WASHINGTON — It’s no secret that President Joe Biden is harder to reach since moving into the White House. But as Sen. Joe Manchin publicly flirts with the possibility of an independent White House run, the view among people close to Biden is that the frustrated centrist is trying to talk the president through the press, if not directly.
Manchin has used a series of interviews explaining his decision not to seek re-election as a platform to criticize Biden’s lack of salesmanship for his agenda and to argue the president has had an ideological drift to the left.
The view among many in the Biden administration, according to sources close to the administration who asked to speak anonymously to provide a frank assessment, is that Manchin likely won’t mount a third-party presidential bid, citing their experience with a man who has often delayed, but ultimately supported much of the president’s agenda.
But Manchin’s continued public flirtation with a run is problematic at a time when the campaign is already trying to fend off nervousness within the party.
Speaking on NBC News’ Kristen Welker on Wednesday, Manchin said he and Biden haven’t spoken since he announced his decision not to seek reelection to his West Virginia Senate seat.
“I haven’t spoken to him. … He’s been traveling quite a bit,” Manchin said. “But I spoke to Steve Ricchetti. And he is his very close confidante and his advisor. And they understood. They didn’t want me to leave. And I understand that.”
When Biden was vice president, he “was the only Obama official who spoke to Manchin,” a source close to Manchin said. They bonded over their similar, more working-class upbringings and a strong commitment to organized labor. And when President Barack Obama asked Biden to formulate the administration’s response to the Sandy Hook school massacre, Biden spoke frequently with Manchin, who was leading the primary legislative response, a bipartisan background check bill that ultimately failed to pass.
Now it’s Ricchetti, a senior counselor who served as Biden’s chief of staff during his second vice presidential term, who is the main conduit to Manchin, though the senator and the president have had the occasional direct conversation as well.
Manchin’s decision not to seek re-election was not a surprise to the White House, according to one official. Even though Manchin has a record of electoral success, he was unlikely to be able to overcome a conservative tide in a state like West Virginia during a presidential election year while running against a popular governor.
Still, the White House would have preferred Manchin run for another term, another official said, something Ricchetti conveyed when the senator called him to inform the White House of his decision.
The White House is uncertain about what comes next for Manchin.
There may be more certainty in the coming weeks. In August, Manchin’s daughter, Heather Manchin, launched Americans Together, a political organization to promote middle-of-the-road candidates and policies. A source familiar with the matter said the organization could ramp up fundraising and be a vehicle for Manchin’s message, if not his candidacy.
As the No Labels organization has worked to gain ballot access across the country, advisers to Manchin have remained in contact with the group, a signal that running on its ticket continues to be a possibility. Among the points of discussion is how to ensure the group has sufficient resources to mount a successful independent candidacy. No Labels “could use more horsepower,” a source familiar with the matter said.
There’s some frustration among potential Manchin backers that he won’t move quickly enough to be successful. Manchin said in an interview with Welker that he would make a decision about running for president as a third-party candidate around Super Tuesday in early March, at which point a Trump-Biden rematch would likely be set in stone. But people close to Manchin think he would need to move sooner.
Among the other reasons, Biden advisers believe Manchin ultimately won’t run given his own comments about not wanting to be a spoiler and his deep opposition to Donald Trump.
“I’ve never been a spoiler in my life of anything, and I would never be a spoiler now,” Manchin said in the interview.
Manchin’s wife, Gayle Conelly Manchin, continues to serve in the administration as federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission.
Biden advisers are very concerned about the prospect of a major third-party candidacy, even if they aren’t sure whether Manchin will wage one, according to a source familiar with those discussions.
A White House spokesperson pointed to Biden’s warm public statement thanking Manchin for his dedicated service and partnership with the president on key issues. The Biden campaign declined to comment.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com