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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden helped Democrats avert a ’22 disaster. What about ’24?

President Joe Biden, second from right, and former President Barack Obama, right, campaign for state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, left, then the Democratic candidate for governor, and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, then the Democratic candidate for the Senate, in Philadelphia on Nov. 5, 2022. Shapiro and Fetterman both defeated their Republican opponents.

By Katie Glueck

Expecting a cataclysmic midterm election, many Democrats had been bracing for an end-of-year reckoning with whether President Joe Biden, who once declared himself a “bridge” to a new generation, should give way to a new 2024 standard-bearer.

But the stronger-than-expected Democratic showing has taken the pressure off.

And Donald Trump’s decision to announce a run for president again, and the Republican backlash against him, have abruptly quieted Democrats’ public expressions of anxiety over Biden’s poor approval ratings, while reminding them of Biden’s past success over Trump.

Now, as Biden mulls a decision over whether to seek a second term, interviews with more than two dozen Democratic elected officials and strategists suggest that, whatever misgivings some Democrats may harbor about another Biden candidacy, his party is more inclined for now to defer to him than to try to force a frontal clash with a sitting president.

In recent days, officials ranging from Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of the most conservative House Democrats, to Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, have said they would support another Biden bid.

In private conversations, younger Democratic operatives have shifted from discussing potential job opportunities in a competitive presidential primary to gaming out what a Biden reelection campaign might look like. And a variety of lawmakers have lauded Biden for the party’s history-defying midterm performance, crediting him with the major legislative accomplishments they were able to run on and with pressing a message that cast Republican candidates as extremists who threatened democracy.

Already, Biden appears to be improving Democrats’ confidence in him: A recent USA Today/Ipsos poll found that 71% of Democrats surveyed believe he could win in 2024, up from 60% who said the same in August, although they were evenly divided on whether he should be the 2024 nominee.

The concerns about Biden’s overall weak standing in public opinion polls — which was a burden for many Democratic candidates — have not dissipated entirely. And some Democrats say that the challenges confronting the 80-year-old president and his party should not be glossed over in the party’s relief over the outcome of the elections.

Stanley B. Greenberg, a veteran Democratic pollster, pointed to a postelection survey that highlighted Democratic vulnerabilities. The poll, conducted by the organization Greenberg helped found, warned of “the continuing risk of a Republican challenge centered on borders and crime.” It determined that “Trump may have been weakened in this election, but another leader with that message” poses “an accelerated risk.”

In an interview, Greenberg said he came away from the survey “believing Democrats have huge issues to address.” While “President Biden has done remarkable things,” he added, “I think we need a new voice to address huge challenges but also huge opportunities.”

Surveys of voters leaving the polls found that two-thirds, including nearly one-third of Democrats, said they did not want Biden to run for president again — although Biden’s allies have noted those numbers are not predictive of how voters would respond when presented with a choice between the president and a Republican candidate. At a postelection news conference, Biden insisted that those poll ratings would not affect his decision. He has said that he intends to run but planned to discuss the race with his family over the holidays and could announce a decision early next year.

David Axelrod, who served as chief strategist for President Barack Obama, said the midterm elections had given Biden “a little giddyup in his step.” As for a run for a second term, Axelrod said, “If he were 60 and not 80, there would be absolutely no doubt.”

Republicans have long made issues of Biden’s age and verbal missteps, and polls show that plenty of Democrats, too, have reservations about Biden’s age.

“Most people in this country don’t know many 80-year-olds that can run the entire country,” said Tyler Jones, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina. “That’s not to say that they don’t exist, and it’s not to say that he can’t do it, but it is a very rare thing. And so the burden, unlike most presidents, the burden is on Biden to show the country that he can not just win in ’24, but lead for the next four years.”

Jones said it would be “foolish and counterproductive” not to have a serious conversation in the party about the strengths and weaknesses of a Biden candidacy.

But there is no doubt that Biden would have a significant edge should he run again, the kind of advantage that a man who sought the presidency for decades might resist giving up. It is rare for an incumbent president to lose reelection — or, in recent years, to face a major primary threat — and the Democratic National Committee has already laid groundwork to support Biden in 2024, preparing to take on a variety of Republican candidates. Biden’s political advisers have also been ramping up outreach to his early backers, and his team has scheduled a gathering for major supporters and key party figures to discuss the administration’s agenda Dec. 15 at the White House.

Asked about concerns some Americans have about Biden’s age, Andrew Bates, a White House spokesperson, said Biden had the “most successful legislative record of any president since Lyndon Johnson,” citing achievements on infrastructure and gun policy. He extolled Biden’s record on the world stage and his political strengths.

“The same coalition President Biden built to expand the map for Democrats in 2020 powered our historic midterm wins, including unprecedented youth turnout,” Bates said. “The president galvanized independent voters with a message widely adopted across the party, highlighting the differences between his values and ultra-MAGA Republicans’ agenda.”

Regardless of the next Republican nominee’s age, some Democrats suggest the GOP is vulnerable to the same issues that drove major defeats this year.

“Republicans failed in a year when they should have been hugely successful,” said Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois. “People have rejected the anti-little ‘d’ democratic values that they have run on.”

Others argue that it would be possible to support Biden if he runs while also backing generational change in the party.

Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, stressed her hope that, overall, “batons are beginning to be passed.” But she also said she would back another Biden run.

“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” she said.

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