WASHINGTON — Last year, as the pandemic hemmed Joe Biden’s campaign appearances inside the boundaries of his Delaware home base, anxiety-ridden Democrats groused he wasn’t doing enough to seize control of the presidential race. With adverse headlines piling up, the presidential candidate asked his friend and chief campaign strategist what his team was doing about it.
“I hope we’re doing nothing,” said the strategist, Mike Donilon, according to another Democrat close to him. “I hope you’ll ignore this.”
It was steadying advice, guidance that prioritized a longer view of a stability-starved electorate and Biden’s strengths as a candidate. And it was vintage Donilon, the 62-year-old architect of Biden’s campaign messaging, who has been a stalwart presence in the president’s world for much of their 40-year relationship.
A writer, ad-maker, and erstwhile pollster, Donilon is now the senior adviser to the president, helping to shape what the White House says and guide what it does from an office in the West Wing right next to Biden’s study. Unlike some who have held the title before him — think Jared Kushner for Donald Trump, David Axelrod for Barack Obama, or Karl Rove for George W. Bush — Donilon is not well-known outside of Washington and his hometown of Providence. Even in those circles, one or both of his politically inclined brothers have usually loomed larger, since one worked for then-President Obama and the other works for the archbishop of Boston.
But Donilon’s low profile belies his influence. He shepherds and fortifies the president’s message to the outside world while keeping the White House internally focused on what matters most to Biden as it navigates the fractious politics of a nation in crisis. He is so close to Biden, and so quietly central in the White House, that learning more about him opens an essential window into the new administration and the thinking that guides it.
“He is our White House wise man,” said Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff, in an interview, describing him as a kind of compass that always points to Biden. “Mike, I think, understands why Joe Biden ran for president, what Joe Biden wants to do, and helps make sure that our work here stays on that mission.”
Donilon is the last person to look at every speech or presidential communication before it goes to Biden’s desk, his colleagues say. Staffers know he can help them gauge how Biden will feel about something, because the two are always in sync. He often talks last in the daily morning meeting for senior staff, steering the big picture back to the fore.
“His voice is quiet,” said the president’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens, in a statement, “but when he speaks, everyone listens.”
Donilon and her brother, she said, “speak the same language.”
The men have known each other since 1981, when Donilon was a young pollster assigned to take the temperature of the Delaware electorate for a senator with loftier goals. Donilon went on to make ads or guide strategy for the likes of Presidents Clinton and Obama, two dozen Democratic Senate candidates, and even people running local races like Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, but formed an especially close bond with — and a deep loyalty to — Biden.
“They’ve had thousands of hours of conversations over the years. It’s an extraordinary, extraordinary relationship,” said Donilon’s older brother, Tom, who was a national security advisor to Obama and a key strategist in Biden’s 1988 presidential campaign.
Since then, Mike Donilon has been there for decisions that changed the course of Biden’s career. He was in the room when Obama’s team showed up the day his selection as running mate was announced and became Biden’s counselor at the White House in 2009. Donilon was deeply involved as Biden agonized over whether to run for president in 2016, and he helped to craft the narrative for Biden’s 2020 run, making sure the theme of a “battle for the soul of a nation” ran through everything the campaign did — even when, in the early nominating contests, it didn’t seem to be working.
“No matter how many people came in to say you should talk about this, you should talk about that, I mean, Mike Donilon’s response always was, ‘Well, this is what Joe Biden wants to say, this is what he believes, it’s why he was running,’” said Anita Dunn, another senior adviser to the president who was also a key campaign aide.
Donilon rebuffed pressure to run an uglier campaign against Trump, his brother Tom said, and he seemed to brush off the kind of intraparty criticism that thrived among liberals on Twitter — an app he does not use.
“One thing Mike also said at the beginning of the campaign … this campaign will not be won on Twitter,” Tom Donilon said. “Twitter’s not the electorate. That was an essential insight.”
Mike Donilon was right, but he now faces a bigger challenge than just winning an election. The same resistance to change that worked in the campaign could lead to blind spots now. He will have to keep the White House on message as it tries to allay the nation’s multiple crises, to cut through the noise without alienating progressives on the left or failing to combat disinformation and disruption from the right. And he will have to make sure Biden’s voice rises above it all.
“Biden’s not an easy guy to write for. He has very strong views, opinions of how he presents himself, and Mike really gets it,” said David Axelrod, who served as Obama’s senior strategist and has worked closely with Donilon. “He’s going to continue to be the keeper of the message, and that is a really, really difficult job.”
Donilon learned a hard lesson early on about the consequences of failing to get your message out: He lost the race for student government president at Georgetown in 1980.
“As soon as we put up a platform statement or a poster, someone would rip it down,” he complained to a school newspaper reporter who happened to be Ron Klain.
But it wasn’t his first experience with politics. Donilon grew up in a two-story Dutch Colonial in working-class south Providence, the third of four children raised by parents enmeshed in the Democratic machine in the Irish-Catholic enclave. Donilon’s mother, Theresa, rose to run the clerical workers’ union there in the 1980s; his father, Edward, served as the president of the Providence school board until 1979, when he clashed with the notoriously corrupt Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., a Republican, and got replaced.
It was an upbringing that might have seemed a world away from the powerful people the boys would one day serve. But their immersion in Catholic education and Providence politics put them — like the future politicos who went to their school, including Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Senators Pat Toomey and Jack Reed — on the track to get there.
On the advice of their father, Mike and his oldest brother, Tom, went to college in Washington, D.C., hoping to blaze their own path into national politics. For Mike, that meant Georgetown, where he gained a reputation as a good writer with indecipherable penmanship and, his former roommate said, a contrarian who could build a compelling argument around just about anything.
Tom Donilon graduated from Catholic University and landed a job in Jimmy Carter’s White House; when Mike graduated, he went to work for Democratic pollster Pat Caddell.
“We worked on competing presidential campaigns in 1984. I was national campaign coordinator for [Walter] Mondale and he worked for Gary Hart,” Tom said, recalling the ensuing strife at home. “My mother could not understand how the younger brother could not support the older brother’s candidate.”
Twenty-six years later, Tom was Obama’s national security adviser, Mike was a counselor to Vice President Biden, and their offices were 15 steps apart.
“I’m absolutely sure that there have never been two brothers from Rhode Island working in the West Wing of the White House,” said Tom Donilon.
Their younger brother, Terrence, worked in corporate communications and was hired in 2005 to be the chief spokesman for Cardinal Sean O’Malley of the Boston Archdiocese. By 2013, when O’Malley was a dark horse to be chosen as pope, a Washington Post story about the brothers included Mike as something as an also-ran — and he was likely happy to remain behind the scenes. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
“He’s not a guy who lives to draw attention to himself,” said Axelrod, who noted how that quality, as well as a calm demeanor, distinguishes Donilon in Washington.
“Mike has the disposition of a parish priest,” he said.
The people who know Donilon best say he sticks by his convictions, but his political beliefs were never particularly dogmatic. “I’m not even sure we have that many opposing ideas,” said Mark Salter, Donilon’s college roommate who went on to be a top aide to Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona.
Another close associate said his avoidance of a rigid worldview has been an asset, making him perfectly open to new views as the times have changed.
After Biden’s 1988 campaign imploded over accusations of plagiarism, Donilon — still a pollster at that point — called him with a bit of good news.
Donilon told him “74 percent of people in Delaware think you ought to run for president again,” according to an oral history by Ted Kaufman, another fixture in Biden’s inner circle. “The bad news is, 43 percent of the people in Delaware think you’re too arrogant.”
“Find those people!” Biden joked.
Donilon’s grounding in polling did more than connect him with Biden. It shaped his approach to speechwriting and ad-making, drawing his focus to the middle class, and it laid the foundation for a long career of relying on data and winning his clients’ races — even if that meant discarding the advice of prominent Democrats or sacrificing liberal priorities. In 2018, for example, he helped the moderate Democrat Conor Lamb win a House race in a Trump-friendly district of Pennsylvania.
There were times when Donilon encouraged his candidates to take policy risks, like when he pushed L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia to take a strong abortion-rights stance on his way to becoming the nation’s first Black person elected governor in 1989, according to Tad Devine, a political strategist who later ran a consultancy with him.
But after coming of age as a political operative in the 1980s, when his party was shut out of the White House, Donilon also saw the value in hewing to the center. On the Clinton campaign, Donilon was on the team that made the famous “End Welfare as We Know It” ad, which embodied a central message that helped Clinton appeal to white moderates.
A 1998 Senate ad he made for John Edwards, the North Carolina Democrat, painted his Republican opponent as too close to Clinton, which ruffled feathers in the party.
“Mike had a very good way of looking around the corner when it came to polling,” said Devine, adding that his old colleague has shaped a staggering number of Democrats’ campaigns.
“The US Senate was in the hands of Mike,” in 2000, Devine said.
Donilon’s instincts and willingness to buck the wishes of others in his party showed in 2006, when he worked on Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse’s bid to defeat incumbent Senator Lincoln Chafee, who was then a Republican. Harry Reid, then the Senate minority leader, wanted Whitehouse to go negative, but Donilon knew the name Chafee was gold in Rhode Island at the time. He and Whitehouse stuck with an upbeat strategy, and they won.
“We beat a guy who was more popular than I was on the day of the election,” Whitehouse said.
Donilon is part of a loyal group of Biden aides that includes Klain, Kaufman, Dunn, and White House counselor Steve Ricchetti. Progressives have chafed at the fact that it is often older white Democrats who represent what seem like a bygone era who have Biden’s ear. They have also pointed out the corporate connections of some of Biden’s inner circle, like Ricchetti’s lobbyist brother, or the fact that Donilon’s older brother, Tom, now works for BlackRock, a massive financial firm with regulatory interests. (Tom Donilon said the brothers are used to keeping certain subjects off-limits; a White House official said they don’t discuss business.)
But they have been pleasantly surprised at how deftly Biden and his team have navigated some of their priorities, which Biden’s allies describe as a function of experience.
Donilon was there as Biden began considering the possibility of being vice president, according to the Atlantic, and Biden turned to him again for counsel as 2016 approached and he weighed another presidential run.
Donilon prepared a 22-page memo laying out Biden’s path to the nomination, a case that leaned heavily on the strategic advantage Donilon always saw in Biden: His strength with the middle class. Yet, despite months of preparation, Donilon told Biden, during the throes of grief over the death of his son Beau in May 2015, that he didn’t think he should run.
“He was speaking as a friend,” Biden wrote in his 2017 memoir.
Then, after a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., early in the Trump administration, Biden called Donilon, Dunn said. In 2020, Donilon turned Biden’s core message about the “soul of a nation” into speeches and advertising, working from his Rhode Island beach house after the pandemic set in, with the rest of the key staffers watching the seasons change behind him on Zoom.
In the White House, he has crafted strategy around the administration’s advocacy for its $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan, laying out its bipartisan popularity in a recent memo.
But he views his job as making sure all of Biden’s top priorities are on track.
One morning, about two or three weeks into the new administration, Washington-based media outlets were running critical, process-focused stories, which came up in a morning meeting.
Donilon looked around the room and reminded everyone Biden was elected to focus on the big things.
“Right now, the two big things are beating COVID and getting the economy back on track,” he said, according to Klain. “We need to stay focused on those big things, and not get distracted by what’s in some Washington newsletter.”