Did the Democrats exceed expectations in the midterm elections because of Biden or in spite of him?
It’s a question Democrats in Washington are asking, and they’re not getting a satisfactory answer. But at this point, it doesn’t matter. Any potential challengers to Biden lost their number one selling point when Democrats kept control of the Senate and barely lost their House majority. “Anyone but Biden” doesn’t work as a major campaign issue after the Democrat’s midterm performance.
The fact is, Biden is still in really bad shape going into 2024. His approval numbers are an anemic 41%. The right-track/wrong-direction numbers still look terrible with 65% believing we’re on the wrong track and only 29.5% seeing us on the right road. And Americans are still down about the state of the economy and pessimistic about the future.
Inflation will probably moderate a little — not because of Biden’s policies but because the economy is slowing down significantly. There is still slack in employment so there probably won’t be a big loss of jobs in the near future. But the unpredictability of all this also weighs on voters’ minds as they contemplate a choice for 2024.
Going back to the original question, Democrats would have to be delusional to think they avoided disaster in the midterms because the nation loves Joe Biden. But the good politicians among them — Bernie Sanders, Gavin Newsom, J.B. Pritzker — see only a narrow window to fulfill their own 2024 ambitions.
They can’t get there from here. Already, Newsom and Sanders have politely declined when asked about running — for now, anyway. There simply isn’t a party consensus that Biden has to go. And since challenging an incumbent president — even an unpopular one — has only succeeded once in American history (1856 when clueless Franklin Pierce was ousted by Democrats in favor of the even more clueless James Buchanan), no one is likely to step forward to challenge him.
For Democrats, it’s Biden or no one at this early stage of the campaign.
This means that Democrats will ride or die (metaphorically) with the octogenarian Biden. The soft-campaign notion that Axios describes isn’t quite the “basement campaign” that Biden used in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, but it doesn’t sound like preparation for an all-out relentless campaign anytime soon, either. Biden’s schedule usually features one event a day, and he’s still spending almost every weekend at his home in Delaware. Biden’s Thanksgiving break began on Tuesday, November 22, and other than a brief visit to a firehouse and a call-in to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, he didn’t appear at a public event again until 1:30 p.m. yesterday.
In truth, Biden’s best move of the midterm campaign was being as invisible as possible. Very few Democrats actually asked to campaign with him and those who did made sure the appearance was in front of very friendly Democratic crowds.
There is one thing that would change the 2024 dynamic completely. When the primaries begin in 2024, Joe Biden will be 81 years old. Any objective observer would compare his mental acuity and cognitive ability in 2020 to where it is likely to be in 2024 and come to the less than startling conclusion that Joe Biden can’t do the job. He can’t do it now, and in two years, the White House will be unable to hide the decline by sheltering the president from the press and public.
Right now, Biden’s state of mind adds up to odd gaffes, meandering, self-aggrandizing stories that rarely seem relevant to whatever’s being discussed, spontaneous speculation that the conflict in Ukraine could lead to “Armageddon,” repeated insistence that Beau Biden died in Iraq, and tone-deaf boasts that would turn into genuine political liabilities if Americans hadn’t already gotten into the habit of ignoring them. (“The economy is strong as hell.”)
The problem for potential 2024 candidates is that Biden is going to have to be dragged kicking and screaming from the White House. He is not likely to voluntarily step down no matter how bad he gets or how obvious his mental deficiencies are. And the staff will be right with him. It’s hard to give up the perks of working at the White House, not to mention the power wielded by unelected aides in Biden’s name.
But Jill Biden and senior aides won’t be able to get away with hiding Biden’s decline for long. After Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke, his wife Edith virtually ran the government. That won’t happen in 2024 with the kind of scrutiny presidents are constantly under.
So it’s going to be Biden in 2024, and may the devil take the hindmost.