Everywhere you go in Washington, people are wondering the same thing: Will Joe Biden run for re-election?
The 79-year-old Democrat and his closest allies say he wants a second White House term and plans to run again. Biden told former President Barack Obama he intends to launch another bid.
But that hasn’t silenced the whispered questions about whether he will do so given his age — he will be 81 in November 2024 — and his rocky approval ratings.
The party is also bracing for a difficult midterm election season, and some think negative results could change the president’s calculations.
“If he’s weakened, the sharks will be circling the tank,” said one Democratic strategist who asked to speak candidly on background.
Few doubt Biden’s desire for a second term and some Democrats are convinced he’ll do it regardless of the skepticism of many others in political circles.
“I fully expect for him to run again,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, who served as an adviser to the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “But I wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t a bunch of Democrats and their staffers watching very carefully as the weeks and months go by.”
If Biden does not run, Vice President Harris is the obvious successor.
She has been staying mostly in Washington after a series of internal office and personnel changes rankled her first year. Harris would almost certainly run for the Democratic nomination if Biden decided to stop at one term, and her stature and personal story — she is the first Black, the first woman and the first Asian American to hold her position — would make her a formidable candidate.
Yet her missteps in office and her struggles as a presidential candidate in 2020 have raised questions about her political strength.
That means she’s likely to have challengers for the nomination if Biden steps away.
“I’m not so sure whether any Dems will defer to the VP if President Biden decides not to run,” said Manley. “If he decides not to run, I don’t think she has a lock on it.”
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who also ran for the White House in 2020, is keeping a busy travel schedule to promote Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which became law six months ago.
Some view him as eager to launch a second bid, noting his meteoric rise and success in the early primary contests. But at just 40, he doesn’t have the experience of other Democrats like Biden himself, and also failed to get much traction with Black voters, a key constituency where Biden thrived.
Progressive Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would also be possible contenders in a wide-open race. Warren has said publicly she will not run if Biden is in the mix.
That effectively means that she and many others are waiting for the president.
“Everything is frozen,” said one Democratic bundler.
For now, most Democrats are more focused on the midterms — and a series of national and international issues with potentially long- and short-term political effects, from inflation and a possible Supreme Court reversal of the Roe v. Wade decision to the Russian war in Ukraine and the racist shooting last weekend at a Buffalo supermarket that many Democrats link to the GOP’s rhetoric on race and immigration.
“Senior Democrats aren’t so worried about the presidential right now. They’re looking at the governors’ races more than anything,” the bundler said. “But after the midterms, everything will change,” the source hedged. “It’s game on and we better be ready.”
Former President Trump is also a shadow on everything — and a waking nightmare of sorts for Democrats.
Trump was the reason Biden ran for the White House in 2020, and a big reason he won the party’s nomination. Many Democrats wanted to elect the candidate best positioned to defeat Trump.
That question will reverberate again as Democrats consider who is best to lead the party against Trump or a Trump-like GOP successor — such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
Biden seemed like a somewhat unlikely choice at times in the 2020 cycle as two dozen candidates competed for the position.
He wasn’t as intriguing as fresher-faced rivals like Harris and Buttigieg and he wasn’t as idealistic as Sanders and Warren. The former vice president and longtime senator didn’t appear to represent the party’s future.
“Few people thought that Joe Biden could be elected president, and he was,” Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) told The Hill. “Irrespective of what his defeated predecessor may say, he won the election and did so fair and square.”
In 2024, just as in 2020, many may end up deciding that Biden remains the party’s best bet to hold the White House.
Celinda Lake, one of Biden’s lead pollsters during the last presidential election, said she takes him at his word when he says he intends to launch a second-term bid.
“He has said he is running, so I think he is,” said Lake, effectively quieting chatter that he might change his mind down the road.
Some on the left even begrudgingly believe the frozen field means Biden will likely be the nominee.
“I personally believe he will run,” said one progressive donor adviser close to several left-wing lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Still, progressives such as Sanders and Warren are getting ready, publishing opinion pieces in national outlets pushing their preferred policy outcomes ahead of the midterms. Each is also doing a lot of television interviews.
Moderates say Biden is likely to prove again to be the strongest fit for the nomination. They point to his ability to pull from multiple constituencies as a force that will drive voters back to him, even if they’re tempted to shop around first.
“I think Democrats are deluding themselves if they think Joe Biden could be beaten in a primary,” said Jim Kessler, a policy vice president at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, noting that he doubts the White House is paying much attention to the speculation.
“I don’t think it bothers them at all,” Kessler said. “I expect that in less than a year’s time the president will make clear whether he’s running or not in 2024. I certainly hope he is running.”
Morgan Chalfant contributed