On Monday morning, I chatted with Greg Schultz, who has a unique insight into Biden’s core political principles and strengths. While many credit Schultz with landing Biden the party’s nomination, he was eventually layered over during the general election by many of the same officials who now work in the White House, where Biden’s approval ratings have dropped as low as 33 percent, with much of the country saying he shouldn’t run for reelection.
Schultz worked in the Vice President’s office during the Obama years and ran Biden’s political PAC. And while he was widely expected to join the White House, he never quite made it. Many have cited his strained relationship with Jen O’Malley Dillon, among other factors. Now, looking from the outside, he offers an unvarnished assessment of how to help manage Biden’s political strengths for maximum impact while mitigating his well-known knack for gaffery and extemporaneous thoughts.
Schultz, a midwestern guy from Parma, Ohio, understood that the gaffes were part of Biden’s working class appeal—and he believes that the president would be better suited if his team leaned into his charm rather than frantically cleaning up after him. Moreover, I was surprised by his clarity regarding the strength of Biden’s political message, and his optimism about how it plays with the Democratic party’s own increasingly silent majority. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tara Palmeri: What’s it like working for Biden?
Greg Schultz: He’s someone who is really comfortable in almost all of the rooms he’s in. Trips out with him are super stressful. He takes speech prep very seriously, he takes policy prep with the team before events very seriously, so it can be a very stressful plane ride out. And then it’s honestly one of those fun plane rides back. He can be very tough in prep, but then when you’re done, he’s like, How’s your mom? Give her a call. Let’s see how she’s doing.
The guy really was one of the more optimistic people in the White House. I don’t know if it’s just that when you go through tragedy, as he has, you just have to keep a perspective that’s brighter than the others around you. It always kind of stood out to me. I think it’s kind of a forward-looking optimism that you don’t often find.
But he also has a temper.
He’s like a lot of Irish friends I have. They wear their emotions on their sleeves, there’s not much room for guessing how they’re feeling at that moment.
You’re a Biden guy, and you saw him win a once wildly improbable electoral victory. Now he is polling at 33 percent. How can the White House demonstrate his strengths effectively?
I think Joe Biden’s gut is closer to the gut of the average American than probably almost anybody in D.C.—any operative, any staffer. I think Joe Biden gets the average person better than almost anyone. And it’s stressful staffing him because you have to trust that, at the end of the day—well, maybe the end of the week or month—that he’s going to take you more forward than he does backwards. That means you have to let him be himself. Some days it’s going to be a little more challenging, but the next day he’ll be on some rope line and he’ll meet someone who lost a job or lost a child, and he will connect with them in a way that’s so real.
I remember the Colbert show. Biden and [Stephen] Colbert shared that horrific life experience. [Members of Colbert’s family were involved in a fatal airplane accident decades ago.] Kate [Bedingfield] and I were just speechless. There’s a rawness about him, sometimes it’s a righteous anger, sometimes it’s a vulnerability. Sometimes it’s him saying, Putin shouldn’t be in power. Those are the times when he resonates with those people. I just think that is his strength and if you try to cover for it, you don’t get the upside, but you still get the challenges that it brings.
If you want someone to go up there and read policy prescriptions, that’s not going to be him. I think Obama did it very well, and Obama was president twice and did a lot of great things. You design your offense around your quarterback. I think sometimes in politics, we think, What does he need to win this race? I like to think: What’s the strength of the candidate and how do we build around that? The more we do that in governance and campaigns, the more likely we’ll see success.
Do you think he needs a shakeup to surround him with more advisers who trust his instincts?
I think that there are some people within the administration who would benefit from acquainting themselves with Biden’s ideology and policy. That is not a comment about the orbit around him. That is a broader comment. I think just understanding what he prioritizes, and how he talks about things. He is someone who wants to get the most progress made, rather than not get it made. I think there’s a lot of staff, not right around him, that probably started supporting him in the general election, and hopefully, after these first couple years, started to appreciate his strengths. These jobs are hard, there’s a lot going on in the world.
Biden’s gut is one of the best political guts there is. We have to remember what the base is, and who the base is. And I think that’s the piece. I think when you ask the right questions, like, who is the base and who is the base in the midterms (which is different from a general election), it’s still much more close to a Biden Democrat.
If you worked for him now, what would you advise?
He’s got a lot of friends out there. A great group of those House members, who he campaigned for in 2016 and 2018, in particular, many of whom might lose their seats in the midterms. Those members are celebrating the progress they have made, often bipartisanly. Whether it’s bipartisan support for Ukraine, the bipartisan infrastructure package, sometimes bipartisan support of a Supreme Court nominee. When Biden is doing policy and politics, the stronger coordination he could have with those candidates and those caucuses, the stronger for everyone.
But what if House members don’t want to campaign with him because he’s not popular?
Democrats have a brand challenge in big parts of the country, where the national brand is bad. That is not the D.N.C.’s fault. There are a lot of things that go into that. But when there are high-level Democrats who do things that don’t fit into what the national brand of the Democratic party has become, they can actually help local Democrats on the ground. That means talking about lowering prescription drugs, making vocational school attainable that can lead to jobs, you’re talking about lowering college costs for those going to community college. When there is alignment on the national level and the local level, that’s good for the party. I don’t know how often these moderate house districts are calling out Republicans.
I think they’re calling out insurrectionists, obstructionists and the Roe decision, but I think they are highlighting times when they’re working with Republicans. I think that’s something Biden has done well and could do well. I think the more alignment between those two, the better for everyone.
I do think that when you call out the right for some of their own insanity, it’s okay to call out the far left on some of their policy prescriptions. I think doing so reinforces the middle, and by the middle I mean the vast majority in the country.
Do you think that his advisors are paying too much attention to the activist base rather than the actual Democratic base?
You know, I’m going to leave that one for others to decide.
Biden came into office with high approval ratings. How would you diagnose his current challenges?
When you put forward policies that are in the trillions, everyone feels great. For the further left part of the party, when Biden was talking about trillions of dollars for the infrastructure bill, they left him alone. But as soon it went from $2 trillion to $1 trillion, you had a couple Democrats not vote for the bill. I do think there’s a honeymoon period, I do think that was part of it and that was not going to last.
The 2020 primary proved the makeup of the Democratic party. We were a campaign that was protested by a lot of these groups on the left during the primary, and, yes, Joe Biden is still President of the United States. This is why the bubble of D.C. is so dangerous in terms of how we move forward with our politics and our policies. The Democratic party is a Joe Biden party. The average Democrat is a Joe Biden democrat. Now, if you would look at Twitter you would think he’s a rabid far right Republican. Parts of the party that don’t have mass appeal among the electoral base, they make the most noise.
Do you think Biden’s advisers have blind spots?
I think Biden has a learning curve. The rise of the radicalization of the right, I don’t think anyone appreciated, I certainly didn’t, how permanent that may be in a scary way. I think that’s a real thing. Biden knows who he is, and the Biden brand won a large diverse electorate. His base actually still reflects that ideology. That hasn’t changed in a major way, even with the pandemic and the other awakenings happening.
Biden used to say he was a “bridge.” You don’t hear that anymore. Do you think he should run again?
Yes. I do.
So why say he was a bridge?
That wasn’t a code for one-term. He saw it as, the world is changing, and he wanted to set it up to survive. I go back to the book he was reading before he announced his run for president: “How Democracies Die.” He literally carried it around with him. It was about democracies dying through the slow erosion of institutions and I would hear him talking about the bridge, as I’m going to build those institutions back up, so that we can move on. Let’s save the patient first, and then get the patient up and walking.
There has been an onslaught of stories about the challenges posed by his age. How do you think that’s sitting with him?
This is why you see the guy running around, literally running onto the stage. It’s not new. I heard the same things in 2020 and now they call him Mr. President. He’s never been a morning person, but at the end of days, at the end of long trips, the younger staffers would be exhausted, but he’d come back and want to tell stories and talk.
The guy has a lot of energy and he’s clearly a people person, so the more he has going on, the more energy he gets. He’s one of those people that, if he keeps working, he’ll live to be a 100. And if he’s not working, I don’t know. And the reality is I’m not sure the democratic primary process would produce someone who could beat a Trump.
But what if they put him up against a younger candidate, like Ron DeSantis?
I think the coalition that Biden can build is the widest coalition that a national Democrat can build right now, and that puts you in the best spot to win a presidential campaign.
Do you think he will consider his family when deciding whether to run again?
When he talked about it in 2018, the grandkids all came to him, and said, Pops, we know what we’re getting into, you should do this. I don’t know the exact moment in his head when he felt comfortable running, but I feel that may have been it. Ever since everyone in the family has been alive, he’s been elected to something. So they know this, they know what they’re getting into, and I’m sure it weighs on him. The thing about Biden is that there are some politicians whose personal ambition maybe outweighs the family dynamic. With Biden, at least where he is in life, that’s not the case. It will have a big impact and that could cut both ways. I think in 2018, it went in the affirmative.
What do you say to critics who say that Biden leads from behind, and takes too long to deliberate?
Say he serves two terms, he’ll still have spent twice as long in the Senate as he did as president and vice president, so that’s his world view and experience, as being a senator forever. You’ve seen him grow in a kind of experience where you govern as president versus a senator. And you’ll continue to see a strengthening of that understanding and execution of it. When to intervene, when not to intervene, that’s felt to me that’s something that he’s worked on. I have to imagine it’s very new. The vice president still has senatorial responsibilities. That’s 40 plus years doing that type of role. That’s one where you’ll continue to see him grow mastery.
Is it fair to say that if Jen O’Malley Dillon was not in the White House, you’d be in there right now?
I don’t know if I would say that.