President Biden was going to return the United States to a state of normalcy after the disruption, and destruction, of former President Trump. For Democrats, he was to be a bridge to the party’s future — the wise elder who would provide stability and then pass the torch to the next generation of leaders.
What isn’t normal is that voters already believe someone else should replace him on the ticket in 2024, only 10 months after he was inaugurated. And what isn’t helpful to that next generation is that approval ratings for Biden, as well as Vice President Kamala Harris, are terrible. Throw in a GOP takeover of potentially both chambers of Congress next year — plus the expected retirement of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — and you have the makings of a full party crack-up.
A new Morning Consult poll about Biden shows confidence in his physical health has plummeted by 29 percentage points since last October, the month before he was elected. Now only 40% of respondents agree that he’s “in good health,” while 50% disagree. In this survey, only 46% said they believed he is mentally fit for the job while 48% disagree — another huge drop from last year, when voters in this poll believed he was mentally fit by a 21-point margin. Critically, independents do not believe Biden is mentally fit for his job by a 23-point margin. A new Harvard-Harris poll found 53% of voters doubt his mental fitness and 58% said he was too old to do his job.
Harvard-Harris polling also found 61% of registered voters think Biden should step aside in 2024 for another candidate to run; only 24% said he should run again and only 45% of Democrats said he should run again.
White House officials, and outside allies, are trying to reassure panicked Democrats that Biden will be running again in 2024, according to a Washington Post report this weekend. But there is nothing reassuring about the oldest president to ever be elected promising three years out that he can handle a second presidential campaign, let alone a second term, when the odds are that he cannot. Democrats may hope Biden will stand for reelection, but should his polling remain abysmal they are likely to change their minds.
This kind of doubt about his capabilities is not something that will snap back the way Democrats hope Biden’s job approval can once the economy improves, inflation subsides and the pandemic is contained. He turned 79 over the weekend, and his next birthday will be his 80th. Concern about his age and capacity won’t abate, and is likely to grow.
In addition to Biden’s job approval rating tanking (he has lost between 10 and 15 points in varying polls), Harris’ approval is always worse, and clocks in at just 28% in the latest Harvard-Harris survey.
No one in the Democratic establishment sees Harris as a presumptive nominee, should Biden serve only one term. Former Sen. Chris Dodd, who is close to Biden and was on his vice presidential search committee, wasn’t subtle when the New York Times reached out to him for an article on Harris’ trip to France. “I’m hoping the president runs for reelection,” Dodd said, “but [if] for whatever reason that might not be the case, it’s hard to believe there would be a short list without Kamala’s name on it. She’s the vice president of the United States.” If you are the vice president, this is no small insult.
Recent news stories about Harris have been largely negative, and reveal that Team Harris is bitter she has been bogged down by Biden’s bad assignments. To wit, she has gotten nowhere on managing the border crisis or mitigating the threats to voting rights. But it’s clear the bad blood comes from the perception of Harris’ allies that Biden intentionally foisted intractable “no-win” problems onto her plate.
A recent Politico piece noted that the prospect of Trump running again would make it more likely Biden runs again “since Biden is skeptical of other Democrats’ prospects.” In simple language, Biden feeling the need to run if Trump does (and so far, Trump is clearly the likely Republican nominee for 2024) means the president chose someone to be vice president he doesn’t believe can win.
Undoubtedly, should Republicans win the midterm elections next year and Biden decides he will step down, Harris will have a much harder time addressing all the issues voters punished Democrats for. It’s hard to see how she diverges from Biden on inflation, rising crime rates, or chaos at the border.
Party insiders are expecting a wide open 2024 primary featuring Harris, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and perhaps Stacey Abrams and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and others. Of course, stories that mention Whitmer and Abrams suggest they will be well positioned if Whitmer is reelected Michigan governor and Abrams is elected Georgia governor, but 2022 is currently expected to be a wipeout year for the party.
Progressives are already moaning about the battle in Congress over Biden’s economic agenda; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told the New York Times this weekend the negotiations have been “demoralizing.” The left will be infuriated by the Build Back Better law, should it ever pass, because of what will get cut from a final compromise. Progressives are planning primary challenges against incumbent moderate Democrats, which will strain resources and trust, and likely cost congressional seats.
Each faction in the party, of course, will attempt to drive its reset, with progressives urging the mobilization of young and non-white voters while moderate Democrats argue for persuasion of the white working-class voters the party has lost.
Should Biden step down, 2023 will be pretty awful for Democrats, as a new presidential contest — in the face of substantial losses in the 2022 elections — will deepen party divides. But what would make it far more disruptive is Pelosi’s departure. (Though not certain, it is expected.) And like Biden, if she is leaving, she surely doesn’t want voters to know that before next year. Pelosi is a master tactician able to unite squabbling Democrats in ways no one else in her party can, so her absence would be an incalculable loss if Democrats are facing minority status with a lame-duck president.
At that point, when a new GOP majority in the House looks to impeach President Biden, it will be the least of the Democrats’ worries.
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