Hillary Clinton steps out as a key player in Biden’s re-election effort

WASHINGTON — On the final Monday in November, in a Washington home stately enough to have a name — Whitehaven — members of the Women’s Leadership Forum raised just shy of $1 million for President Joe Biden’s re-election effort. Their host: Hillary Clinton.

Two weeks earlier, Clinton published an op-ed in The Atlantic that forcefully made the case for Biden’s approach to the Israel-Hamas war, putting her credibility on the line as progressives demanded a cease-fire. And two weeks before that, at a Columbia University panel on the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Clinton shut down a heckler who asked her to comment on Biden’s “warmongering.”

In those moments, in an interview on “The View” and in social media posts, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee is stepping into a role as one of the most prominent and influential surrogates in Biden’s re-election effort. As a former secretary of state, she has the bona fides to provide Biden with a measure of political cover amid a war in the Middle East that has split the Democratic Party.

Clinton is popular with women and key parts of the Democratic base and remains a fundraising draw who can help ensure Biden has the money to get his message out. There is still a two-for-the-price-of-one theme when it comes to her family: Husband Bill Clinton made a cameo at the fundraising event at their Washington home.

Clinton’s role is only expected to grow in the new year, but for now, she is filling a space that at a later point in the campaign season former President Barack Obama will join. Obama’s habit is to plunge in closer to Election Day — a reality that rankles some Democratic strategists who say the party sorely needs him right now.

Biden and Clinton have not always been close — she elbowed him out of running in 2016 — but the president is thirsty for allies right now. His approval numbers are at an all-time low, and he is running neck and neck with a Republican front-runner, former President Donald Trump, who is under indictment in four separate cases.

Former President Bill Clinton speaks as former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton looks on during a conversation about current global challenges at Swansea University Bay Campus in Wales on Nov. 16, 2023.Ben Birchall / PA via AP

“At the end of the day, Biden needs all the help that he can get,” a Democratic strategist said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk openly about Biden’s prospects. “What he needs is both the spirit and the actual reality of unity.”

Clinton’s re-emergence is emblematic of a larger Democratic effort to more fully deploy high-profile allies in Biden’s re-election fight, according to two people familiar with his campaign’s effort. While Obama has appeared in fundraising videos for Biden, some Democrats would like him to be more visible on the campaign trail and use his formidable star power to give Biden a much-needed boost.

“We are very eager to get our surrogates engaged,” one of the people said, pointing specifically to the Clintons and former first couple Barack and Michelle Obama as figures who can gin up excitement for a Biden candidacy that could use more of it.

When Biden flew on Air Force One to a memorial service for former first lady Rosalynn Carter late last month, the Clintons and Michelle Obama accompanied him. The group, which included first lady Jill Biden, was photographed together on a tarmac, creating an indelible image of unity among three Democratic first families in support of a grieving fourth.

The White House recently hired Dennis Cheng, a longtime fundraiser for both Clintons, to bolster its outreach to political allies. The hire had more to do with Cheng’s ability to connect with party elites than his relationship with the Clintons, the two people familiar with Biden’s re-election campaign said, but it won’t hurt in sealing the bond between Biden and his onetime intraparty rival.

The same day Hillary Clinton raised money for Biden, her husband sat down to lunch in New York with Argentina’s President-elect, Javier Milei and former Sen. Chris Dodd, who is Biden’s special adviser for the Americas. In doing so, Bill Clinton served as a high-profile surrogate for Biden, who did not meet with Milei. Dodd checked in with the White House before the lunch to go over discussion points, and Bill Clinton alerted the State Department that he would be meeting with Milei, said people familiar with the lunch.

“I don’t know of a couple that could be any more helpful to President Biden than the Clintons,” said Tom Daschle, a former Senate Democratic leader. “They have an enormous level of support and admiration within the Democratic Party.”

“You’ve had politicians over the years say that every election is the most important election in our lifetimes,” Daschle continued. “This is literally the most important election in all of American history. The stakes have never been this high. Everyone feels the need to do their part to ensure that we get through the next 14 months.”

People close to Hillary Clinton anticipate she’ll be a tireless campaigner for the Biden campaign, rallying Democratic voters by laying out the stakes and explaining why a Trump victory could subvert America’s democratic norms.

Both she and Bill Clinton feel a degree of loyalty to the Democratic Party that not everyone in the party’s orbit shares, a person close to her said.

“She and her husband will do whatever is asked of them,” this person said. “Some elected [officials] and former elected [officials] are, ‘Send us a list and we’ll do two out of the 20’” events. “She’ll do 18 out of the 20.”

She is also well positioned to caution voters that if they support a third-party candidate, they may cut into Biden’s margin and flip the election to Trump, Democratic strategists said.

In her 2016 loss to Trump, she saw some of her support peel off in favor of Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s campaign, contributing to her defeat in closely contested states like Michigan and Wisconsin.

“She is the proof point of what can happen if you throw away your vote on someone other than President Biden because you’re mad at one little thing,” said a longtime Democratic strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk more freely. “That happened to her.”

Among other lessons learned from 2016 was the need to engage earlier, explained Amanda Renteria, Clinton’s former national political director for the 2016 campaign.

“What folks have now realized is actually you have to push back early and make sure you don’t get defined by whatever is happening out there,” Renteria said. “And so not only are you seeing Hillary pick up, but there’s a lot more pushback on what the narrative is out there, what the theme is out there.”

Dick Harpootlian, former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said in an interview that “Barack Obama ought to step up. Every Democrat and independent who cherishes the democracy that we have gotten to know — and if they want to stop it from unraveling — better step up with checkbooks and every waking moment try to motivate people to vote.”

Democrats seem happy to have any amount of Obama. “We would like to have him out there for as much time as he’s willing to give us,” the Democratic strategist said. “And if he’s willing to give us more than he already does — which is not much — we’d be very relieved.”

But people close to both presidents say that Obama’s value grows as the election draws nearer.

“Obama drives turnout,” said one Democrat who has raised money for Obama and Biden. “That happens later in the campaign.”

A Biden campaign spokesperson, Seth Schuster, said in a prepared statement that Biden “is proud to have the support of President Obama and Secretary Clinton. They are both trusted leaders, and we’re grateful that — a year out — when the focus is building the infrastructure, raising money, and mobilizing our voters to carry us to victory in November 2024, they have already been effective mobilizers of the Biden-Harris coalition.”

Former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton disembark Air Force One at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, Ga., on Nov. 28, 2023, to attend services for former first lady Rosalynn Carter.
Former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton disembark Air Force One at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, Ga., on Nov. 28 to attend services for former first lady Rosalynn Carter.Anbdrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP – Getty Images

An Obama spokesman suggested that the former president’s objective is not simply to campaign for its own sake, but to choose moments and spots that maximize the chance of reaching voters.

“Our strategy will be based on driving impact,” said Eric Schultz, a senior Obama adviser. “We place a huge emphasis on finding creative ways to reach new audiences, especially tools that can be directly tied to voter mobilization or volunteer activations. We are deliberate in picking our moments because our objective is to move the needle.”

As the calendar turns to 2024, Biden’s team will continue to push for high-level surrogates to make the case that democracy is on the line with Trump on the ballot. Biden’s allies say there’s no excuse for any top Democrat to stay out of the fray.

It’s “all hands on deck,” said one of the people familiar with his campaign.