WASHINGTON — As he prepares to announce his presidential reelection campaign, President Biden can take comfort in one simple fact: He has been here before.
Even as he led in the polls ahead of the 2020 primary season, Biden could not shake the perception that a 76-year-old moderate former U.S. Senator from Delaware was not what the party needed to defeat the incumbent president, Donald Trump.
“Is Joe Biden too old,” CNN asked, “to be president?”
At Netroots Nation, a progressive summit, one panel was titled, “Why Joe Biden is the least electable major Democrat for president in 2020.”
Biden overcame those doubts and defeated Trump. He is expected to announce his reelection campaign on Tuesday in a videotaped message, much as he did in 2019. And when he does, he will face many of the same doubts he faced four years ago — doubts that have persisted despite a number of policy accomplishments, including steering the nation out of the coronavirus pandemic and overseeing an economic recovery that includes the lowest unemployment rate since 1969.
“It is a legislative agenda that catches all four corners of the America square,” South Carolina-based Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright told Yahoo News. Like other Democrats, he is cautiously optimistic about Biden’s chances — provided the president does actually run again.
There are reasons for pessimism, too, not the least among them the president’s approval rating, which fell below the 50% mark in August 2021 and has lingered in the low 40s since. Then there is many Americans’ concern with Biden’s age (already the oldest president in American history, he would be 86 at the conclusion of his second term), not to mention a profound lack of enthusiasm for a rematch with Donald Trump.
But even those factors can be overcome, most Democrats believe.
“Clear field to the nomination and an opposing party in disarray is a good place to be,” veteran Democratic strategist David Axelrod told Yahoo News. “Campaigns for POTUS are dynamic,” Axelrod said, using an acronym for President of the United States. “Events intrude. Circumstances can change. But, polls notwithstanding, he starts in a pretty good place.”
The road to the decision
Biden started out his presidency by passing a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package and proposing other big-ticket domestic legislation. He openly courted comparisons to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, the two most consequential Democratic presidents of the 20th century.
But then, starting with the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden saw his presidency enter a frustrating stretch in the fall of 2021. His massive social spending plan, known as Build Back Better, collapsed in the face of determined opposition from moderate Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, while the measures he had touted as necessary to defeat the coronavirus—vaccines and mask mandates—were challenged by Republican governors.
Inflation, supposedly transitory, kept worsening, imperiling the economic recovery that would be the centerpiece of an election campaign.
“The best thing you can say about 2021 is that it will soon be over,” The New Yorker said of the president’s first year in office that December.
But then, in early 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, launching the first major war on the European continent since the fall of the Third Reich nearly 80 years ago. Stepping eagerly into the role of seasoned statesman, Biden marshaled an international coalition to support Ukraine. Republicans who had found little to celebrate about his tenure praised the president’s swift response to Russia’s aggression.
After mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, N.Y., Biden compelled Congress to pass a raft of gun control measures that, while modest, were nevertheless the first such legislation since 1994. In August, he won a major victory with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which devotes $800 billion to green energy initiatives and lower drug prices. Congress also approved the CHIPS Act, his plan to spend more than $50 billion to galvanize the nation’s semiconductor industry, which had been languishing for decades.
Republicans, meanwhile, were forced to defend the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that had made abortion legal nationwide. In September, Sen. Lindsey Graham’s introduction of a proposed nationwide abortion ban all but made the argument for Democrats intent on painting the GOP as a party fundamentally hostile to women’s rights and health.
November’s midterms were widely expected to see Republicans take over both chambers of Congress, as well as several key governorships. But no “red wave” materialized, and while Republicans did win control of the House, their failure to retake the Senate or win in key state-level races in Arizona and elsewhere seemed to offer Biden a validation he had long sought.
The day after the election, he held a rare press conference to celebrate the results. And while he did not say that he would definitively seek reelection, he came closer to doing so than he had since his presidency began.
“My intention is that I run again,” he said.
In his bid for a second term, Biden is expected to surround himself with a seasoned team that is not bound to be easily alarmed by critical press coverage or dreary poll numbers—the same team that resisted anxious calls in the weeks before the midterm that he campaign more or broaden his message beyond abortion or democracy.
“Like the 2022 midterm election, President Biden will face some early turbulence or headwinds,” Democratic strategist Donna Brazile told Yahoo News. But, she added, “my prediction is the current President of the United States will succeed.”
Republicans stick by Trump
After the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, President Trump retreated to his South Florida golf club and beach resort, Mar-a-Lago, essentially leaving vice president Mike Pence to serve in his place for the final two weeks of his administration. For much of 2021, he continued to proffer false claims about the previous year’s presidential election, which he still falsely insists was “stolen.”
Eager to move on from Trump, establishment Republicans appeared to alight on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as the party’s new standard-bearer. They praised his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as his high-profile culture war campaigns against corporations like Disney and the National Hockey League that had taken left-leaning stances on gender- and race-related issues.
Trump announced that he would seek the presidency once more in a November event at Mar-a-Lago, but his third campaign for the White House seemed to stall upon takeoff.
“Abandonment has begun,” Republican strategist Scott Reed told the New York Times in early December, in an apt summary of establishment consensus.
Since then, however, a number of developments have made Trump the frontrunner in the GOP primary, thrilling a Biden team that believes he would be easier to defeat than DeSantis or another younger Republican. Last week alone, Trump humiliated DeSantis by earning a plethora of congressional endorsements from a Florida delegation the governor had aggressively courted.
DeSantis has yet to formally announce that he will seek the presidency, but a number of missteps have notably dampened the enthusiasm he engendered throughout 2022 as a formidable primary opponent to Trump.
Other Republicans who have announced that they will run, including former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott (who has not formally announced that he is running but has taken steps towards doing so) and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, have failed to excite the Republican base. And the sheer number of Republican candidates could work to Trump’s advantage in 2024, much as was the case in 2016.
According to pollsters Whit Ayres, nearly 30% of Republican voters remain committed to Trump himself, not to the Republican Party he purportedly represents. “If we could stop Trump from becoming the nominee, we would do that. But he’s going to be the nominee,” Reed Galen of the anti-Trump group Lincoln Project told Reuters.
Democrats may not openly boost Trump the way they boosted Trump-like candidates during the midterms, a controversial strategy that appeared to pay off. But they are thrilled by the prospect of the sitting president facing the former president he already defeated in 2020.
“He’s also likely to face Trump or a Trumpian clone, so it will be a choice election – not simply a referendum on the incumbent – between a mainstream, pro-democracy Democrat and an election-denying, radical Republican,” Jon Cowan of centrist think-tank Third Way told Yahoo News. “The base will turn out to stop any MAGA Republican,” he said, using what has become the president’s favorite shorthand for a GOP he claims is fully beholden to Trump.
“This campaign will obviously be a marathon, not a sprint,” Seawright told Yahoo News. Until the final vote is cast on the evening of November 5, 2024, any number of developments could completely change the trajectory of the race.
So far, no serious Democratic challenger has materialized—and none appears likely to enter the race against Biden. But he does already have two anti-establishment challengers in author Marianne Williamson and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr, son of Robert Kennedy and nephew of John F. Kennedy. They may amount to little more than political annoyances in the end, but the fact that Kennedy—an anti-vaccine activist with no political experience of his own—is capturing some 14% support of former Biden voters is arguably a credible cause for concern.
The current Republican turmoil could produce a candidate hardened by a bruising Republican primary and ready to take on Biden in the general election.
“There are two major obstacles to his reelect outside his control: first, of course the economy could take a turn for the worse,” Cowan said. “And second is a third-party spoiler ticket like the one No Labels is ginning up, which has no chance of electing their candidate but would hurt Biden and give a big, decisive boost to Trump.”
For now, a much-feared third-party candidate has not emerged, and the economic recovery has proceeded apace, if sometimes more haltingly than the president’s supporters have taken to claiming.
But the mere fact that only 47% of Democrats want him to run for reelection suggests that Biden will not enjoy the broad goodwill from the electorate that tends to boost incumbents. “I don’t like maintaining the status quo,” a young Democrat in Washington State recently told The Associated Press. “And so I want things to change, and I don’t think Biden’s how we’re going to get that in the next four years.”
The president’s supporters do not discount these concerns. But having heard them so many times before, they believe those concerns will vanish once the election season truly begins and voters are faced with a choice between Biden and a Republican, most likely either Trump or another candidate who closely mirrors his divisive approach.
“Biden has the potential,” Cowan told Yahoo News, “to be in a far stronger reelection position than today’s poll numbers and the D.C. conventional wisdom would suggest.”