Biden’s Succession Calculus

Joe Biden
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty
Peter Hamby
January 3, 2022

It’s the first week of a midterm election year—the prelude, as always, to a presidential media-election cycle that never really stops. Here at Puck, I’ve already begun reporting on the succession question overhanging the White House: Is Joe Biden too old to run again, or is the D.C. political media skepticism out of touch with America? Is Kamala Harris the ultimate lame-duck vice president? What will Democrats do if Biden can’t or won’t run again, and can they count on Gen Z to forestall another four years of Donald Trump?

Thanks to all of the readers who wrote in with feedback about those recent columns. Today, I’m opening my notebook to respond to some of the questions in my inbox (and on my mind) about what’s next for Biden, Harris, and the post-Trump G.O.P. in 2022, before the ‘24 political-media narrative begins to take form. As always, you can reach me at—my inbox is always open.

Peter, you reported on Biden’s Gen Z problem. But what isn’t his problem these days?! Now he’s saying his re-election bid is conditioned on his health, which seems like the beginning of a potential walk back. Can you unfurl his political calculus for us?

I actually think Biden’s calculus when it comes to running in 2024 has always been about his health, and not much else. I mentioned this in a piece I wrote in November about Kamala Harris and the Democratic Party’s succession question, that Biden’s decision whether to run a second term will come this time next year, made over the holidays in consultation with his family. If Biden genuinely believes that he can mentally and physically endure the rigors of another national campaign while also running the country at age 81, then he will. But Biden won’t just step aside because of bad poll numbers, hostile media coverage or pressure from Democrats to make room for the “next in line,” in part because no such person exists. Only Bernie Sanders commands similar attention—but he’s just as old and won’t primary the sitting president. There’s no one else in the Democratic Party who has proven himself or herself worth calling up from the jayvee squad—which is precisely why Biden won the Democratic nomination in 2020. In that sense, he would feel an obligation to run—especially in a rematch against Donald Trump

Biden also agrees with what Hillary Clinton said last week, “that it is a time for some careful thinking about what wins elections, and not just in deep blue districts where a Democrat and a liberal Democrat or a so-called progressive Democrat is going to win.” The president’s political antenna is always pointed in the direction of the independent voters who decide elections, not just MSNBC viewers and Twitter addicts—which is why he’s always been swift to dismiss unpopular radical chic ideas, like relaxing illegal immigration laws, blanket student loan forgiveness, or defunding the police. And unlike a lot of ambitious Democrats, Biden cares about winning a national election, not just a primary, and that’s been the case since he first ran for the Delaware state house back in 1970. Biden knows that even with his stagnant poll numbers today, he remains the most powerful and famous Democrat in the country. He also knows that midterm performance—sure to be atrocious for Democrats next year—has little predictive power for a president’s reelection chances. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama got smoked in their first midterm, but won re-election two years later. 

More fundamentally, Biden simply loves being in the game. Having covered Biden off-and-on since 2007—only a fraction of his more than 50 years in politics—it’s obvious that politics is his life. He doesn’t drink, and he doesn’t need to. He gets off on working the phones, jawboning legislators, jousting with reporters, reading the clips, sizing up world leaders and indulging the ego fluffery that comes with power. Many politicians do, but not all. Obama and George W. Bush liked being president, but had little patience for Washington and the tedium of politics. Not Biden. He’s more like his old pal John McCain and other old bulls of his generation who are now fading away. He just wants to be in it. And so if he believes he has gas in the tank for 2024, I think he makes another run. His health—and some real talk from Jill—strike me as the only things standing in the way.

The Times just published another remarkable portrait of dysfunction in the vice president’s office. Given your own recent reporting on Kamala Harris—there have been even more departures from her office since then—what do you make of the ongoing media commentary and what do you predict Harris can do to turn it around?

I’ll start with a caveat, which is that, sure, politicians can polish their image, and the public can change its mind. But that task is made more difficult in the age of polarization, when it’s just incredibly difficult for even the most “popular” of politicians to reach favorable ratings north of 55 percent. Right now, Kamala Harris has an average approval rating of just 40 percent. She’s really unpopular—but so are all politicians at the moment. Biden’s approval rating is at 43 percent, so like any vice president, her fortunes are tied to the administration’s. 

It’s also clear that Harris has her own issues. I reported on some of her staff issues back in November, and as much as staff stories feel silly to much of the country, conflict in any politician’s office always flows from the person at the top. It’s the principal’s job to snuff out those stories and give his or her team a mission and sense of shared purpose. That quite obviously isn’t the case in the vice president’s office. As some Harris allies have complained, some of this is Biden’s fault. Not the day-to-day management of egos, but the larger portfolio. Thanks to her gender and race, Harris is already a flashpoint in the culture wars. Saddling her with the issue of immigration, even if she hails from the border state of California, feels both off-brand and cannon fodder for Fox News. But Harris, too, has a responsibility to live up to the assignment—yet she continues to step on rakes in media appearances. 

Like it or not, the clips of her that go viral on social media have an unmistakably VEEP-ish character to them, creating a perception that she’s not ready for prime time. Fair or not, Harris herself left that impression after her dud of a presidential campaign in 2020, and like any politician, it’s on her to fix it. For the piece I wrote in November, I spoke to about a dozen people, friends and critics alike, all of whom said that Harris would benefit from having more people in her office from her California days. Too many of her aides are hired guns or staffers grafted onto her from the Bidenverse. She has no David Axelrod. Harris doesn’t trust many people, and has few friends in Washington, so she needs a few advisers who can cut through the flattery and press coverage and sort the real problems from the distractions.

The conundrum, though, is that there’s only so much she can do on her own. Her biggest problem is that she’s vice president. She came into the office riding a tidal wave of historic expectations—but the vice presidency is just an office with little upside. Imagine being a heralded college football quarterback, but you get drafted by the Patriots during the past decade and sign a four-year contract as Tom Brady’s backup. You have no freedom, few opportunities to create a brand for yourself, you can’t take credit for anything that goes well, and almost no chances to show off your abilities to the public. When Brady sits out a play in the third quarter of a blowout, you come in and throw an interception. The press really only covers a V.P. when they screw up—and this was true long before Harris came around. Ask Dan Quayle. That’s political life for Harris right now. If Biden doesn’t run in ‘24, she’ll have another opportunity to run on her own terms and repair her image. Until then, it’s hard to see her turning it around on her own. 

Peter, you reported in depth on Glenn Youngkin’s strategy for winning in Virginia—somehow straddling the line between soccer dad and Trump-friendly  MAGA appeaser. David McCormick, another finance C.E.O., is now running in Pennsylvania. How do you see his chances?

Glenn Youngkin and David McCormick are both hedge fund guys who, six years ago, probably had much more in common with Mitt Romney than Donald Trump. Youngkin ran the Carlyle Group. McCormick, as of today, is stepping down from Bridgewater. Youngkin nimbly grabbed from both Romney and Trump during his campaign in Virginia, gesturing to the MAGA fire-breathers to shore up the G.O.P. base, while also playing friendly dad to swing-voting suburbanites who despised Trump. McCormick, though, seems like he’s leaning a bit more Red Hat, hiring Trump aides Stephen Miller and Hope Hicks to help run his Senate campaign in Pennsylvania, in addition to working with Jeff Roe, who ran Youngkin’s campaign.

The reason McCormick is opting for a slightly different playbook is a little inside baseball, but I’ll explain. Last year, Youngkin had to win the G.O.P. nomination in Virginia through a quasi-convention that featured ranked-choice balloting among roughly 30,000 party insiders and activists. Normally a convention process like that would favor a fire-breathing conservative or populist in the Trump mold, because the kind of people who show up to conventions are hardcore activists, not casual voters. But the Virginia G.O.P. opted for that process precisely to avoid a statewide primary, like the one McCormick faces in Pennsylvania. Their thinking: A primary would have turned out much more of the Trump base, and result in the nomination of a Trumpy Republican who would almost certainly lose the governor’s race in a general election. Virginia, after all, voted for Biden by 10 points over Trump in 2020. In other words, a statewide primary would be dominated by Trumpers, making it harder to control. A convention would at least give the pragmatists a shot. And that’s what happened. Youngkin and his team were able to navigate that insider process, convincing party delegates that he had a real chance of winning. Which he did!

McCormick, though, has to win a statewide primary in a party dominated by Trump lovers. He’s got all the money in the world, but the billionaire and former Bush administration official has to convince MAGA-world that he’s on their side. And that’s in a race against a half-dozen other Republicans, including the famous Dr. Oz, who will all be running to the right as well. And so like plenty of other Republicans before him, McCormick will take his turn doing Trump cosplay in the cold pursuit of power. 

So yes, the “Youngkin playbook” has its limitations. It’s conditional on the office, the state, and the electorate. Virginia felt like a unique case. It’s hard to see the same blueprint being replicated across the country for Republicans in 2022 when fealty to Mister Trump is still the most important box to check for wannabe G.O.P. politicians.