These are heady days for President Joe Biden. The midterm elections offered long-sought validation. Democrats held onto the Senate, and even if they lose the House, it will be by a narrow margin. The Republicans are in retreat and, by the way, so are the Russians and, just a bit at least, so is inflation.
The president’s fellow Democrats are flocking to cameras to give him credit. “This victory belongs to Joe Biden,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., his onetime rival, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. His advisers sound almost giddy, using words like “miracle” and “biblical” to describe the election.
But even as the history-defying midterms went a long way toward solving some of the president’s immediate political problems, they did not miraculously make him any younger. A week from Sunday, Biden, the oldest president in U.S. history, will turn 80, a milestone the White House has no plans to celebrate with fireworks or splashy parties. And so Biden confronts a choice that still leaves many in his party quietly uncomfortable: Should he run for a second term?
Top advisers such as Ron Klain, Anita Dunn, Mike Donilon, Steven J. Ricchetti and Jennifer O’Malley Dillon are already meeting to map out what a 2024 campaign would look like. The president said last week that he “intends” to run but would talk with his family over the holidays and announce a decision early next year. He will only be more motivated assuming former President Donald Trump jumps into the race Tuesday night as expected.
Biden likes to remind anyone who will listen that he is the only one who has beaten Trump, and he remains confident that he is the Democrat who is best equipped to do it again. Polls show that as unpopular as Biden remains, he still has more support than Trump does and the Republican setbacks last week have undercut the former president in his own party.
“Even before the midterms, Biden was running ahead of Donald Trump,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. “Now you’ve got Biden, he has the wind behind his back, he’s gotten a lift from doing better than expected, while Trump is obviously part of a Republican Party meltdown. When you look at it in that frame, Biden has emerged in a stronger position.”
Unspoken is the reality that Democrats have an unproven bench behind Biden. Many party operatives are deeply worried that Vice President Kamala Harris could not win. While there are many other would-be contenders, none of them has impressed the president enough for him to feel comfortable turning the party over to them.
Some Democrats argue that this is a situation of Biden’s own making, having failed to successfully groom a potential successor, consciously or not making himself the indispensable man. But either way, it leaves many Democrats circling back to the conclusion that Biden remains the party’s best choice.
“Boy, he literally had the Democratic Party across the country at every level, state, local, congressional, it had the best midterms of any Democratic president since JFK,” said Sen. Chris Coons, a Democratic ally from Delaware, the president’s home state. “It’d be hard not to look at that and say, ‘OK, there’s still a role, there’s still a path, there’s still important things to do.’ ”
The elections, however, were as much a testament to Republican weakness as an indication of Biden’s strength. According to an aggregate of surveys tracked by the political website FiveThirtyEight, Biden’s average 41.5% approval rating remains lower at this point in his term than that of all 13 presidents at similar points going back to Harry Truman (albeit only slightly lower than Trump’s was at this stage).
One House Democrat who won reelection last week said the party’s success should not be viewed as a validation of the president. Biden’s numbers were “a huge drag” on Democratic candidates, who won in spite of the president not thanks to him, the lawmaker said on the condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing the White House.
RootsAction.org, a left-leaning advocacy group that supported Sen. Bernie Sanders, the socialist independent from Vermont, in the 2016 and 2020 primaries, barely waited until the polling booths closed Tuesday before kicking off a “Don’t Run Joe” campaign to pressure the president to step aside.
Norman Solomon, the group’s national director, noted that Democrats won with higher numbers than Biden’s approval ratings, meaning they outperformed their leader.
“It might seem counterintuitive in the absence of a ‘red wave,’ but Biden is actually an albatross around the neck of his party,” Solomon said. “Voters prevented disaster in the midterms despite Biden, not because of him. In effect, he’s promising to be a drag on the party and its prospects heading into 2024.”
In CNN exit polls, 67% of voters last week said they did not want Biden to run for reelection, including a significant share of Democrats. A New York Times/Siena College poll in July found that nearly two-thirds of Democrats preferred another candidate for 2024, with age listed as the top concern by the most party members.
While past presidents marked major birthdays with lavish spectacles — Bill Clinton celebrated his 50th with 20,000 supporters at Radio City Music Hall; Barack Obama partied on his 50th with Tom Hanks, Stevie Wonder and Jay-Z — Biden has not made similar plans for next Sunday, when he becomes an octogenarian. Aides said they had not intentionally avoided a public display, but simply had not had time given the midterms and the president’s current trip overseas.
Biden has said age is a legitimate factor for voters to consider while maintaining that he is in great shape. Despite occasional verbal stumbles, he has made a point of showcasing his stamina by following a stretch of cross-country campaign travel with an arduous weeklong journey to North Africa and Asia. While four years younger, Trump faced plenty of questions about age-related diminishment while in office.
Biden’s aides respond to questions about age by citing his record: Look at all the bills he has passed, they argue, because that shows he can get the job done. Among others, Biden enacted major legislation providing COVID-19 relief; rebuilding the nation’s roads, bridges and other infrastructure; jump-starting the semiconductor industry; expanding health care; extending help to veterans afflicted by toxic burn pits; curbing the price of prescription drugs and combating climate change.
None of which, of course, guarantees how he would be doing in six years, at the end of a second term, when he would be 86 — nine years older than Ronald Reagan, the previous oldest president, who was 77 when he left the White House.
But White House officials said such volatile times, with a nuclear-edged confrontation with Russia over Ukraine and democratic traditions at home threatened by a former president spreading lies about a stolen election, are best met by a seasoned leader.
“Joe Biden is the most experienced president in history,” said Andrew Bates, a White House spokesperson. “His experience, wisdom and unique connection to the middle class is why he has the most significant legislative accomplishments since Lyndon Johnson.”
The midterm success gives Biden space to decide on his own terms. If he runs again, he is likely to have stronger party support than if there had been a Republican wave. Barring a surprise, it is harder to imagine a significant challenge emerging for the nomination. If he does not run, he can bow out with his pride intact rather than looking as if he was forced to step aside by a bad election.
In the weeks leading up to the midterms, he seemed to more publicly hedge his answer to the question, but aides said that was because lawyers had told him to stop being too explicit in saying he would run again for fear that it could prompt legal requirements under campaign laws.
After last week’s vote, advisers said, Biden seemed more pumped up for the challenge. One adviser, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal discussions, called the president “beyond confident” and compared the midterm victory to somehow managing to escape the slaughter of the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Even on his overseas trip, Biden has intensely followed the vote counting back home. Emerging from a meeting in Cambodia with Australia’s prime minister this weekend, the president called Rep. Dina Titus in Nevada to congratulate her on her victory. When an aide woke Biden on Sunday with news that the Nevada Senate race had been called for Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, clinching Democratic control of the chamber, he quickly asked, “What’s the latest with the House?”
Since early fall, aides have been holding small group meetings to prepare in case Biden does run. Among other things, they have consulted with Democrats such as David Plouffe and Jim Messina, who managed Obama’s 2012 reelection effort; they have also consulted with veterans of Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign, such as Ricchetti and Bruce Reed, who is currently a deputy White House chief of staff.
The adviser who matters most, though, is Jill Biden. The president and the first lady plan to retreat with the family for Thanksgiving on Nantucket, where they will discuss the prospect of one more campaign. If Jill Biden decides he should not run, one adviser said, he will not run. Joe Biden has told confidants that his wife is “all in,” although some are skeptical.
An announcement may not come until the State of the Union address, probably in February. Aides argue they do not need to move any sooner since Biden is an incumbent, and besides, if he does not run, he would prefer to delay the day he becomes a lame duck. Should he not run, it would still leave nearly a year for other Democrats to prove themselves on the campaign trail.
But in the exuberance after last week’s elections, many Democrats are betting that Biden will give it another go.
“He just defied midterm political history, ” said Cornell Belcher, who was Obama’s pollster. “My God, what president in the last two decades has been better positioned?”