The Great Biden Recalculation

joe biden
Photo: Mandel Ngan/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
September 8, 2022

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. 

This spring, as his approval numbers plummeted and the White House seemed out of touch with various key issues (inflation, oil prices, baby formula), the hope persisted among many that Biden’s legacy could be repaired in exchange for doing the gracious thing and sitting 2024 out, clearing a path for party factions to begin the hard but necessary work of stress-testing alternatives. Or at least that was the plan.

One audacious donor actually dared to tip-toe up to that line in July, making the legacy appeal directly to the Bidens, who will make the reelection decision together in the coming months. “Your legacy will be that you saved democracy, restored the respect for institutions, and integrity and respect for the office. You did this,” this donor said to the Bidens, according to a knowledgeable source. “There is nothing that says that you have run. It’s time to pass the baton to the next generation. You’ve given so much.” 

“He Understood When He was a Drag on the Party”

Just seven weeks later, however, the political winds have shifted—dramatically. Biden’s approval numbers are no longer anemic, rising a point per week; gas prices are dropping, at least for now; and his administration passed major legislation to reshore semiconductor production, lower prescription drug prices, reform gun control, and address the climate crisis. The narrative that Democrats are a squabbling do-nothing party has been replaced, at least in the minds of his supporters, by the notion that Biden is “literally one the most successful modern presidents,” as his pollster John Anzalone and others have put it to me. At Kara Swisher’s Code conference this week, Amy Klobuchar articulated the new and bold cri de coeur for Biden—not just that “he’s our president” and “it’s his decision” whether to run for reelection, but that the guy gets shit done. I have a feeling that these talking points will be further refined after the D.N.C. summer meeting today. 

Regardless of the locution, though, perception can be reality in politics and the Biden bounce is real. “If we have a good midterms, there’s no way—unless he’s dying—that he doesn’t run again,” said a source close to the White House. “He always wanted to. I think he understood when he was a drag on the party, but he’s not anymore.”

Biden may be on the rise, but candidates across the country are still polling higher than him and there’s still a large swath of the party unwilling to cogently declare that he should run again. Some admit the conversations will get more real in November, when the actual results of the elections shake out, and the first digit of his age turns 8. But if his approval ratings stabilize and the Democrats hold the Senate and sustain manageable losses in the House, that same conversation about passing the baton will be more difficult and personal. It’ll be more like pushing Grandpa off a cliff right as he’s having his comeback. 

“It’s less complicated when everything is bad, when the numbers are bad, when the data is bad,” said one senior Hill source. “It makes it more uncomfortable for people who want him to step aside for age and stamina.” 

“He’s the Only Guy”

While Biden is still younger than the three ranking members of the Democratic leadership in the House—Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn—people close to the White House tell me that the president doesn’t have bad and good days, like most people his age, but rather bad and good moments that can oscillate and sometimes seemingly come out of nowhere. (A White House official batted down any questions about his age as a factor in whether he should run again: “As President Biden has said, anyone with questions about his age should just watch him: he has delivered record job creation, made NATO the strongest it has ever been, and amassed the most significant legislative record since L.B.J. in less than half of one term.”)

There’s also another, subliminal aspect of The Great Biden Recalculation. Back in the spring, as his numbers were sagging, Ron DeSantis was emerging—at least on paper, or in narrative form—as a credible disruptor to Trump. But after the Mar-a-Lago search, Trump has been emboldened, his fortunes seemingly renewed with grievance-filled political helium. It’s hard to know whether it was the Biden coalition or the anti-Trump coalition that prevailed in 2020, but insiders and bundlers sure as hell know it wasn’t the Newsom coalition. The idea of a messy 20-way primary with potential candidates like Gavin, Pete Buttigieg, Roy Cooper, and Phil Murphy, all taking on a presumably Biden-endorsed Kamala Harris, also feels unsettling.

So now, naturally, establishment Democrats are clinging to Biden over the real possibility of Trump’s redux as the Republican party coalesces around him. Indeed, everyone around Biden says that Trump’s increasingly inevitable announcement will weigh the most heavily on him when making his own decision, possibly even more than his family, because he is adamant that he’s the only candidate that can beat him. “Biden believes it will take another moderate to defeat Trump,” said a source close to the White House. “And he’s the only guy who can beat Trump, because he already beat Trump and won the states that you need to beat Trump.”

He’s got a valid point, too. The Wall Street Journal’s latest polling shows Biden’s lead over Donald Trump widening in a 2024 matchup, up six points on the former president. People close to Biden tell me that what matters to him most is if Trump runs. “​​If you think he’s the only one who can truly beat Trump, Democrats will swallow whatever misgivings,” said a Democratic bundler.

Washington being Washington, of course, everyone is keeping their options open. While many see Biden’s decision as a derivative of Trump’s decision, there are mixed feelings about how much stamina he will need for this last election. Sure, he’ll lose the security blanket of a basement but he’ll have the power of the presidency, and some have surmised that he can adopt the Rose Garden strategy of campaigning from the White House, because of the necessity of being close to the Oval Office and government. But it’s giving some people flashbacks to Jimmy Carter, who leaned into this strategy during the Iran hostage crisis, to an ultimate electoral demise. 

So, in the meantime, the Pritzkers of the world quietly continue to travel and build infrastructure and meet with power bundlers over quiet pow wows, keeping their cards close to the vest. “You prefer he doesn’t run, but you have to be very careful about this, but also super thorough,” said an operative connected to a Democratic camp eying 2024 if Biden is out. “There’s so much uncertainty here. You can’t stop working, you need people, infrastructure, media attention. You can’t be behind in doing strategic thinking, [so] maybe you do it a little more quietly, in case the door opens.”

Another Democratic bundler put it less elegantly. “Is it crazy that 80-year-old Biden, with a 40 percent approval rating, might be our best shot? Yes,” this person said. “Then again, two months is a long time to fuck things up.”