In the weeks leading up to Election Day, the White House enjoyed a brief moratorium on one of the more uncomfortable news developments of the midterm cycle: intra-Democratic Party speculation about whether President Joe Biden should run for reelection in 2024.
Could Tuesday night’s election results buy him more time?
Skepticism surrounding a prospective Biden reelection campaign has long centered on how much the president’s chronic unpopularity would hurt his fellow Democrats in the midterms. Already bogged down by inflationary headwinds and the understanding that midterms traditionally hurt the party in power, Democrats trudged toward Election Day expecting a red tsunami.
That didn’t materialize—it wasn’t even a wave. At best the GOP looks poised to recapture the House by a slim majority, and its path to winning control of the Senate grew increasingly narrow as Election Night went on. Election results are still being tabulated in a number of Senate battlegrounds, with a number of races still too close to call as of Wednesday morning.
It’s unclear how the midterms will affect intra-party conversations surrounding who the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee next cycle ought to be, especially since so much of the party’s midterm messaging revolved around access to abortion following the overturning of Roe v. Wade. But as things stand, the absence of a red wave suggests that Biden won’t be the target of the dreaded post-election finger pointing that many senior Democrats had originally feared.
Will that help clear the Democratic primary field for Biden in 2024?
“The Democrats have done a great job of keeping a lid on any talk about Biden and 2024 in recent months,” said former centrist Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski Tuesday evening. “But that likely ends the day after this election.”
Concerns among Democrats about Biden’s electability reached a fever pitch in June, when a New York Times/Siena College poll showed his approval rating among registered voters clocking in at a measly 33 percent. Beyond that, an overwhelming majority of Democrats in the survey said they’d prefer a different nominee in 2024: Only 26 percent of Democratic voters said Biden should be the party’s presidential nominee in two years.
Those numbers fueled ongoing conversations among high-profile Democrats about who ought to lead the party’s ticket next cycle. “The conversation has started and people are participating in it,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, a Democrat, told The Dispatch in July on mounting intra-party speculation about 2024.
Much of the speculation surrounding a prospective Biden reelection campaign has focused on his age. In 11 days, Biden—already the oldest president in American history—will turn 80. He isn’t the only octogenarian leader in his party.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 82, is reportedly considering retiring this year. Even if Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, 83, and House Whip Jim Clyburn, 82, compete to replace her, one leadership vacancy would still leave room for younger politicians like House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, 52, or House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, 62.
“Is this enough new, young leadership in Washington to satiate Democrats while Biden still serves as a bridge to new presidential level leadership for the party?” asked Lipinski. “Probably not all [Democrats], but it may settle down congressional [Democrats] in terms of calling for younger blood.”
Democrats also worry that there’s no obvious alternative to Biden should he decide not to run. Vice President Kamala Harris is even more unpopular than her boss, and rising Democratic stars like California Gov. Gavin Newsom or Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg don’t stand out as obvious replacements.
With the midterm elections in the rearview mirror, close Biden allies maintain that the White House’s recent legislative successes—namely the Inflation Reduction Act—could clear the Democratic primary field entirely should he decide to stand for reelection.
“If he runs again, I don’t expect a challenge from anybody because he will be running on a record of accomplishment,” former Democratic Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama said in a Tuesday afternoon interview. “Back in the spring, everybody thought, ‘Oh, my God, Joe Biden just needs to just stay hidden and hunkered down in Washington, D.C.’ And then there’s this whole series of successes, and Democrats are all of a sudden thinking: ‘Wait a minute, this, we’re delivering care for the American people. And our leader needs to be out there more.’”