IT HAS BEEN LESS THAN SIX MONTHS since President Joe Biden announced he will be running for re-election next year. His pitch to voters—that he can serve as leader of the free world until January of 2029, when he will be 86—was risky in April. Now, more than 14 months before Election Day, it’s alarming.
A new Associated Press-NORC poll showed 77 percent of Americans say Biden is too old to carry out a second term, including 69 percent of Democrats. Those numbers have been rising over a series of similar findings. If most voters see Biden’s age as disqualifying now, it’s not hard to imagine what polls on his viability will show us a year from now.
This vulnerability cannot be wished away with Bidenomics or some Red Bull and vitamin B shots. Biden can’t effectively counter the impression that he is too old because he can’t interact with voters, or reporters, frequently and vigorously. Being up to the job in private is another story, to be sure—he can nap and do his job quietly and effectively with help from an able staff. But if he were capable of portraying himself as possessing the requisite energy to publicly carry out the duties of the hardest job on the planet for another five and a half years, he would simply be doing so. Biden doesn’t have to end up in a health crisis in the hospital for the bottom to fall out. Should he have an episode like the two Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has now had, freezing up and temporarily unable to speak, the party will have to move quickly to replace him in order to have a shot at winning a majority of voters next year. (McConnel is 81; Biden is less than three months shy of his 81st birthday.)
While an overwhelming majority in the electorate dread a rematch between Biden and former President Donald Trump, the numbers show Trump’s age, 76, does not cause the doubt that Biden’s does: Only about half of American adults think the former president’s age is disqualifying, with a more pronounced partisan divide among respondents.
Barring an act of God or some dramatic unforeseen event, the 2024 GOP nominating contest has been decided five months before primary voting begins; Trump, who is facing 91 criminal charges, is already campaigning for the general election. Before any tactical or strategic considerations even come into play, the fantasy that the GOP field will all drop out, unite behind one alternative, and defeat the Orange Man Baby is negated by simple math: The rest of the field combined doesn’t best Trump’s vote share.
Meanwhile, Biden has lost critical support from the coalition that helped him squeeze a narrow victory (fewer than 44,00 votes in three states) against Trump in November 2020. Independent voters, Hispanic voters, black voters, Republican voters: Consult any poll; the numbers are stunning. Strategists acknowledge some Hispanic voters are now with the GOP, but Biden’s more than 20-point drop in approval with black voters since the start of his term suggests that some of them who voted for him in 2020 might vote Republican in 2024, or sit out the election entirely.
A new standard-bearer is required to decisively beat Trump next year. It has nothing to do with the president’s record or Joe Biden the man. This is purely strategic, and solely about his chance of winning, as well as Kamala Harris’s. The vice president’s persistently low approval rating, part of the calculation for a second Biden campaign, is comparable to Trump’s when he was in office.
All of this may be unfair—successful first terms for incumbent presidents are usually rewarded by second terms, after all—but a determination made repeatedly by a majority of voters that Biden lacks the capacity to serve as commander in chief on account of his age isn’t going to fade away. If anything, the issue will get worse for the president as he continues to get older.
Biden has accomplished more in two years than many presidents did in two terms. The CHIPSand infrastructure laws are delivering consequential innovation and investment, as are parts of the Inflation Reduction Act, the codification of same-sex marriage, the PACT Act for veterans’ health care, the first real gun safety reforms in decades, and an updated Electoral Count Act. I outlined all of that a year ago when I argued that Biden could, and should, step aside.
Biden has succeeded in uniting the West against Vladimir Putin in his war against Ukraine. In polling, he receives scant credit for this—or for historic job creation, a manufacturing boom, or $35 insulin. Unfortunately, no talk of attacking junk fees or averting a recession is going to soften the blow of stubborn inflation, which for many voters is how they take the measure of the Biden administration.
In a recent Marist poll, Trump is up 8 points over Biden with independent voters. In a recent Fox News poll, 76 percent of independents are dissatisfied with the direction of the country and 56 percent of them said Biden has made the economy worse. Biden’s approval overall on the economy is at 37 percent in the Fox poll. In the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll, that number was 36 percent.
It’s hard to metabolize this—the idea that the guy who tried to steal an election and overthrow the government is better positioned against Biden following Biden’s successful first term—but polls show Trump faring quite well against him. According to CNN’s Harry Enten, “The polling indicates that Trump is, in fact, in a stronger position at this point than he was during the entire 2020 campaign.”
That was what President Obama went to the White House to talk with Biden about in June. As Tyler Pager reported in the Washington Post, Obama offered a warning to Biden that Trump “could be a more formidable candidate than many Democrats realize.”
But Democrats, besides Obama, seem to be clinging to polls showing haters of both candidates will consent to backing Biden over Trump, and they hope that 2024 will be another Dobbs election, and they think, Surely, most voters can see by now the GOP is full of lunatics. That is a hope, not a plan.
If Trump chooses Nikki Haley or Sen. Tim Scott to be his running mate, the race may not even be close. Throw in Cornel West’s third-party candidacy, a No Labels
spoiler unity ticket—and perhaps an independent run from Robert F. Kennedy Jr., backed by Steve Bannon & Friends—and a second term of Trump starts to look like all but a sure thing.
This is not a thought exercise: It’s a preview of the end of democracy. Gambling that a man a majority of Americans have already written off for his age will be in stronger shape politically a year from now doesn’t sound reasonable. It sounds incredibly dangerous.
DEMOCRATS HAVE A DEEPER BENCH than many people appreciate. In particular, there are two leaders from swing states who can provide generational change, a fresh start, and a far more serious threat to Trump than Biden can: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock.
Whitmer, 52, is one of the most experienced, exciting, and winning Democrats in the country. She is as tough a candidate, and leader, as the Democrats can find, and she was vetted as a potential VP pick in 2020. Warnock, who has won pluralities or majorities in five elections in three years, is the cerebral 54-year-old senior pastor at Martin Luther King Jr.’s church. He grew up in public housing, went through a messy divorce—no longer disqualifying in the age of Trump—has small children, and was the top small donor fundraiser from either party in 2022. The dramatic stakes of his election gave him national name recognition: Less than 10 percent of Warnock’s individual donations came from within his state.
Young. Dynamic. Diverse. Competent and experienced. Broadly appealing. Can mobilize core voters. Would deliver two battleground states. Those are seven big boxes already checked.
There are other benefits: Such a ticket would take away the core self-justification of the No Labels project, would seriously dent West’s vanity run, and would circumvent the ever-expanding Hunter Biden issue.
Does a potential Democratic primary have to be messy? E.J. Dionne, columnist at the Washington Post, predicts “ideological Armageddon” if Biden steps aside. But this scenario would be infused with an unprecedented urgency. Properly appreciating the stakes of Trump’s return to power could inspire more pragmatism from primary voters than elites and pundits expect—the same kind of pragmatism that pushed many to embrace Biden during the 2020 primary. And maybe primary voters can unite more quickly and less fractiously if they understand the overwhelming need to put democracy over power and ideology in 2024.
There is the unavoidable question of how Kamala Harris might affect a Dem primary if Biden cancels his re-election bid. While Biden can be supportive of his VP, he cannot simply appoint her to be his successor because voters choose nominees; presidents do not. While Harris has a more established national profile than Whitmer or Warnock, pragmatism might drive key members of the Democratic coalition away from her. For example, black voters may rally to Harris—or they might not. Consider the fact that elected black democrats, and black voters, backed Hillary Clinton against Barack Obama in 2008 because they didn’t think Obama could win. They only gravitated to the first-term senator once he won Iowa and became viable in polling. A dozen years later they backed old, white, moderate Joe Biden in the 2020 primary because they wanted to defeat Trump, and they felt he had the best chance of doing that.
One of two things will happen in the coming months. Biden can either announce he has changed his mind about running for re-election and the party can hold a primary—or he can stick to his present course and risk a crisis in which he would need to ask the party to unite behind Harris at the eleventh hour.
Every Democrat who can help the party defeat Trump next year should be placing this goal above all else: It must come before personal feelings, political differences with other members of the broad anti-Trump coalition, or even plans to preserve their own viability for the 2028 race. And that goes for Whitmer, too, perhaps most of all.
If Trump beats Biden next year, there won’t be another free and fair election. Democrats can treat this like the emergency it is or risk it all.