In the wake of renewed speculation about Democratic unhappiness with President Biden, I tried to offer a reality check at New York:
Joe Biden is at present an unpopular president whose performance has discouraged his party’s base. That’s a bad combination for Democrats, who are facing a 2022 midterm election with fragile control of both houses of Congress.
Just 12 days after November’s election, President Biden will turn 80, an occasion which will produce massive discussion about his age just as a new presidential-election cycle begins. If things go as badly as expected for Democrats on November 8, many in the party will quietly and not so quietly urge the 46th president to retire at the end of his term. But if he stubbornly refuses to pack it in, what then?
Such questions are being raised right now thanks to a New York Times–Siena poll showing that an imposing 64 percent of self-identified Democrats would prefer a different presidential nominee in 2024. Democrats saying Joe should go range from 47 percent among Black voters (who were so crucial to Biden in 2020) to an incredible 94 percent of voters under age 30 (who were cool to Biden in the primaries but supported him strongly in the general election).
This is just one poll, but you have to go back to Jimmy Carter to find anything like this level of intraparty disaffection with a Democratic president. One source of that discontent, Biden’s age, isn’t going to get any better; 33 percent of Democratic respondents who prefer someone else cited Biden’s age as the most important reason for wanting a new 2024 candidate — higher than any other single factor.
Other factors could actually reduce the pressure on Biden to bow out before the next election. Despite the apparent “red wave” building for November, Democrats are still even money to hang onto the Senate. Thanks to the shrinking number of competitive House seats, estimates of likely Democratic House losses are in the 20–35 range, far lower than what Democrats experienced in 2010. Concerns about the reversal of Roe v. Wade and the continued threat of a Donald Trump comeback could boost Democratic turnout and further insulate the party from disaster.
As for 2024, it’s worth remembering that the last two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, bounced back from horrible midterms to get themselves reelected. And even in this terrible Times-Siena poll, Biden would be narrowly favored (44-41) over Donald Trump in a 2024 rematch. But Clinton was 50 years old and Obama 51 when they were reelected. Joe Biden was 50 in 1992, the year Clinton was first elected; if reelected in 2024, Biden would be 86 at the end of his second term. This cannot be wished away as anything less than problematic. As my colleague Gabriel Debenedetti concluded in May: “There is no substantial precedent for the volume of questions about Biden’s future.”
Let’s say that on Biden’s 80th birthday, there is powerful Democratic sentiment for sending him to the rest home. If he doesn’t go away quietly, can he be pushed aside?
The only Biden heir apparent, of course, is his vice-president. Kamala Harris is not going to turn on the man who placed her a heartbeat from the presidency. Even if she did, she’s currently less popular than Biden, and in fact, fears about Harris’s electability could lead some Biden disparagers to reconsider putting him on an ice floe. Meanwhile, Harris’s positioning as a future nominee could freeze some primary voters (particularly the Black voters among whom Biden already has a relative advantage) in his camp. More important, none of the many politicians being discussed as potential Biden successors (Gavin Newsom, J. B. Pritzker, Gretchen Whitmer, Chris Murphy, Roy Cooper, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg) have the combination of name ID and broad-based support to topple an incumbent president.
Since Biden circa 2022 is often compared to 1970s Jimmy Carter due to a combination of sluggish job approval ratings, unhappy progressive activists, and big-time economic problems (especially inflation), it is germane to observe that Carter managed to soundly defeat Ted Kennedy — the liberal lion of the 1970s and subsequent decades — in the 1980 nomination contest.
Are there any Ted Kennedys around right now to mobilize progressive anti-administration grievances into a successful insurgent candidacy? Someday, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may have that stature — but not now. Indeed, the only potential rival from any wing of the party who is in that position is Bernie Sanders, who is older than Biden. And even if there were some Kennedy-like figure available, would the fight disable the Democratic Party (as it arguably did in 1980) more than slogging ahead with the incumbent?
The most plausible precedents for pushing Biden out are those that occurred in 1952 and 1968, when unpopular incumbent presidents performed poorly against nuisance candidates in early primaries and took a hint. But this scenario still leaves the decision to fold the tent to a wounded but not defeated president. Biden doesn’t really resemble the Harry Truman of 1952 or the Lyndon Johnson of 1968 — presidents with great landmark achievements behind them. He’s where he’s fought to be for many decades and may still consider himself a good bet — perhaps the best bet — against a vengeful Trump in 2024. It’s unclear if even an early primary defeat would deter him; after all, he lost the first three contests in 2020 (the first two very badly) and was repeatedly left for dead.
All in all, the ball remains in the 46th president’s court. If he can get through the midterms without catastrophe and past his 80th birthday with some spring in his step, he could talk himself into one more campaign. And if his inner voice continues to tell him to defy the critics one more time, he may not listen to anyone else.