TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
With all the attention being focused on the potential GOP presidential field for 2024, it’s looking like Joe Biden may run unopposed on the Democratic side, and at New York I compiled reasons why that’s a good thing.
The most dramatic development in 2024 presidential politics since the midterms hasn’t been Donald Trump’s official entry into the race or his loosening grip on the Republican Party (he’s still the GOP’s 2024 front-runner). It’s actually Joe Biden’s path to renomination suddenly clearing.
For much of the first half of 2021, there was anticipatory unhappiness with Biden among Democrats who figured his poor job-approval ratings would feed a huge Republican midterms wave. It did not, of course, turn out that way. Biden saw immediate benefits following Democrats’ better-than-expected midterms performance. Rather than triggering cries for his retirement, his 80th birthday on November 20 passed virtually without notice. And now any muttering about renominating Biden is muted. A few left-of-center commentators are massively overreacting to the developing scandal over classified documents turning up in the president’s Delaware garage. And, of course, there are still concerns about Biden’s age. But sources close to the president say he’s still planning to announce he’ll seek a second term “not long after” the State of the Union address on February 7. And unless a Democrat mounts a serious challenge very soon, which doesn’t seem very likely, he will quickly lock down the 2024 nomination while Republicans are still squabbling.
Although Biden isn’t universally beloved even among Democrats, his quiet renomination will be a good thing for the party in general, not just the president himself. Here’s why.
Incumbent presidents usually win reelection.
Trump lost his reelection bid, though by a much narrower margin than most objective observers expected. But the 44th, 43rd, 42nd, 40th, 37th, 36th, 34th, 33nd and 32nd presidents all won second terms. Since World War II began, only George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and Trump served just one term — and Ford came very close to winning. Presidential incumbency doesn’t guarantee victory, but it’s undoubtedly a powerful asset.
There’s no consensus heir to Biden.
If Biden were to decide against pursuing a second term, his heir apparent would be Vice-President Kamala Harris. Her current level of popularity is low enough (a 40/53 job approval ratio) to encourage intraparty opposition, yet high enough to give her a decent chance. That means a contested nomination fight at a time when a head start against the GOP would be very helpful.
There is not, moreover, any consensus alternative to Harris, but there are some very ambitious Democrats who may jump at an opportunity to go for the big prize. These include 2020 retreads Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg; key-state governors Gavin Newsom of California, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois; and an assortment of dark horses. Progressives might insist on their own alternative to Harris, and they could look at long-time champion Bernie Sanders (who has not ruled out a third straight presidential campaign) and younger candidates like California Congressman Ro Khanna.
Whoever challenges Harris in a post-Biden scenario should be acutely aware of the risks of pushing aside the first Black woman — not to mention the first Asian American — to appear on a presidential ticket. If nothing else, the inevitable debate over that development will be a major, and perhaps turnout-depressing, distraction.
Without Biden, his party could fly apart.
As president, Biden has done a better-than-expected job of keeping Democrats (aside from the senatorial arch-heretics Manchin and Sinema) united. They remained united during the 2022 midterms, and House Democrats made a real impression staying unified behind Hakeem Jeffries during the 15-ballot Speaker’s election that displayed so much Republican ugliness.
Highly competitive 2024 presidential primaries could strain this hard-earned defiance of the “Democrats in disarray” meme. For starters, the fight over the very order of Democratic primaries could grow toxic if candidates perceive advantages in certain states going first. And without an incumbent president to paper over them, ideological disagreements on the future of the Democratic Party could quickly emerge.
With a divided federal government, Democrats don’t need a trendsetter.
It’s unlikely that Democrats will regain a governing trifecta anytime soon, so most of their presidential candidate’s 2024 agenda probably won’t be enacted. The Senate landscape in 2024 is terrible for Democrats. Winning back the House won’t be easy, either; 1954 was the last time House control flipped in consecutive elections, and 1952 was the last presidential election when House control changed.
In a period of divided government, having a president who can pay lip service to bipartisanship while using the limited powers he has to govern without Congress is probably the right combination.
Uncle Joe is a known commodity in another high-stakes election.
Ultimately, renominating Biden makes sense for the same reasons nominating him made sense in 2020. Taking a flier on a different candidate would be dangerous for Democrats, and for the country. While Democrats are very unlikely to win a trifecta in 2024, Republicans could do so quite easily with a presidential win, making their efforts to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; institute a national abortion ban; and install even more conservative judges much more feasible.
If and when Biden formally announces his candidacy for reelection, he should offer concrete evidence of his physical and mental fitness to endure four more years on the job, and express willingness to step aside if that’s no longer the case. That would reinforce his reputation as a regular Joe who loves his country more than he loves himself, unlike his predecessor and possible 2024 opponent. Democrats might imagine they could do better than offering voters a second Biden administration. But it’s a risky business.