Seung Min Kim and Aamer Madhani
Whenever a donor's unsilenced cellphone goes off at a fundraiser while President Joe Biden is talking, he has the same joke ready to go: It's Donald Trump on the other line.
"If that's Trump calling me again, tell him I'm busy," Biden said at an event this past week for the Democratic Governors Association, repeating a variation of the quip he also relayed during receptions in Illinois and New York earlier this year. The crowd of a few dozen, as they always do, chuckled as the president continued with the rest of his remarks.
It's one glimpse of Biden as fundraiser in chief — a man who schmoozes with aplomb while raking in millions at receptions that will be a fixture of his political schedule during the final stretch before Election Day, Nov. 8. At these events, celebrities are spotted and alcohol is consumed, while Biden gets the one-on-one interactions he had missed for much of his campaign and presidency due to COVID-19.
The fundraisers — held in lavish Manhattan apartments, drab conference centers and backyard tents glammed up with chandeliers — have been one of the most visible ways Biden has been deployed this election year at a time when his approval ratings remain underwater and many Democrats aren't eager to stand by him on the campaign trail.
"Joe Biden is Joe Biden. He's real, he's down to earth, if he knows the people in the room … he's even more relaxed," said Rep. Debbie Dingell, Democrat-Michigan, a close ally. "He gets all kinds of questions, he answers them honestly, he probably gives his staff heart attacks."
So far this year, Biden has headlined 11 receptions to raise cash directly for the Democratic National Committee, and they have brought in more than $19.6 million, according to the committee. The events have ranged from a $300,000 haul at a yacht club in Portland, Oregon, to a cozy, 18-person affair (with four others on video screens) at Hotel Washington near the White House that took in more than $3 million. A pair of fundraisers at mansions in Southern California during the Summit of the Americas in June raked in $5 million in a matter of hours.
Separate from the DNC events, Biden spoke at a fundraiser in September benefiting Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that brought in more than $450,000 for the state Democratic Party.
The governors association event raised $1 million, and Biden was to have appeared on Tuesday at a fundraiser on behalf of Charlie Crist, the nominee for governor in Florida who has not been shy about wanting the president to campaign with him. That political trip was postponed due to Hurricane Ian.
The DNC also enlists Biden for solicitations sent to its grassroots donor list, with emails signed by the president consistently raising the most money for the committee, party officials say. As of this past week, the DNC has raised more than $107 million, the most at this point in any year and an amount that Democratic officials credited in large part to Biden's direct involvement.
Biden seems to particularly relish the in-person interactions that a private fundraiser offers.
A famously chummy politician, Biden makes sure at any big-dollar event that his hosts are made to feel special and recognized. For instance, at a late August fundraiser in the Washington suburbs, Biden first spent some time giving a child near the front of the gathering a bit of attention and then the president gave his remarks for several dozen big-dollar DNC supporters.
"Honey, what's your name?" Biden asked a little girl, sitting through what he joked had to be the most "boring" event. "Well, let me tell you something. Is that your daddy? He owes you big for having to sit here."
At a June fundraiser in Beverly Hills, California, at the home of billionaire media mogul Haim Saban, the president mused to Saban's wife, Cheryl, that both men had "married way above our station." And standing in the 65th-floor apartment of Henry and Marsha Laufer overlooking New York's Central Park, Biden gushed over the "magnificent" view, noting: "I don't know if there's a better view in New York than here."
Indeed, the residence is a "piece of heaven" for the Laufers, who appeared fastidious about keeping their place spotless. Attendees checked their shoes – expensive Jimmy Choo mules and Saint Laurent pumps among them — at the door and listened to Biden while in socks or slippers provided by the couple. A small group of reporters in attendance were asked to place "booties" over their shoes to protect their hardwood floors and light-colored carpets. (None of the shoe rules applied to Biden, who kept his on and did not wear the disposable coverings.)
At Biden fundraisers, celebrities such as the actor Robert De Niro (in New York) or filmmaker Ken Burns (in Boston) make the occasional cameo, although neither stayed long enough to hear the president speak.
To donors, Biden's comments, which can run from a few minutes to a half-hour, are a much more casual, off-the-cuff version of the campaign speech that he delivers in front of the cameras. Journalists have access to Biden fundraisers, although just with a notepad and pen, meaning cameras are barred.
Especially as of late, Biden takes care to underline his administration's accomplishments — a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package, a bipartisan infrastructure law, a climate and health care bill that came after months of internal Democratic wrangling. He then stresses to donors how the upcoming November midterms are a choice, not just between keeping his achievements and Republicans unraveling them, but on other issues such as abortion and guns.
While aides dispute that his message varies in more private settings, Biden frequently speaks extemporaneously and can be far less guarded than at his formal remarks at a lectern or on a stage.
It's been at fundraisers where Biden has invoked variations of fascism – be it "semi-fascism" or "tint of fascism" -- to refer to Trump-fueled forces within the Republican Party that Biden has said are a threat to the nation's democratic foundations. While his spokeswoman declined to assess the implications of the recent election in Italy, where a political party with neo-fascist roots won the most votes, Biden at the DGA fundraiser pointed to the results as he warned about the fate of democracy both in the United States and abroad.
At the Laufers' home, Biden – who tends to avoid talking about his faith when discussing policy — notably referenced the Catholic Church's position while castigating Republicans who had pushed for broad bans on abortion.
"I happen to be a practicing Roman Catholic. My church doesn't even make that argument," he said, referring to abortion bans that leave "no exceptions."
The quintessential Biden qualities — his candor and his warmth with the crowd — become more pronounced once the press is kicked out and audience members have a chance to ask Biden questions, say people who have attended such gatherings.
The questions Biden gets vary from event to event and they veer from political strategy to the news of the day. During a Manhattan fundraiser at the home of businessman and social justice activist Henry Munoz, Biden was pressed on his plans on immigration and how he would describe his closing message to voters, as well as the impact of the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, according to a person who spoke on condition of anonymity to relay details of a private event.
The bulk of Biden's fundraising activity has been for the DNC, and Biden earlier this year greenlighted a $15 million transfer from it to the party's House and Senate campaign committees, a sign of his personal investment in trying to ensure Democrats retain their majorities this fall. A White House official said Biden receives "quite a few" requests from Democratic candidates to appear at fundraisers, and aides work to accommodate as many as possible depending on his schedule and other factors.
Whitmer took priority because she was a co-chair of both Biden's presidential campaign and his inauguration.