How Democrats Learned to Cast Aside Reservations and Embrace Biden 2024

As President Joe Biden nears the formal announcement of his 2024 reelection bid, one of the most important developments of the campaign is something that hasn’t happened at all: No serious primary challenger has emerged.

Biden has all but cleared the field despite concerns about his age — at 80, he is the oldest U.S. president in history — and the persistent misgivings about the president held by a large number of the party’s voters. Democrats yearn for a fresh face in 2024, according to repeated polls; they just don’t know who that would be.

After Democrats won more races than expected in the 2022 midterm elections, any energy to challenge Biden quickly dissipated. The left has stayed in line even as Biden has lately made more explicit appeals toward the center. And would-be rivals have stayed on the sidelines.

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The early entry of Donald Trump into the race immediately clarified that the stakes in 2024 would be just as high for Democrats as they were in 2020. The former president has proved to be the greatest unifying force in Democratic politics in the last decade, and the same factors that caused the party to rally behind Biden then are still present today. Add to that the advantages of holding the White House, and any challenge seemed more destined to bruise Biden than to best him.

Plans are in place for Biden to formally begin a 2024 campaign as early as Tuesday with a low-key video timed with the anniversary of his campaign kickoff four years ago. It is a rollout that many Democrats are greeting more with a sense of stoicism than enthusiasm.

“We need stability,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York, a progressive who won his seat in 2020 by ousting an older, more moderate incumbent in a primary. “Biden provides that.”

Skating to a second nomination was not always guaranteed. Biden, as the incumbent president, was obviously the prohibitive favorite. But people close to the White House have been surprised at the speed with which the full spectrum of the party has gone from hand-wringing about Biden to almost unanimous acclamation, at least in public.

Maria Cardona, a Democratic National Committee member and party strategist, has been confounded by the doubts around Biden as the Democrats’ best bet, especially against a 76-year-old Trump, who remains the Republican front-runner.

“Regardless of the reservations, regardless of the worry that he is getting up there in age — and he is, and that is going to be a question that he and the campaign are going to have to contend with — when his counterpart is almost as old as he is but is so opposite of what this country deserves, then it’s a no-brainer,” she said.

For now, the only announced challengers to Biden are Marianne Williamson, whose last run amounted to an asterisk in the 2020 campaign, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is leveraging his family name to promote his anti-vaccine views.

“Democrats complain that he might be too old,” Cardona added. “But then, when they’re asked, ‘Well, who?’ There is no one else.”

Prominent and ambitious governors, including Gavin Newsom of California and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, made clear they would not contest Biden’s nomination, as did the runners-up from 2020. And many party insiders have soured on the political potential of the next-in-line option, Vice President Kamala Harris.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a former co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said the left was laser-focused on “the fight against the isms: fascism, racism, sexism.” That has overshadowed Biden’s age, said the 75-year-old Grijalva: “I think why it hasn’t been a bigger issue is we don’t believe in ageism either.”

“If we are eliminating people because of how old they are,” he said, “I don’t think that would be fair and equitable.”

Biden’s poll numbers among Democrats remain middling. An NBC News poll this month said 70% of all Americans — including 51% of Democrats — felt that Biden should not run for a second term. If Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wins the Republican nomination, the general election contest could be more difficult for Biden. DeSantis, 44, has been polling better than Trump in a hypothetical November matchup.

Privately, some major Biden donors and fundraisers continue to fret about his durability both in a campaign and a second term. Those who raised or donated $1 million or more in 2020 were invited to a private gathering this Friday with the president.

One wealthy donor had considered circulating a letter this year to urge Biden not to run before the person was dissuaded by associates because it would have been for naught and have served to embarrass Biden, according to a person familiar with the episode who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. Some contributors have described being in a state of suspended and suppressed angst: fully yet nervously behind Biden.

Democrats generally and the White House in particular know well the modern history of presidential reelection campaigns and that nearly all the recent incumbents to lose faced serious primary challenges: George H.W. Bush in 1992, Jimmy Carter in 1980, Gerald Ford in 1976 and, before he withdrew and Democrats ultimately lost, Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968.

Combine that pattern with the specter of a second Trump presidency and Democrats have snapped almost uniformly into a loyalist formation, especially after the party averted a red wave and the kind of losses last fall that many had predicted.

“People recognized he was the one candidate who could defeat Donald Trump and protect American democracy,” Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., who was previously in the Democratic leadership, said of Biden’s nomination in 2020. “It’s still the case.”

Biden further smoothed his pathway by pushing through the most substantive change in the Democratic primary calendar in decades. He pushed to shift the first-in-the-nation status on the nominating calendar from Iowa, an overwhelmingly white state with a progressive streak (where Biden finished in fourth place), to South Carolina, where Black voters resurrected his campaign in 2020.

During his first two years, Biden built up considerable goodwill among progressives, embracing many of the left’s priorities, including canceling student loan debt, and keeping a far more open line of communication with the party’s left-most flank than the previous two Democratic administrations. He has signed landmark bills that have been progressive priorities, including climate provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act and a temporary child-tax credit.

Some Biden advisers credit the unity task forces created after the 2020 primary as the key starting point. Liberal activists say Ron Klain, the former White House chief of staff, had an unusual open-door policy.

“Bernie wasn’t calling up Rahm Emanuel in the early Obama years to talk policy,” said Ari Rabin-Havt, a former deputy chief of staff to Sen. Bernie Sanders and a Democratic strategist. Of Biden, he said that most progressives on Capitol Hill would grade him with “an exceeds expectations check mark.”

Now Biden is relying on the left’s residual appreciation as he tacks toward the center. He has talked about the need for deficit reduction in 2023, signed a Republican measure to overturn a progressive local Washington crime law and approved a new oil drilling project in Alaska.

“I continue to be frustrated when I see him moving to the center because I don’t see a real need to do that,” said Bowman, the New York Democrat. “It’s almost like a pandering to a Republican talking point.”

In 2020, Rep. Eric Swalwell of California briefly ran for president in the Democratic primary and then urged Biden to “pass the torch” to the next generation. Four years later, Swalwell is all aboard for a second Biden term, saying the president’s ability to pass significant legislation has bound the party together.

“I feared after the 2020 election that it would be impossible for Biden to govern with the thinnest of majorities in the House and Senate,” he said. “Instead, Biden has been on a legislative tear, tackling Democratic priorities that had been unachieved for decades.”

Many Democrats see Biden as the party’s best chance to limit losses among white voters without college degrees — the nation’s biggest bloc of voters — a group that Trump has pulled away from the Democrats.

“Blue-collar workers used to always be our folks,” Biden lamented to donors at a private residence on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in January, highlighting his focus on winning back those voters. “A lot of people think we left them behind,” Biden told the donors. “And it has to do more with attitude and — than it does with policy.”

The relative Democratic success in the midterms — picking up a Senate seat and only ceding the House to Republicans by five seats — served as a reminder that despite his own weak polling numbers, Biden has not hurt his party so far.

“Nothing,” Swalwell said, “unites like success.”

c.2023 The New York Times Company

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