Sometime soon, Joe Biden will announce whether he will seek reelection in 2024. Last year, he said that he’d make a formal declaration of his intention to run in the early part of this year. Over the weekend, The Hill reported that a decision has been made—it’s a yes—and that Biden will likely say so publicly sometime in February, perhaps right before he gives the State of the Union address, for which the date has not yet been set.
This should come as no surprise. Biden is a politician; politicians want to seek reelection, and they want to win. Presidents in particular want those four more years: One-term presidents are losers. If Biden chose to retire after one term, that wouldn’t be the same as losing a reelection bid, of course; but he’d still be in the historic company of Buchanan and Taft and Hoover and Carter and Bush Sr., and, most gallingly of all, Trump. You kinda have to win reelection to stand a chance of going down in history as a great or even merely successful president.
There are two arguments against his running, a small one and a big one. The small one is that he’s still underwater in the polls. His approval rating is 43 percent, with 51 percent disapproval. At this point in 2013, Barack Obama was at 52 percent. He won. And at this point in 2019, Donald Trump was at 37 percent. He lost. Biden splits the difference between the two, but 43 is a pretty shaky starting point.
The bigger concern is his age. He turned 80 right before Thanksgiving, meaning that if he runs and wins, he’ll turn 82 shortly after his reelection. One doesn’t want to traffic in age discrimination, but let’s face it: That’s old. He’d be 86 as he was finishing his second term. Voters will have legitimate questions about whether someone of that age can handle a job in which a historic crisis could occur—at any moment, on any of a number of different fronts.
This is probably why most Democrats tell pollsters they’d rather he not run. A December survey found 57 percent of Democrats saying they didn’t want Biden to seek reelection. Sixty-one percent of the Democrats in the “don’t run” camp cited his age as the reason.
I have long felt and suspected, based on my casual conversations with people, party insiders see things differently. In late 2021, say, when the Biden agenda was stalled and co-president Manchin was holding forth, insider opinion was, to my recollection, strongly against Biden running in 2024. But then he passed some things—in fact quite a number of things; he did a terrific job in uniting most of the world against Vladimir Putin’s war; gas prices went down. Has elite opinion changed?
Well, I asked. Last week, I emailed three dozen people I know and would fairly describe as inside observers of Democratic politics. They were a diverse group—in terms of race and ethnicity (16 of the 36 were nonwhite), gender, age, what they do for a living, and ideology, from left-leaning advocates to mainstream liberal party insiders to centrist think-tankers. I asked them two simple questions—should Biden run, and why or why not—and told them they could answer on the record, on background (meaning I could use what they wrote without naming them), or off the record.
Results: Exactly half of the 36 responded by Sunday morning, which might tell us something (that some folks aren’t ready to commit publicly just yet). But of the 18, 16 said yes. I got seven on-the-record responses, eight background replies, and three who asked to stay off the record (but all of whom said yes, interestingly). So, let’s go through them.
Tom Perriello, the former congressman from Virginia and now director of U.S. programs at the Open Society Foundations: “I hope he runs again, because he’s overcome tremendous political odds to deliver the boldest agenda in generations. He has a senior team of brilliant, no-drama veterans ready to translate those policies into a new, more inclusive and resilient American dream.”
Karen Kornbluh, former aide to Senator Barack Obama and ex-ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development under President Obama: “Joe Biden’s continued leadership is essential if the U.S. is to build on the new industrial policy to replace laissez-faire globalization with a new agenda that produces widespread prosperity and addresses the daunting challenges of the 21st century, from climate to the global debt crisis to the rise of authoritarianism.”
Cornell Belcher, Democratic pollster: “Of course he should run. The very question is annoyingly myopic. On the record—the Biden/Harris ticket is our best opportunity. In fact, Biden enters reelection better positioned than either Bill Clinton or Obama,” citing legislative accomplishments, midterm overperformance, foreign policy, and record job growth.
Matt Bennett, executive vice president of Third Way: “He’s earned it with huge legislative and political successes, and incumbent presidents who don’t face primaries (and who aren’t the worst president in American history) tend to win.”
Theda Skocpol, sociologist at Harvard who has done pathbreaking research on the modern right: “If he personally feels committed and healthy, Biden absolutely should run for reelection. He has stellar center-left domestic accomplishments, good political instincts, and foreign policy connections and vision essential in this dangerous global juncture. His administration with just slight fine tuning is good to keep going.”
You get the idea. Don Baer, a former Clinton White House communications chief and speechwriter, said that the Biden administration “has strengthened our country’s faith in itself and shown it is still possible to use the Presidency in an effective way to produce results for the American people.” And John Halpin of The Liberal Patriot said that “the last thing Democrats need is a replay of the 2020 primaries (before Biden won) with months on end of weirdo base politics broadcast daily to voters.”*
The pro-Biden sentiments were basically the same among the people who preferred to be on background. A former Clinton aide and Obama appointee: “He’s been effective, steady, and sane—and with what the House is about to be like, the country needs and will want more of what he’s been.” A Democratic strategist: “If any other president had his record of accomplishments, this wouldn’t even be a question. He has proven to be capable and up to the job, and his policy achievements speak for themselves.” A progressive policy leader: “His policy proposals have led, under very difficult political and social conditions, to significant and potentially transformative legislative progress.”
A funder of the progressive ecosystem said Biden should run because “(a) he has a good record to run on, but only he can run on that (witness Gore in 2000), and (b) the next wave of D candidates will be ready for prime time in ’28 (Whitmer, Newsom, Shapiro, Warnock); Harris will be an even more worrisome candidate if Biden doesn’t run, her primary race was not inspiring.” And a former Obama administration official said: “Biden should run again, and I would not have said that last year. He definitely faces some deficits with the younger generation, but overall, his record is as strong or stronger as any Democratic president in my lifetime. He is getting things done that we have wanted to get done for a long time—above all on infrastructure and climate change, laying the foundation for a new American economy. And his handling of the war in Ukraine has been outstanding.”
Here were my two dissenters. A longtime Democratic operative: “I agree with the majority of Democratic voters and say that Biden should not run for re-election—simply because of his age. I know the other side argues that he is the only one who has beaten Trump. But the biggest mistake in politics is to prepare to fight the last war.” And a former Democratic member of Congress who was in the House when Biden was a senator and remains active in party politics: “We have finally shown America that we can have a seamless and even inspiring changing of the guard in the House. Why shouldn’t we do it in the White House as well? We’re making great progress with getting young people to vote Democratic, but not for president until we have young candidates.” He was referring there to Nancy Pelosi passing the leadership baton to Hakeem Jeffries, not to Kevin McCarthy and his 15-rounds-of-voting flop era.
I should note that I heard back more from insiders than from activists. My sense of the progressive activist world is that they’re pleasantly surprised by Biden’s accomplishments and appointments and will support him ungrumpily if he runs. But as a group, they’re probably not as enthusiastic as party insiders.
What do I think? I’m a big yes. I was not in late 2021. But he’s turned me around. The legislative accomplishments are bigger than any in my adult lifetime. There will be no more of those in these next two years, but the Justice Department and the Labor Department and the Federal Trade Commission and other executive agencies can still do a lot. And if the Democrats hit a trifecta in 2024—Biden is reelected, they recapture the House, and somehow hang onto the Senate—then I would anticipate some form of filibuster reform that will enable the party to pass voting rights legislation, raise the minimum wage, do more on climate, and increase taxes on the wealthy to finance various policies to support working people. If that happens, 2025 could look like a replay of 1933 and FDR’s Hundred Days.
There’s also a good non-Biden reason he should run: If he doesn’t, there will be a potentially divisive, multicandidate primary. His administration has done a staggeringly good job of holding the party together. The left wing of the party is pretty happy with Biden’s economic direction and with appointments such as Ketanji Brown Jackson, and the centrists aren’t whining that he’s gone “too far left.” Neither Clinton nor Obama was able to pull this off the way Biden has.
Why the chasm between insiders and the rank and file? I suspect because insiders sit around obsessing about things like the possibility of a divisive primary and regular people don’t. Regular-people Democrats just see a guy they basically like but fear is too old for the job, and they probably blame him at least a little bit for inflation. My guess is that rank-and-file support for Biden among Democrats will grow as 2024 becomes more real. But if even one-third of the party electorate opposes him running, that’s a lot, and he’ll have some convincing to do.
His age will be a fair issue to both Democratic and swing voters; he’ll have to show them he’s up to doing the job. There’s also this so far mostly overlooked point: In 2020, because of the pandemic, he didn’t have to campaign much. That will be different in 2024. It’s unknown whether he’ll be up for a rigorous campaign schedule. If the Republican nominee is not Donald Trump but a younger person like Ron DeSantis (44) or Glen Youngkin (56), it’s hard to know how Biden will look compared to them in the home stretch of a tough campaign. (There are some advantages to his age: He’s experienced, and he’s old enough to have outgrown the desperate need for personal glory that oozes out of every pore of DeSantis’s body.)
There’s never been a perfect candidate for president. Still, while we can acknowledge some of Biden’s shortcomings, he nevertheless ticks a lot of boxes. A party that’s united behind a competent leader who’s a decent and compassionate human being who is also embracing a more populist economic agenda than the party has in decades? I’ll take that in a heartbeat. Now he just has to win.
* This article originally misnamed John Halpin’s website.