Whitmer Is Still Confident in Biden

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

As the Democratic Party debates whether Joe Biden should stay in the presidential race, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer has been at the center of the storm. While the governor has long been eyed as a future presidential candidate, after Biden’s shaky debate she suddenly found her name being floated as a last-minute replacement at the top of the 2024 ticket. Whitmer, who is promoting her new memoir, True Gretch: What I’ve Learned About Life, Leadership, and Everything In Between, swiftly rejected the “Draft Gretch” movement and remains one of the Biden-Harris campaign’s top surrogates. In the latest episode of On With Kara Swisher, Kara has a long talk with Whitmer about her recent interactions with Biden, what she’s learned from leading a battleground state, and the case Democrats need to make to voters. Below, an edited excerpt of their conversation.

On With Kara Swisher

Journalist Kara Swisher brings the news and newsmakers to you twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays.

Kara Swisher: Do you see yourself as a happy warrior? Because you are kind of a jolly soul in a lot of ways. I’ve never caught you not smiling. I don’t know you that well, but you don’t strike me as someone who is anything but a happy warrior. Or are you a battleground general?

Gretchen Whitmer: I try to be both. You know, I try to be tough like Michiganders are. We’ve got grit, and it’s a very midwestern thing to try to also be kind to people. So it is kind of two sides of the same coin. I want to make sure that I don’t get distracted by baloney and that I am actually doing something that makes people’s lives better. And I love people. That’s why I do this work. I’m as comfortable in a Black church as I am in a bowling alley and more comfortable in both those places than a black-tie dinner. I get energy from people, and that keeps me optimistic about where we are.

Swisher: But right now, you’re a battleground general, presumably, at this moment. How do you look at that role as the most popular politician in Michigan, I would suspect? This is a battleground state going into the presidential election. How do you look at yourself? What is your role in the upcoming election? You are not standing for election this year, for people who don’t know that.

Whitmer: Correct. So I just got reelected a year and a half ago, won by almost 11 points when a lot of folks were writing my political obituary months out before the election. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to get done. I’m also very sober about the fact that Michigan is a microcosm of the country.

That’s why elections often come down to a handful of states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Michiganders tend to split our ticket. Sometimes we’ll have a Democrat for a long time and then a Republican. We’ll swing. And so it is a state that you can never take your eye off of and you can never take for granted. I’m very comfortable as governor and the agenda that I’ve set forth, but we’ve got an important presidential election coming up. We’ve got to show up in all 83 counties. No person should ever be written off. We can learn from asking questions and showing up. And that’s, I think, the role that I take very seriously going into this election. I’m also a co-chair on the Biden-Harris campaign.

Swisher: Mm-hmm.

Whitmer: Knowing that my state is maybe going to be one of the toughest battleground states is something that keeps me focused on the work that we’ve got to do in Michigan.

Swisher: So you are also one of the Biden campaign’s top surrogates and there are a lot of questions. Why is it so tough right now, given the economy is in relatively good shape? There have been all kinds of things passed. There’s all kinds of legislation. But since this Biden-Trump debate, many people, top Democrats, important political pundits, New York Times opinion columnists, big donors, a lot of people I’ve talked to, regular people have concerns.

Some have been calling for Biden to drop out. Others are just expressing concerns, being sort of slapped down pretty hard by some Democrats for even mentioning it. And obviously, your name’s being floated as a replacement. I know you’ve answered that question and disavowed the Draft Gretch movement, but walk us through this.

Whitmer: Yeah, I concur with that. And I know that this is a lot of people in our country. While we’ve got historic low unemployment and a lot of great things happening in the economy, a lot of people are struggling and it’s important to not lose sight of that. It’s important to remember why we do this work: to help people get ahead. To help people ensure that the next generation has got good jobs and opportunities and clean air and a democracy and the ability to make their own decisions about their bodies, right?

And it feels like a very high-stress moment for people all across the country. One of the pieces of advice that I shared with the campaign was folks in the grocery store in Michigan — what are they thinking about? They’re thinking that eggs are pretty expensive right now.

And so we’ve got to tell them that we understand it. And here’s what we’ve done to bring down your cost of insulin, or to ensure you’ve got a good paying job, as we’re on-shoring supply chains and shoring up the auto industry. In a state like Michigan, that’s a big deal and so many jobs depend on that. So I really think that it’s important, yes, to be the happy warrior, but to stay focused on how we help people and not lose sight with all these other, I think, distractions out there.

Swisher: But it’s not. It’s not a distraction. Everyone’s sort of saying, “Don’t look at what you just saw,” right? And I find it increasingly offensive, actually, saying, “Oh, ignore the age thing.” But you can’t ignore it. So I’d love to get your argument. I know you’ve been supportive of Biden. You told AP, which posed a hypothetical, that if Biden did step down, you would not run. It’s more than a distraction. All of the possible candidates are saying almost the same thing. But explain to me how people should feel after seeing that because it is honestly no one’s fault but Biden’s in many ways. Although he wants to blame the elites. He wants people to blame the media, et cetera.

Whitmer: Yeah, I hear what you’re saying and I don’t dismiss any of those concerns. I think that people saw a very troubling moment on that debate stage and have legitimate questions and the president has to answer them. I think that’s what he’s doing by showing up in a way that is very aggressive. He’s doing rallies, he’s doing NATO meetings, he’s doing press events and avails, and I think that’s important. They went silent for a little while after the debate, I think. Part of the thing I write about in the book is you run toward the fire. You don’t run away from it. You don’t watch it burn.

And so I think they’re starting to run toward the fire. That’s a good thing that he’s getting out there more so that he can show people what he’s capable of. I’ve seen it, but I can’t be the only person that vouches for it. Everyone’s got to be able to see it with their own eyes and get comfortable with that. And I think that he will prove that.

Swisher: How do you yourself assuage people when they bring up those concerns to you?

Whitmer: I talk about, “Listen, we really do have a choice between two candidates. You’re either voting an affirmative vote for Joe Biden or anything else ends up likely putting Trump back in the White House. Trump in the White House would be a disaster for our economy, our personal rights, the foundations of our democracy.” And so showing what Biden has done. He’s got receipts. The things that he’s been able to accomplish. We have manufacturing growth in this country that we haven’t had for a long time. That’s important for good-paying jobs. It’s also important for our homeland security. It’s showing what really our choices are. Because you can vote for a third-party candidate, but that’s really a vote for Donald Trump. And that’s why I think it’s important that we are talking about, yes, the receipts, but also what the vision is for the next four years.

Swisher: When you guys met with him last week, you were part of a group of Democratic governors who had a crisis meeting with the president — there’s an astonishing array of fantastic Democratic governors across this country —  where he said he was going to run and mentioned that he needed to sleep more. He also made jokes. I’ve heard mixed reactions to that meeting. I want to hear your reaction to that meeting.

Whitmer: I went because I knew if I didn’t go, it would be a story. I went because I do support President Biden and I wanted to see him firsthand after that debate performance. I went and I listened to my colleagues. I didn’t do much talking. I think that I wanted to hear what my colleagues had to say.

Swisher: Mmm.

Whitmer: At the end of it, really, their concerns were assuaged. You know, we are all governors and we all are dealing with certain anxieties of the people of our individual states.

Swisher: Hmm.

Whitmer: And we feel it too as individuals. And that’s why that line of communication is really more important than ever because governors know what’s going on on the ground in our states and smart people listen to our governors.

Swisher: You didn’t feel any pressure to get onboard, correct?

Whitmer: No, I was onboard. I showed up because I’m onboard, because I didn’t want anyone to read anything into my absence otherwise.

Swisher: Did you take issue with governors that aren’t? [Massachusetts governor] Maura Healey was very much in the middle, very mixed, her statement. How do you deal with statements like that or just say, “Look, people have different opinions”?

Whitmer: People have different opinions, people have different concerns. I love Maura Healey, I’ve got a great deal of respect for her. She’s one of my absolute favorite colleagues. We’ve had a lot of conversations about where we’re headed, what we want to get accomplished. And you’re right. We do have a deep bench of great Democratic talent in the governors and in other officeholders across the country right now. And it is important that people feel heard and have the ability to give their best advice to the administration because they need it.

Swisher: Jon Stewart talked about the predicament on The Daily Show. And he said this about Democratic messaging. And then I want to get into your book a little bit. Okay, we’re gonna play it.

Jon Stewart: Get onboard or shut the F up is not a particularly compelling pro-democracy bumper sticker, nor is What are you going to do?

Swisher: So how do you look at this? What is the messaging going forward? Look, we are where we are. Biden said he’s staying. How do you get those people back who have questions? What is the messaging?

Whitmer: Well, first, I don’t disagree with what Jon Stewart said, right? I mean, that’s not a compelling argument to get people excited and to get out and vote. We have to earn their vote. We’ve got to stay focused on the dinner-table issues. I know that there’s a lot of conversation about what’s happening in a number of countries around the globe right now.

What we have to focus on, I think, is what’s happening in households across America right now. What’s happening in states where women can’t access birth control, much less abortion care when they want it and need it. What is happening in terms of people getting skills and getting new better-paying jobs or needing affordable housing.

These are all things that President Biden has been able to move the needle on. And people are stressed and, understandably, they’re not consuming media the way that you and I do and probably a lot of your listeners do. We’ve got to make sure to be telling those stories. And I think those fundamentals are what Americans want, need, and deserve from their president.

Swisher: Let’s talk about money because on your Twitter page or your X page, you’re directing voters to donate to your PAC, Fight Like Hell. Talk about where you’re putting your money. I recently interviewed someone who was talking about down-ballot races, not the presidential race. How do you look at your fundraising and where it goes?

Whitmer: Well, in the last election, in ’22, when I was up for reelection, we did not have a U.S. Senate race. So we didn’t have all the resources we needed to run different parts of an operation. There are certain things you can use federal dollars for, certain things you can use state dollars for. And I said, I’m never getting into this mess again.

We’ve got an important election. It’s going to come down to Michigan and a couple of other states. So I started this PAC to make sure that we had the resources to get out the vote, to show up in all 83 counties, to get people registered to vote, to support House members and the Michigan State House.

We flipped it for the first time in 40 years. It’s the first time we have a trifecta in Michigan. We’ve set a great agenda. We’ve got to keep it rolling. So helping to make sure that we hold the House, ensuring that Elissa Slotkin, who I think is going to be our Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, that we’re competitive and ready to go in that race as well as the presidential. Supporting candidates who are pro-choice and who are going to fight like hell for our democracy. That’s what this is all about. And that’s why I said, “Let’s add a tool to our chest,” because we’ve got a lot of work to do.

Swisher: So you’re reportedly headed to some Silicon Valley conference this week. The invite list is a who’s who of business, media, and big-tech figures, many of whom are Democratic donors. Some of them are turning away from Biden. What would be your message to them if they want to continue to support Democrats?

Whitmer: Well, I always start by listening, Kara. Whether it’s about reproductive rights or it’s talking to farmers in Midland, Michigan, which I talk about in the book. I want to listen. I want to understand what the concerns are. The conversation about, “Oh, can we just clear the board and pick a couple of people and run them?”

That’s not going to solve the problem that people are confronting. So help me understand the problem, so that I can help figure out what we need to do to address it. And I think that that’s going to be the most important thing that I can do so that I can advise the campaign and I can earn the support and confidence of people who are wavering.

Swisher: And you right now are confident that Joe Biden will be the nominee?

Whitmer: Yes.

Swisher: You are. Make your best case right now and then we’ll get to your book.

Whitmer: Joe Biden’s going to be the nominee unless Joe Biden decides he’s not going to be the nominee. He’s gotten the nomination. We’re going to be going into convention soon, and it will be official in less than four weeks. But I mean, he’s earned the votes. He’s gotten the votes and he’s beaten Donald Trump in the past. I think he’s got a great list of accomplishments that are going to be compelling to the voters, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.

Swisher: And what do you do when someone, someone like your daughters, they say, “Mom, I don’t know. I don’t know.” What is your best argument to them?

Whitmer: I’m going to focus on fundamental rights and focus on climate and focus on affordable housing. We have a president who has delivered on all of these or is on the right side of these issues. Whether it’s gun safety … I mean, our kids’ generation — I know you’ve got some kids that are roughly the same ages. These issues are top of mind for them as well. The economy is top of mind. And guess what? There’s a lot of good stuff happening in this economy that we want to make sure that they understand too. I’m not taking my own kids for granted. I know that they’re going to end up probably in the right place at the end of the day, but I’m having those conversations just like I hope every person who sees the high stakes of this election is doing as well.

We cannot make any assumptions. Michigan had the highest youth voter turnout in the country in 2022. We had reproductive rights on the ballot. We had a dynamic group of leaders on the ballot. We can’t make any assumption that people still understand what’s at stake here. And that’s why we’ve got to have these conversations at all levels and all households.

Swisher: And how do you assuage their feelings that Donald Trump is winning at this point, almost everywhere, across the country?

Whitmer: We’ve always known this is going to be a competitive election. In Michigan, races are always going to be close. I tell friends, “Listen, don’t clutch your pearls when we’re down two points, and do not celebrate when we’re up two points.”

This is going to be close all the way to this election. But we can win this if we stay focused and we do the work and we roll up our sleeves and stop wringing our hands.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On With Kara Swisher is produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Cristian Castro Rossel, and Megan Burney, with mixing by Fernando Arruda, engineering by Christopher Shurtleff, and theme music by Trackademics. New episodes will drop every Monday and Thursday. Follow the show on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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