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Time to Step Aside?

Questions about Biden’s 2024 bid are mounting—among Democrats.

Happy Friday! On Wednesday, a self-described “ufologist” presented to legislators in a Mexican congressional hearing what he (literally) swore were two alien corpses

It probably wasn’t the ideal moment, then, for NASA administrator Bill Nelson’s pronouncement Thursday that it was high time “to shift the conversation about [unidentified aerial phenomena or UFOs] from sensationalism to science.” 

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will reportedly visit the White House next week in an effort to bolster American support for continued aid to Ukraine. The visit comes as congressional lawmakers—a vocal minority of whom are adamantly opposed to providing Kyiv more munitions—race to fund the government before a September 30 deadline and weigh whether to approve a supplemental funding package that includes $24 billion in additional aid to Kyiv.
  • Russian officials said Thursday they were expelling two U.S. diplomats from Russia over “illegal activity.” The expulsions are related to alleged contact with a former Russian contractor, Robert Shonov, employed by the U.S. consulate in the far east of the country, who has been charged with collaborating with a foreign government. The two diplomats now have seven days to leave the country. “Yet again, Russia has chosen confrontation and escalation over constructive diplomatic engagement,” State Department spokesperson Matt Miller said Thursday. “It continues to harass employees of our embassy, just as it continues to intimidate its own citizens.” 
  • Hunter Biden, President Joe Biden’s son, was indicted Thursday on three federal firearms charges as part of a long-running probe. Special counsel David Weiss’ indictment accuses the younger Biden of lying about his drug use when he bought a revolver in October 2018 and of possessing a firearm while using a narcotic. A plea deal related to federal gun charges and misdemeanor tax charges, which would have scrubbed the gun charges from Biden’s record, fell apart in July over disagreement between the prosecution and Biden’s defense attorneys over whether the deal signaled the end of the investigation. 
  • Gen. Mark Milley, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, disputed claims made by former President Donald Trump and former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows that Milley urged Trump to attack Iran. “I can assure you that not one time have I ever recommended to attack Iran,” Milley told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. Part of special counsel Jack Smith’s Florida indictment of Trump—related to the former president’s alleged mishandling of classified material—pertains to a document that Trump claimed, in a now-public recording, was a plan to attack Iran authored by Milley. Milley told Zakaria he didn’t know which specific document Trump was referring to. In his memoir, Meadows said Milley pushed Trump repeatedly during his presidency to invade Iran.
  • The Supreme Court on Thursday extended a temporary pause on the implementation of a U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling barring the White House, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and other federal agencies from communicating with social media companies. In the decision, which is now on hold until September 22, the three-judge panel had ruled the Biden administration likely violated the First Amendment by encouraging the companies to remove content it considered to be misinformation. The Justice Department sought the pause Thursday in order to have time to prepare a full appeal.
  • A top Planned Parenthood official in Wisconsin said Thursday the organization will resume abortion procedures in the state next week after a judge ruled last week that a 19th century law against “intentionally destroy[ing] the life of an unborn child” does not apply to voluntary abortion procedures. The judge said a 1985 law, which allows abortions performed before a fetus could survive outside the womb, superseded the 1849 law. 
  • Leaders of United Auto Workers (UAW)—the union representing employees of Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis (Chrysler’s parent company), the “Big Three” U.S. car manufacturers—called a strike at select plants across the Midwest beginning Friday at 12 a.m., after labor and management failed to reach an agreement on a new contract. The walkouts, which will target three plants for each company, would be the first time UAW has organized stoppages at all three manufacturers at once. The union negotiators were seeking a more than 30 percent hourly wage increase and cost-of-living adjustments for pay hikes, among other requests, which negotiators at Ford called “unsustainable” Thursday night. Roughly 12,700 workers of the 146,000 employees represented by UAW will be part of the first action, receiving $500 a week in strike pay.  
  • CNN reported Thursday the third GOP primary debate will be held in Miami, Florida, in early November, with NBC and Salem Media in talks with the Republican National Committee to host. The second Republican debate is set for September 27 at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. 

Democrats Fret About Biden/Harris Ticket 

Vice President Kamala Harris with US President Joe Biden. (Photo by Mandel NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Vice President Kamala Harris with US President Joe Biden. (Photo by Mandel NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Shortly after Joe Biden and Kevin McCarthy reached a deal to raise the debt ceiling earlier this summer, David Ignatius took to the pages of his Washington Post column to praise the president. “Biden this week accomplished what America elected him to do—govern from the center and make deals that solve problems,” he wrote. “Join forces with Republicans? Was Biden nuts? Yet gradually over the past two years, dodging brickbats from the left wing of his party, he has done it. First with a bipartisan infrastructure bill, then with a modest gun-control measure, then with the bipartisan Chips Act, and finally with the budget agreement.”

Such ringing endorsements of Biden and his administration are a regular feature of Ignatius’ writing, which often provides a well-sourced, inside look at how the White House views various national security challenges. That tendency made the title of his Tuesday column—”President Biden should not run again in 2024”—all the more striking. “It’s painful to say that, given my admiration for much of what they have accomplished,” Ignatius wrote. “But if he and Harris campaign together in 2024, I think Biden risks undoing his greatest achievement—which was stopping Trump.”

The columnist is far from alone. With Biden’s poll numbers in an increasingly likely 2020 rematch looking worse and worse—dragged down by voters’ concerns about the president’s age and mounting questions about his family’s business dealings—concerns among Democrats and Democratic-aligned commentators about the viability of Biden’s 2024 campaign, which have thus far remained behind closed doors, are starting to spill into public.

Biden came into office after a grueling 2020 election with a positive net approval rating, but one that was lower than every just-elected president in modern American history other than Donald Trump. The honeymoon period didn’t last long, with the rating flipping negative during his administration’s August 2021 Afghanistan withdrawal and never bouncing back. Today, 968 days into his term, the figure sits at -13.5 percent, compared to +8.2 percent for Bill Clinton, +12 percent for George W. Bush, and -5.4 percent for Barack Obama. Trump, the only of Biden’s recent predecessors to lose his reelection bid, sat at -13.6 percent in a comparable point of his presidency.

Democrats’ unexpected success in last fall’s midterm elections provided a boost to Biden’s political prospects, and no serious Democratic alternative to the president has emerged, effectively cementing him as the party’s nominee if he wants it. But with the 2024 election now just under 14 months away, concerns on the left that Biden may be unable to defeat Trump a second time are growing louder.

Biden, who’s turning 81 years old in two months, would be 86 by the end of his second term, which would make him far and away the oldest sitting American president. An Associated Press-National Opinion Research Center (NORC) poll last month found that 77 percent of all respondents (and 69 percent of Democratic ones) believe Biden is “too old to effectively serve another 4-year term”—and multiple other polls have produced similar results. Trump—at 77, no spring chicken himself—faces far less concern from voters about his age, with only 51 percent answering affirmatively in the same Associated Press-NORC poll. Whatsmore, respondents associated Biden more with old age and being slow and confused than they did Trump—Trump’s associations were most commonly corruption and dishonesty but not age.   

At this point in the election cycle, Biden stepping aside could lead to a chaotic—and risky—race to replace him, leading some Democratic worrying about the ticket to be directed at Biden’s running mate. Vice President Kamala Harris’ approval rating is currently about 1.5 percentage points below Biden’s, and several left-leaning commentators have begun arguing Biden should drop Harris from the ticket in favor of a running mate who can boost his reelection chances rather than detract from them. Josh Barro—a Substack writer who was one of Biden’s biggest supporters during the 2020 Democratic primary—believes someone like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would be a far better pick for the VP slot. 

“Given widespread public concern about [Biden’s] age, it is even more important than usual that his running mate be someone that a majority of the voting public is comfortable envisioning succeeding to the presidency,” Barro wrote this week. “Harris has run worse than Biden in every national poll conducted since the midterms that asked respondents about both Biden-Trump and Harris-Trump head-to-head contests.”

Senior Democrats—including several blue state governors who have eyes on the Oval Office—have privately balked at the idea of Harris replacing Biden, according to reporting from Politico’s Jonathan Martin earlier this year. But concerns about the vice president’s electoral prospects have begun to awkwardly break through. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a fellow California Democrat, was asked on Wednesday whether Harris was the best running mate for Biden, and decided to dodge. “[Biden] thinks so, and that’s what matters,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper, though she added that “people shouldn’t underestimate what Kamala Harris brings to the table.” When given another opportunity during the interview to emphatically support Harris, the former House speaker opted not to: “She’s the vice president of the United States, so when people say to me, ‘Well, why isn’t she doing this or that,’ I say because she’s the vice president! That’s the job description, you don’t do that much.” 

Yesterday, Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin—the ranking member on the House Oversight Committee—also wouldn’t unequivocally commit to Harris being the best choice for Biden during an exceedingly awkward interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper:

Tapper: I’m not trying to throw anything into turmoil, I actually think it’s a pretty simple question! Do you think Kamala Harris is the best running mate for President Biden, yes or no?

Raskin: I mean, I don’t know what else I can say other than she—

Tapper: You could say yes!

Raskin: —would be an excellent running mate and an excellent vice president. I don’t know whether President Biden has named his running mate, we’re going to a convention next summer, it’s a year away from now, and we’re going to go through that process.

After the interview, Raskin scrambled to clean up his comments. “I’m energetically supportive of the Biden-Harris ticket in 2024,” he tweeted. “Vice President Harris is a historic and effective VP, and clearly the best match and running mate for President Biden.” But his initial response to the question was not a one-off: Another congressional Democrat, requesting anonymity to speak candidly, told The Dispatch that whether Harris is the best pick is “a question for Joe Biden.”

But barring unforeseen circumstances, the chances of a change to the ticket at this stage are low. “The odds of Kamala Harris being the running mate for Joe Biden are 100 percent,” Matt Bennett—the head of the center-left think tank Third Way—tells TMD. “There’s always something that is terrifying everyone at this point in the cycle.” A Democratic strategist with experience in presidential and statewide campaigns agreed. “This time of year is pretty common for some bedwetting to be occurring among the chattering class, especially on our side,” the strategist tells TMD, requesting anonymity to speak candidly. “I think [Harris has] done a fine job as vice president, and on top of that, point me to a situation in which someone has changed horses midstream and have that go well for them.” 

Biden is already out on the campaign trail touting his economic agenda—he gave a speech in Maryland yesterday contrasting “Bidenomics” with “MAGAnomics.” And some Democratic strategists argue Biden’s first-term accomplishments should dispel concerns about his age or competency. “Really, the test of whether somebody has the capacity to carry out a job is whether they’re carrying out the job,” Maria Cardona—a Democratic strategist and political consultant—tells TMD. “I don’t understand why people, including my friends in the Democratic Party, are putting so much credence into this. Because, I’ve got to tell you, continuing to point this out as a worry or vulnerability only will help Donald Trump in the long run.” 

Democrats may indeed want to lean into the president’s record, but an overwhelming majority of Americans remain concerned about Biden’s age, and those concerns are unlikely to magically disappear as the president gets older. During Biden’s recent trip abroad to attend the G20 summit and visit Vietnam, for example, White House staffers tried to talk up the rigors of the president’s schedule. But the effort was quickly overshadowed by several fumbles, including White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre cutting Biden off in the middle of a rambling answer at a press conference in Hanoi. Before Jean-Pierre interrupted him, Biden had told reporters that he was “going to go to bed.”

And voters aren’t giving the president much credit for how the economy is performing. A Wall Street Journal poll from last month found that 59 percent of respondents disapproved of how Biden is handling the economy, and 63 percent disapprove of how he’s dealing with inflation. But Democrats see those attitudes changing by next year. “The economy changes much more rapidly than political attitudes change about it,” Bennett tells TMD. “What really matters, every pollster will tell you, is how people feel about the economy in June of next year. That is where opinions begin to set about how folks are feeling. If they’re feeling this way in June, then we have a problem, but I don’t think they will be. I think that inflation has stabilized [and] jobs are plentiful. The economy is doing extraordinarily well.”

Hunter Biden’s recent indictment— and the prospect of a criminal trial next year during the general election—could prove a further drag on the president, who has refused to countenance any criticism of his son. That position may prove untenable, as even some Biden-aligned House Democrats have started to lightly criticize Hunter in an attempt to distinguish him from his father. “You can’t impeach Hunter Biden, but he will be prosecuted,” Raskin said recently. And Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York acknowledged that “Hunter Biden may have very well done some improper things.”

The shift reflects a recognition that Biden is a vulnerable incumbent. But Democrats believe voters will ultimately put aside concerns about Biden’s age or ties to Hunter’s misdeeds once the election draws nearer. “It’s going to turn around,” Bennett says. “Democrats are going to come home. The threat of Trump is going to concentrate everyone’s mind.” 

Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell of California agrees. “You know what number is higher than 80? 91. 91 indictments,” he told The Dispatch. “That should be more alarming than the president’s age.”

But betting on Trump’s legal problems is a big risk when Biden and Trump are polling nationally at a near tie, and questions about Hunter may lead many voters to view the issue of “corruption” as a wash. “Biden has never been good at saying no,” Ignatius wrote in his column on Tuesday. “He should have resisted the choice of Harris, who was a colleague of his beloved son Beau when they were both state attorneys general. … He should have stopped his son Hunter from joining the board of a Ukrainian gas company and representing companies in China—and he certainly should have resisted Hunter’s attempts to impress clients by getting Dad on the phone. Biden has another chance to say no—to himself, this time—by withdrawing from the 2024 race. It might not be in character for Biden, but it would be a wise choice for the country.”

Worth Your Time

  • If you’re concerned about the state of free speech on college campuses, the story of John Rose, a pioneering professor at Duke University, may buoy your spirits. Rose teaches a class called “How To Think in the Age of Political Polarization,” and “it has touched an intellectual nerve, not only with students but also alumni and parents,” including none other than Jerry Seinfeld, a Duke parent, Andrea Billups writes for Duke Mag, the university’s alumni publication. “Rose has come to enjoy being the ringmaster of tough discussions. Among the issues taken up in his popular course are transgender athletes, gender pronouns, Israel-Palestine, abortion, critical race theory, racial inequality and the very idea of what race is, police and violence. The stuff that divides us. But he is mindful that the discussion can be sensitive, and he strives to cultivate an atmosphere of charity. That, he says, is key. ‘We talk a lot about courage—finding the courage to speak, to dissent—and I’ve observed that courage is contagious. Students will follow upon a brave comment with another brave comment.’”  

Presented Without Comment

The Washington Post: After Chaotic Week, House Heads Home with Government Shutdown on Horizon

“‘You guys think I’m scared of a motion to vacate. Go f—ing ahead and do it. I’m not scared,’ [House Speaker] McCarthy told the House GOP conference in the closed-door meeting, according to a lawmaker in attendance. A motion to vacate would kick off the process that could remove McCarthy from the speakership.” 

Toeing the Company Line

  • In the newsletters: Nick argues Mitt Romney’s retirement marks the end of the old Republican Party, once and for all.
  • On the podcasts: The Davids (French and Lat) dig into McCarthy’s impeachment inquiry on Advisory Opinions, while Mike is joined by Steve and Jonah on the Dispatch Podcast to discuss the slow-moving car crash that is the likely government shutdown, plus Biden’s Iran policy and the Kim-Putin summit. 
  • On the site today: Mike profiles GOP Rep. Ken Buck, who’s been a vocal critic of the House GOP’s impeachment push, and Rebecca Heinrichs pushes back on the latest arguments against aid to Ukraine.

Let Us Know

Do you think the Democratic Party has a better chance of controlling the White House come 2025 if Joe Biden is its presidential nominee, or if he steps aside?

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.