Ten months into his term, there’s suddenly a whole lot of media chatter about whether Joe Biden will run for reelection.
Biden says he will. His inner circle says he will. But most pundits either aren’t buying it or are outright skeptical – and there is a similar reaction among many Democrats.
My take is simple: I don’t think the president knows. At some point, he has to assess his health, since he turned 79 over the weekend, and he has to assess his political health and his chances of keeping the White House.
But I do know this: If Biden has decided against running, or is entertaining serious doubts, he wouldn’t say so. That would be political malpractice. The instant he even hints at limiting himself to one term, he becomes a lame duck and loses most of his leverage.
Right now, it’s the combination of his advanced age and his slide in the polls that sparked a kind of chemical reaction about his future. He can’t do anything about the fact that he’d be 82 years old when he faces the voters again. He can do something about his slipping political fortunes.
The other X factor here is Kamala Harris, who is taking a lot of flak as vice president and is saddled with a 28% approval rating. The fear among Democrats – in some cases approaching panic – is that they could head into 2024 with two unpopular incumbents and no obvious nominee, especially if Donald Trump runs again.
President Joe Biden is greeted by U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, Detroit, May 18, 2021. (Reuters)
While Biden and his top aides have “reassured allies” that he’s running, the Washington Post says, “the broader Democratic community has become increasingly anxious after a bruising six-month stretch.” These concerns include inflation, the pandemic and party infighting.
Many Democratic strategists and officials tell the paper that “the assurances have not stopped the internal debate over whether Biden will appear on the ticket.
Some Democrats take a skeptical view of any public and private signals Biden and his team send about reelection, reasoning that there is an incentive for them to project interest in a second term, regardless of his true intent, to avoid weakening his standing. Another presidential bid, others worry, will involve a much more rigorous schedule than the relatively calm 2020 campaign, which was largely conducted remotely because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
One sign that party insiders are looking past a Biden-Harris ticket: Various names are being tossed around, including Elizabeth Warren. Oh, and AOC, who will meet the constitutional threshold of being 35 by about three weeks.
As for how Biden can boost his stock, veteran journalist Joe Klein offers an intriguing strategy:
“He has built, in the West Wing and in his Cabinet, the world’s most competent Senate staff. It is a team without stars or czars — there is no Colin Powell or Madeleine Albright among them, no high-profile Richard Cheney or Al Gore to fire back at Republican distortions, no David Petraeus or Norman Schwarzkopf to patrol the Mexican border. There has been no shakedown cruise, no reshuffling of staff, no David Gergen or Leon Panetta to school the president in how to be an executive.”
Then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., in Wilmington, Del., Aug. 12, 2020. (Associated Press)
Biden could certainly use a high-profile brawler to mix it up, which he is loath to do, and to tell him when he needs to shift course. Schooled in Senate procedure, he lets things drag on far too long.
But Klein’s idea of Biden delivering big-picture speeches, including standing up to wokeness, is probably a fantasy. Joe Biden is not, nor has he ever sold himself, as a visionary. He’s a political mechanic who says he knows how to make the gears work. Maybe that’s why Monday he kept on Donald Trump’s Fed chairman, Jay Powell, to avoid spooking the markets.
This president doesn’t want to dominate the news agenda, and I continue to believe that hurts him.
Look at last week: He signed his infrastructure law, hitting the road to sell its benefits, and then got the House to pass the nearly $2 trillion social safety net and climate change bill. But neither was the major story of the week.
President Joe Biden speaks to American service members at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk, England, June 9, 2021. (Associated Press)
In fact, all talk of the reconciliation bill was basically obliterated when, hours later, a Kenosha, Wisconsin, jury found Kyle Rittenhouse not guilty of homicide. And when Biden weighed in on that, he drew criticism for sending contradictory messages: The jury has spoken, but he, like many others, was “angry and concerned” about the verdict.
It was an obvious bow to his progressive wing and in my view a blunder.
Earlier in the week, it was Steve Bannon’s rant against the administration, as he was contesting the subpoena from the House Jan. 6 panel, that grabbed headlines. That is, at bottom, a Trump story, and Trump news is always more exciting for journalists than Biden’s legislative slog and workmanlike speeches.
Biden spent most of his adult life trying to become president. If he doesn’t want to give it up now after one term, he’s got to find a way to change the equation.