Joe Biden is officially running for president again — and if recent polls are any indication, most Americans are not thrilled about that news.
In a recent NBC News poll, 70 percent of respondents said they did not think Biden should run for reelection. That includes 51 percent of Democrats. Earlier polls have shown similar results, with most believing the party should move on.
Despite a better-than-expected midterm election cycle, the president’s political weaknesses remain glaring. His approval rating is currently 42.5 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s poll average, and he’s never really been known for firing up voters with great enthusiasm.
Then there’s the age issue — he’s already 80 and would be 86 at the conclusion of a hypothetical second term. “It’s hard to ignore the toll of Biden’s years, no matter how hard elected Democrats try,” New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote earlier this year. All of these issues could imperil his chances of winning.
Biden also has some potent political strengths that shouldn’t be underplayed — and that may well be factoring into Democrats’ calculations to let him run unopposed. He’ll have the advantages of incumbency, and policy accomplishments he can tout. He has a track record of defying electoral doubters, most recently in those midterm elections last year. He notably has beaten potential GOP nominee Donald Trump once already.
But the factor that best explains his continued resilience is that the other options for the party don’t seem great either. Whatever Biden’s flaws, it’s far from clear which specific Democratic politician would be a better nominee, and whether that person could even win the nomination. And any attempt to supplant Biden in the primary would inevitably prove divisive and controversial, with history suggesting such efforts harm the winner’s general election prospects.
Biden previewed what a strong version of his campaign could look like at his State of the Union address, with a focus on economic nationalism and popular policies, and a contrast with Republican extremism. Yet the campaign won’t be fought entirely on his terms, and the downsides of his candidacy remain considerable. It’s just the downside of a running different nominee may well be even worse for Democrats.
Listen here, Jack! The case for Biden.
Much of the case for Biden’s political strength hinges on looking at structural factors and historical patterns, rather than focusing too closely on how things are going right now.
For one, he’s an incumbent, and certain advantages come with that. Of the 31 incumbent US presidents who were renominated for the next general election, 11 lost and 20 won (with one of those 20, FDR, winning three times).
Those numbers may overstate the case a bit, since some politically weak presidents lost renomination in the 19th century, and others chose not to run for reelection. Still, the greater likelihood of incumbents to win elections is a long-running, well-documented pattern. Just recently, in the 2022 midterms, incumbents in both parties performed quite well. From that perspective, throwing away a potential incumbency advantage in favor of an untested candidate would be quite a risky move for Democrats.
Additionally, Biden’s approval may look bad now, but Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump all had roughly similar approval ratings at some point in their first term, and all of them except Trump won reelection (and even Trump, despite being unpopular and scandal-plagued throughout his term, came quite close to winning). As the general election draws nearer, more disgruntled Democratic partisans will likely fall in line.
Plus, voters aren’t now focused on the binary choice of Biden versus a Republican nominee, so Biden’s approval rating might be a misleading metric (as it was for the midterms, which voters viewed as a choice, not a referendum). Downbeat perceptions of the economy could be depressing Biden’s numbers now, but we don’t know what economic conditions will look like in 2024.
Then there’s Biden’s own electoral history. In the 2020 primary, many savvy pundits and Democratic elites dismissed his chances, since he was an old white man not known for his charisma, oratorical skills, or policy boldness.
Yet Biden proved to be just what the actual Democratic voter base (rather than the party’s educated elite class) was looking for during the primaries, and he was just formidable enough to pull off the rare feat of beating an incumbent in the general. In the midterms, too, Biden’s party defied predictions again, picking up a Senate seat and coming surprisingly close to holding the House.
So perhaps Biden is more politically formidable than he seems — particularly when you keep in mind that any alternative nominee would have their own weaknesses. Would Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, or Kamala Harris have changed enough votes in key swing states to defeat Trump in 2020, or would they have been less appealing to non-college-educated voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin? Would Bernie Sanders have been perceived by swing voters as too far left?
We’ll never know for certain, but perhaps the nomination of Biden averted disaster for Democrats in 2020 — and his stepping aside would risk just such a disaster.
Malarkey! The case against Biden.
Yet one common mistake in politics is to “fight the last war,” and one common mistake in political punditry is to assume what happened in the last election will happen again. Biden’s weaknesses as a candidate didn’t prevent him from winning in 2020, but 2024 will be a different contest.
Let’s start with the obvious: Biden is already the oldest president ever, and he isn’t getting any younger. Questions about whether he is as mentally sharp as he used to be are already widespread. All sorts of electorally perilous events are possible, from a serious health crisis to a gaffe that persuades some voters he’s no longer up to the job.
He’s also, as mentioned, unpopular, and though Reagan, Clinton, and Obama did see their approval ratings recover as their reelection drew nearer, it may not be safe to assume Biden’s will, too. Economic uncertainty remains, with conditions still affected by the Russia-Ukraine war, which has no end in sight. Battles with the Republican House of Representatives lie ahead, including over the debt ceiling — they could work out to Biden’s advantage, but that’s obviously unpredictable.
Then there’s scandal. There hasn’t been much news about Biden’s classified documents headache lately, and perhaps it will fizzle out, but every Democrat who remembers the Hillary Clinton email scandal likely got at least some heartburn when news of this broke. Beyond that, Joe’s son Hunter is in danger of indictment, and House Republicans now have subpoena power they can use to dig around the Biden family’s business dealings further, in search of damaging revelations. Biden had a clear advantage over Trump on the corruption issue in 2020, but the GOP will be working hard to ensure voters no longer believe that by 2024.
And on the topic of Biden’s electoral record, there’s reason to wonder how much of his success in the 2020 general election and the 2022 midterms comes down to him personally, and how much was about other factors — like Trump in both years and the Dobbs decision before the midterms. Biden’s charisma may not have mobilized Democratic voters, but they loathed Trump enough that they were sure to turn out to oust him from office, and Trumpian election denial loomed over the midterms, too.
But, ominously, some recent polls have actually shown Trump leading Biden nationally. Others have shown Biden ahead, but the point is that Biden’s advantage over Trump can no longer be taken for granted — and keep in mind that the skew of the Electoral College could well mean a small popular vote win for Biden is not enough.
And what if another Republican wins the nomination? Would today’s Biden make a good contrast to another Republican contender, or might a nominee who turns the page from Trump win back some of the Trump 2016 voters who went to Biden in 2020?
Finally, there’s the tantalizing draw of Democratic governors who performed significantly better than Biden had two years prior in their states, like Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, who won reelection, and Josh Shapiro, who won Pennsylvania’s governorship. They had weaker opponents and are untested on the national stage, so it’s far from clear whether they’d be strong presidential candidates (as shown in Ron DeSantis’s current woes). Still, many Democratic candidates across the country viewed Biden as a drag on their chances last year.
But while turning to potentially strong battleground candidates might be enticing in theory, doing so in practice would entail a divisive primary spotlighting the party’s internal tensions — and perhaps damaging general election chances even more.
And that ultimately may be the most important part of the calculus here for the party. Biden may not be the “best” Democrats could theoretically do — but taking practical reality into account, sticking with him is the party’s least bad option.