Not two months ago, the palms of Democratic insiders were dripping with midsummer mid-Atlantic marshmallow-sized beads of sweat. Joe Biden’s approval numbers had fallen to the lowest level of his presidency, 38 percent—a Trumpian danger zone—and a New York Times poll showed that a remarkable 64 percent of Democrats wanted a new party leader in 2024. His unpopularity was spilling out into congressional races, too, emboldening even fellow septuagenarian candidates like Reps. Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney to remark publicly that Biden shouldn’t run for reelection. A midterm super tsunami loomed. Gas prices were astronomical and, inside Washington, shell-shocked Democrats were quietly fuming with the White House for not having prepared a more robust response to the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe.
Over phone calls and at private soirees held by big monied donors, Democratic operatives and insiders began to discuss various strategies for ever-so-gently and ever-so-respectfully convincing Biden to step aside and pass the torch when his term comes to an end. Many of these conversations had the part-worried, part-aggrieved, part-self-interested tone of adult children trying to convince their elderly parents to give up the condo and finally enter Green Grove.
One such proposal involved appealing to the president’s reputation, legacy, and vanity. Biden, these people explained to me, simply needed to be reminded of the otherworldly ratings bounce he had formerly enjoyed in 2016, after he dropped the Hamletesque will-he-or-won’t-he public agonizing and finally announced, in a plaintive Rose Garden speech in 2015, that he didn’t have the heart for a presidential run after the death of his son, Beau. The moving public demonstration of a politician actually putting his family, his feelings, and the good of the country ahead of personal ambition was humane and rare, even relatable. (Behind the scenes, of course, Barack Obama had already blessed Hillary Clinton’s campaign and passed her his campaign machinery.) Over the following weeks, Biden’s popularity rebounded from around 49 percent at the height of the Draft Biden movement to 61 percent by the time he left office, in January 2017, three points higher than Obama and a personal record. He was the surrogate of the season in 2018, when Democrats took back the House and Senate. Biden was never more beloved.