for ice cream at Baskin-Robbins in Portland, Ore., with Tina Kotek, the Oregon Democratic nominee for governor.
Carolyn Kaster / AP
/
AP
President Biden pays for ice cream at Baskin-Robbins in Portland, Ore., with Tina Kotek, the Oregon Democratic nominee for governor.

The next day, Biden attended a grassroots fundraiser for Kotek and the pair stopped at a Baskin-Robbins for some ice cream. There, as he waited for his double scoop of chocolate chip in a waffle cone, Biden said he was confident Kotek would win.

"I think people are going to show up and vote," Biden said. "I think it's going to work."

This Western swing was Biden's longest campaign trip to date, but it was decidedly low key. There were no rallies, just small audience speeches about his accomplishments thus far, and a couple of fundraisers.

President Biden spoke about lowering costs for families in Portland, a stump speech he's been giving at all of his midterm campaign-related appearances.
Carolyn Kaster / AP
/
AP
President Biden spoke about lowering costs for families in Portland, a stump speech he's been giving at all of his midterm campaign-related appearances.

That's a shift from his predecessors, former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, who held more traditional rallies ahead of the midterms in their first terms, said Brendan Doherty, a politics professor at the U.S. Naval Academy who tracks presidential travel.

"Biden has held many official events with campaign undertones. Other presidents did this too, but for Biden, it's his principal mode of campaigning in the leadup to the midterms," Doherty said.

He's also been in high demand at events to raise cash for his party. At a Friday night fundraiser in a private home in Los Angeles, Biden helped raise $5 million, money that will help congressional candidates all over the country, including those in swing districts who at the moment wouldn't want to be seen in public with Biden.

"Any president — even an unpopular president — is the most effective fundraiser in the party," said Doherty.

And by raising money for party committees rather than individual congressional candidates, Biden is helping candidates without being directly tied to them.

Some Democratic candidates have claimed scheduling conflicts when Biden comes to town, conflicts that preclude joint appearances. Republicans have roundly mocked Biden and his party for this. But Democratic strategist Smith, author of campaign memoir Any Given Tuesday, said Biden and Democrats are just being smart.

"This is not Joe Biden's first rodeo. He lived through the 2010 shellacking, where having Barack Obama be so visible in the midterms actually hurt Democrats," Smith said. "So, he's trying to learn from the mistakes of the past, put his ego in the back seat. And it's the best thing for the party as a whole."

As he announced a new conservation project in Colorado, President Biden made sure Sen. Michael Bennet — who's in a competitive reelection race — was in the shot.
Carolyn Kaster / AP
/
AP
As he announced a new conservation project in Colorado, President Biden made sure Sen. Michael Bennet — who's in a competitive reelection race — was in the shot.

But there are places where Biden can help the Democrats on the ballot: places where Democrats have a strong advantage in voter registration. In Colorado, Biden designated an important World War II training site, Camp Hale, as a new national monument. And at the picture-perfect site, he made sure to give a little extra love to Sen. Michael Bennet, who is running for reelection in a tougher than expected race.

"I want Michael to come back up here a second," Biden said before regaling the crowd with a story about Bennet's hard sell to get Biden to designate the monument.

President Biden greets Kevin Corbin, a heavy equipment operator at a Los Angeles metro construction project, as Rep. Karen Bass — who is running for LA mayor — looks on.
Alex Gallardo / AP
/
AP
President Biden greets Kevin Corbin, a heavy equipment operator at a Los Angeles metro construction project, as Rep. Karen Bass — who is running for LA mayor — looks on.

In Los Angeles, local officials lined up on a blue tape line on the tarmac to greet the president after he walked down the stairs of Air Force One. Karen Bass, the Democratic congresswoman running for LA mayor, got a well-documented hug with the signature robin's egg blue plane in the background.

The next day, Biden touted the infrastructure law at a construction site for a new metro line, calling Bass the "soon-to-be Ms. Mayor" in a speech where he delivered the core of his midterm message.

"We've got an election in a month. Voters have to decide," Biden said. "Democrats are working to bring down the cost of things ... that are talked about around the kitchen table, from prescription drugs, to health insurance, to energy bills, and so much more."

Biden and the White House say he will be on the road a lot in the coming three weeks, though it's not clear exactly where or which candidates he will appear with.

"We're always getting incoming requests," press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters traveling with the president on Air Force One. "Of course. Of course. We have a lot of good things to talk about."

So far, the only trips publicly announced for the last three weeks are fundraisers in Pennsylvania and Florida.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

President Biden eats an ice cream cone at a Baskin-Robbins in Portland, Ore., at the end of his Western campaign swing.
Carolyn Kaster / AP
/
AP
President Biden eats an ice cream cone at a Baskin-Robbins in Portland, Ore., at the end of his Western campaign swing.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.