June 28, 2022 1:28:29 pm
Written by Jonathan Martin and Zolan Kanno-Youngs
Earlier this month, when Sen. Bernie Sanders said he would not challenge President Joe Biden in 2024, Biden was so relieved he invited his former rival to dinner at the White House the next night.
Biden has been eager for signs of loyalty — and they have been few and far between. Facing intensifying skepticism about his capacity to run for reelection when he will be nearly 82, the president and his top aides have been stung by the questions about his plans, irritated at what they see as a lack of respect from their party and the press, and determined to tamp down suggestions that he is effectively a lame duck a year and a half into his administration.
This account of Biden’s preparation for reelection and his building frustration with his party’s doubt is based on interviews with numerous people who talk regularly to the president. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. But several said the president and his inner circle were confounded by Democrats’ discussions about a Plan B when the one person who has defeated Donald Trump has made clear he intends to run again.
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Biden has told advisers he sees a replay of the early days of his 2020 primary bid, when some Democrats dismissed him as too old or too moderate to win the nomination. He blames the same doubters for the current round of questioning.
Those skeptics grew louder over the weekend, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, when Biden restated his opposition to expanding the ranks of the high court, the left’s preferred solution to the court’s current conservative tilt. The remarks angered critics who argue that the president, who has never been comfortable elevating abortion rights and positions himself as a consensus builder, doesn’t have the temperament for partisan combat.
“Too many people in our party look at the glass as half-empty as opposed to the glass as half-full,” said former Rep. Cedric Richmond, whom Biden dispatched from the White House to shore up the Democratic National Committee. Accusing other Democrats of “putting too much into these polling numbers,” an allusion to Biden’s standing below 40% in some surveys, Richmond said there was “a wing in our party who wanted a different candidate and I’m sure they’d love to have their candidate back in the mix again.”
However, it’s hardly just the president’s progressive detractors who are nervous about soaring inflation, uneasy about Biden running again, and not convinced he even should.
Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who some wealthy donors are hoping will consider a third-party presidential bid, declined to say whether he would consider such a run or if he planned to back Biden. “We’re just trying to do our daily thing, brother,” Manchin said. “Trying to do what we got to do that’s good for the country.”
Other interviews with Democratic lawmakers yield grave doubts about whether Biden ought to lead the party again with some concluding he should but only because there’s no clearly viable alternative.
“I have been surprised at the number of people who are openly expressing concerns about 2024 and whether or not Biden should run,” said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, recounting a recent dinner of Democrats in the capital where several speculated about who could succeed the president.
More worrisome for Biden, some ambitious Democrats have found that calling for the president to retire is a sure way to win attention. Former Rep. Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, who’s hoping to unseat Gov. Henry McMaster, 75, said the president should cede the nomination “to a new generation of leadership,” as he put it on CNN last week.
In some respects, Biden invited this moment. Running in the 2020 primary, the president presented himself as “a bridge, not as anything else” as he sought to rally skeptical Democrats to his candidacy. Consumed with ejecting Trump from office, the party’s voters answered that call but thought little of the implications of having an octogenarian in the Oval Office four years on.
Now, over half of Democrats say they don’t want Biden to run again or aren’t sure he should, according to recent surveys.
Biden’s top advisers reject the idea that an open primary would deliver Democrats a stronger standard-bearer. They fear his retirement would set off a sprint to the left. What’s more, while Vice President Kamala Harris would most likely garner substantial support, she’s unlikely to clear the field, leading to a messy race that could widen the party’s divisions on issues of race, gender and ideology.
Biden has told aides he is determined to run again, although he has also noted he will take his family’s advice into account. Biden’s advisers recognize the political risk of being perceived as a one-term president and are intent on signaling that he intends to run for reelection.
The president has made clear he wants a primary calendar that better reflects the party’s racial diversity, all but assuring the demise of first-in-the-nation status for the Iowa, which was hostile to Biden in his last two presidential bids. Senior Democrats are considering moving up Michigan, a critical general election state where the president has a number of allies in labor and elected office.
The Democratic National Committee has been quietly preparing for the president’s reelection by pouring money and staff into eight battleground states that happen to have important midterm elections, an effort that began in the spring of last year. Biden has also accelerated his fundraising, holding a pair of events for the committee in June that brought in $5 million, while also spending more time on Zoom sessions courting individual contributors.
The president has moved to consolidate his hold on the DNC, and not just by sending Richmond to the committee. Biden has also shifted both his social media assets and his lucrative fundraising list to the party, which has made the committee largely reliant on those channels for their contributions.
Even more subtly, Biden has made personnel moves that indicate he’s at least preparing to run, most notably summoning Anita Dunn, a longtime adviser, back to the White House from her public affairs firm. Dunn, who helped revive the president’s moribund primary campaign in 2020; Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s top political aide; and senior adviser Mike Donilon are expected to help guide the reelection, although notably there has been no decision yet on who will formally manage the reelection outside the White House.
White House aides have noticed Gov. Gavin Newsom’s repeated denunciations of his party leadership for not more robustly confronting Republicans. They dismissed the California governor’s critiques as those of a politician feeling his oats after easily thwarting a recall and said Newsom was in frequent contact with the West Wing. And one Biden adviser noted that Newsom feels enough affection for Biden to have posted pictures of his children with the president on social media during Biden’s trip to California last week.
As for Hillary Rodham Clinton, few Biden advisers think she will mount a challenge against him, although her recent Financial Times interview made it clear she’s eager to have her voice in the political conversation. Clinton has made little secret of her frustration that she has not been consulted more by Biden. But White House aides believe they can direct Clinton’s energy toward assisting with the public response to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe.
When pressed about why Biden is so intent on running again, the president’s defenders point out he did what Clinton did not, defeat Trump.
Stung about their perceived treatment, they also recall other recent Democrats — President Bill Clinton and Obama — who rebounded from low approval numbers and rough midterm elections to win second terms.
But Biden’s age — at 79, he is the oldest president in American history — has fueled skepticism those presidents didn’t face.
“Trump is a senior citizen, too,” shoots back Fletcher Smith, a former South Carolina legislator, reprising a line White House officials use, as well.
Democrats remain so alarmed by the threat that Trump, 76, represents that Biden’s aides argue they will be insulated from a primary because such a race will be perceived as effectively aiding the former president, a life-or-death question for American democracy.
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