Joe Biden is having a rough summer. The US supreme court has overturned Roe v Wade, ending federal protections for abortion access. Although gas prices are now falling, they remain high and have driven inflation to its largest annual increase in more than 40 years. West Virginia senator Joe Manchin has finally ended any hopes that the president had of passing a climate bill in Congress. With an evenly divided Senate, Biden’s options for addressing these problems – or enacting any of his other legislative priorities – are bleak.
Amid this pessimism, Democrats are bracing for a potential shellacking in the midterm elections, as Republicans appear poised to regain control of the House of Representatives. Faced with a grim outlook for 2022, some Democrats are already looking ahead to 2024 and asking, is Joe Biden the best person to lead the party and the nation?
Questions over whether Biden should seek re-election in 2024 have grown louder in recent weeks. A New York Times/Siena College poll taken this month found that 64% of Democrats say they would prefer a different nominee for 2024. Among Democrats under 30, that figure rises to 94%.
Ellen Sciales, a spokesperson for the youth-led climate group Sunrise Movement, said voters of her generation have grown disillusioned with Biden and other Democratic party leaders. After turning out to vote at near-record levels in 2020, young voters are now watching in dismay as the climate crisis accelerates and reproductive rights are stripped away, Sciales said.
“Democrats should be treating the loss of my generation as an existential threat,” Sciales said. “We’ve been warning Democrats that unless they pass real meaningful policy immediately, like what was promised in Build Back Better, they are going to lose the engagement of so many voters, threatening their chances in 2022, 2024 and even further.”
Democrats should be treating the loss of my generation as an existential threat
In addition to his sinking approval rating, Biden is facing increasingly pointed questions about his age. At 79 years old, Biden is already the oldest president in US history, and if re-elected, he would be 86 when his second term ended. The Times/Siena poll found that age and poor job performance ranked as the top two reasons why Democrats said Biden should not run again in 2024.
The White House has publicly dismissed concerns about Biden getting older. “That is not a question that we should be even asking,” the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said last month.
But some of Biden’s aides privately tell a different story. According to a recent New York Times report, White House staffers have expressed hesitation about scheduling long international trips for Biden, out of concern that they are too taxing for him. They also worry that Biden’s slower, more shuffling gait could cause him to fall, and they fret over his tendency to jumble words in speeches. David Axelrod, who previously served as Barack Obama’s chief campaign strategist, has said that Biden’s age could be a “major issue” if he seeks re-election.
A New York Times columnist last week wrote an article titled “Joe Biden is Too Old to be President Again”, but pointed out that this was a wider problem with US politics. “There’s a problem here that goes beyond Biden himself. We are ruled by a gerontocracy. Biden is 79. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is 82. The House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, is 83. The Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, is 71. Often, it’s not clear if they grasp how broken this country is.”
Biden insists he still plans to run again in 2024, assuming his health cooperates. “I’m a great respecter of fate. Fate has intervened in my life many, many times,” Biden said in December. “If I’m in the health I’m in now, if I’m in good health, then in fact, I would run again.”
But those comments have not quelled the 2024 conversation, even among fellow Democrats. When progressive congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was asked whether she would endorse Biden as the Democratic nominee in 2024, she demurred.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” Ocasio-Cortez said last month. Weeks later, she dodged questions from late-night talk show host Stephen Colbert about whether she would consider launching her own presidential campaign in 2024.
If Ocasio-Cortez or another progressive leader chose to challenge Biden, it would be a historic candidacy. No sitting Democratic president has faced a primary challenge since 1980, when Ted Kennedy chose to run against Jimmy Carter as the country faced record-high inflation and gas shortages. Carter was able to defeat Kennedy in the primary, but he ultimately lost the general election to a Republican candidate who promised to “make America great again”: Ronald Reagan.
Jon Ward, author of Camelot’s End, which chronicles the 1980 Democratic primary, said there are some clear parallels and important distinctions between Carter and Biden. While Carter had a clear-cut opponent in Kennedy, it remains unclear who – if anyone – from the Democratic party’s highest ranks would challenge Biden.
But one element working in Biden’s favor is time, Ward said. The 2024 presidential election is still more than two years away, giving the economy some breathing room to return to a place of greater stability.
“There’s time for inflation to ease and for the economy to turn around,” Ward said. “However, it’s not clear that’s where we’re headed, since there are a lot of forecasts of recession and even the prospect of the very ‘stagflation’ that crippled Carter.”
Biden’s allies insist he has time to improve the economy and the nation’s broader outlook, and they are generally dismissive of polls indicating he should step aside in 2024.
Polls are a snapshot of the time
“Polls are a snapshot of the time,” said Antjuan Seawright, Democratic strategist and senior adviser to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Truth be told, what’s hot today could be cold tomorrow, and what’s cold today, it could be very hot tomorrow.”
Seawright criticized the recent 2024 chatter as “a manufactured outrage from a few in our party”, suggesting those who are engaging in the speculation should instead rededicate themselves to the midterm elections.
Even some of the progressives who did not support Biden in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary echo that point. Rahna Epting, executive director of the progressive group MoveOn, said she has not yet been talking about the 2024 election because of her single-minded concentration on the midterms.
Emphasizing the urgency of the upcoming elections, Epting noted that some of the gubernatorial, state legislative and secretary of state races being held this year will have sweeping implications for 2024. A number of Republican candidates who have embraced Trump’s lies about widespread fraud in the 2020 race are now running for posts that could help them determine election rules in 2024.
“We’re going to find out whether our elections in 2024 are going to be free and fair, based on who ends up in office in 2022,” Epting said. “The very terrain of our democracy and our election system is going to be decided this election cycle.”