WASHINGTON – As President Joe Biden shifts his re-election campaign into higher gear, the strength of his candidacy is being tested by a striking divide between Democratic leaders, who are overwhelmingly unified behind his bid, and rank-and-file voters in the party who harbour persistent doubts about whether he is their best option.
From the highest levels of the party on down, Democratic politicians and party officials have long dismissed the idea that Mr Biden should have any credible primary challenger.
Yet despite their efforts – and the president’s lack of a serious opponent within his party – they have been unable to dispel Democratic concerns about him that centre largely on his age and vitality.
The discord between the party’s elite and its voters leaves Democrats confronting a level of disunity over a president running for re-election not seen for decades.
Interviews with more than a dozen strategists, elected officials and voters this past week, conversations with Democrats since Mr Biden’s campaign began in April, and months of public polling data show that this disconnect has emerged as a defining obstacle for his candidacy, worrying Democrats from liberal enclaves to swing states to the halls of power in Washington.
Mr Biden’s campaign and his allies argue that much of the intraparty dissent will fade away in 2024, once the election becomes a clear choice between the president and former president Donald Trump, the dominant leader in the Republican primary field.
But their assurances have not tamped down worries about Mr Biden from some top Democratic strategists and many of the party’s voters, who approve of his performance but worry that Mr Biden, who will be 82 on Inauguration Day, may simply not be up for another four years – or even the exhausting slog of another election.
“The voters don’t want this, and that’s in poll after poll after poll,” said Mr James Carville, a longtime party strategist, who worries that a lack of enthusiasm for Mr Biden could lead to lower Democratic turnout in 2024. “You can’t look at what you look at and not feel some apprehension here.”
He may be old, but there’s no one else
In recent days, a barrage of grim news for Mr Biden, including an autoworkers strike in the Midwest that poses a challenge to his economic agenda and the beginning of impeachment proceedings on Capitol Hill, has made this intraparty tension increasingly difficult to ignore.
Those developments come amid a darkening polling picture, as recent surveys found that majorities of Democrats do not want him to run again, are open to an alternative in the primary and dread the idea of a Biden-Trump rematch.
A CNN poll released in September found that 67 per cent of Democrats would prefer Mr Biden not be renominated, a higher percentage than in polling conducted by The New York Times and Siena College over the summer that found half would prefer someone else.
In quiet conversations and off-the-record gatherings, Democratic officials frequently acknowledge their worries about Mr Biden’s age and sagging approval ratings. But publicly, they project total confidence about his ability to lead and win.
“It’s definitely got a paradoxical element to it,” said Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey, a Democrat who is among a group of governors who put aside their national ambitions to support Mr Biden’s reelection bid. “This is only a matter of time until the broad party, and broadly speaking, Americans, converge with the opinions of folks like myself.”
Many party officials say Mr Biden is making a high-stakes bet that the power of incumbency, a good political environment for his party and the fact that Democrats generally like the president will eventually outweigh the blaring signs of concern from loyal supporters.
Any discussion of an alternative is little more than a fantasy, they say, since challenging Mr Biden would not only appear disloyal but would also most likely fail – and potentially weaken the president’s general-election standing.
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