As speculation grows over a possible Democratic primary field in 2024, a constantly shifting landscape has some looking to party elders, not least two-term former President Barack Obama.
So far, there’s no white smoke. The former president rallied voters ahead of the Virginia governor’s election and was a looming presence in the race for the Democratic nomination in 2020. Some hopefuls, including now-President Joe Biden, hugged the former leader, while others on the debate stage sought to distance themselves from the last Democratic administration’s policies, including over healthcare, as well as immigration and a record of deportations.
But it took Biden securing the endorsement of South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn for his path to the nomination to clear, with Clyburn nudging along Obama's endorsement. Biden will return to the state Friday for the first time since taking office to deliver the commencement address at South Carolina State University.
Biden has said repeatedly that he intends to run for reelection, but polls show an appetite among voters for a shift from the current Democratic leadership. A recent NPR/PBS survey showed 44% of Democrats and lean-Democrat independents want Biden replaced on the next presidential ticket, compared to 36% who said he was the best option. Twenty percent were unsure.
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The notion has largely been tamped down since Biden took office, with the president repeatedly saying he intends to seek a second term and the White House echoing the message, but aides have floated it before. In 2019, multiple Biden advisers told Politico that it was “virtually inconceivable” the former vice president would seek reelection in 2024. “If Biden is elected,” one top campaign adviser said, “he’s going to be 82 years old in four years, and he won’t be running for reelection.”
Some Democrats told the Washington Examiner that the White House’s response to current rumblings had led them to believe the field is open.
“I started last week with the opinion that [Biden] was going to seek reelection. And I ended the week with a distinct opinion he wasn’t,” said one former swing state Democratic Party chair, invoking the administration’s response to a New York Times report laying out a field of potential candidates. On Monday, press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden "has every intention of running for reelection,” echoing the president.
But this former official called it a tepid response, one intended to leave the field open while not yet rendering the president a lame duck.
“Not only did they not really, really push back on the notion — if that is out there, you step on that like it’s a wildfire, you get your feet blistered, pounding the s*** out of anybody who says something stupid like that. And they didn’t do that,” he said. “Then, a list was produced, and the list wasn’t crazy.
“So I was fascinated both by the lack of real hard pushback," he continued, "and then a list of names that didn’t come from just anywhere was proffered.”
Barreling toward Super Tuesday in 2008, Obama said South Carolina primary voters appeared “hungry for change.”
And while this looks true today, Democrats said it may look more like Biden, without the baggage, than a left-wing firebrand like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“Their language, their messaging, is not resonating with the American public, which are mostly moderates and conservatives,” said one senior aide to a left-wing Democratic primary candidate in 2020. “Right now, people care about making sure they can pay their rent. But there’s also crime.”
By dismissing such issues, "that group has painted themselves into a corner for the next few years at least,” he added.
Sensing an opening, a growing field of Democrats has appeared to test the waters.
At a New Hampshire Democratic event this month, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat who ran for the nomination in 2020, made light of brewing speculation over a 2024 ticket.
“I am running for president ... of the Maggie Hassan fan club,” Booker quipped. The senator’s visit came three days before Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, another 2020 hopeful, set foot in the first-in-the-nation primary state to promote a multimillion-dollar award from his department.
Buttigieg, an easy communicator, has made ample use of his administration perch to meet with voters and lawmakers across the country, a fact that has not gone unnoticed. Many view this positively.
But Dick Morris, a political strategist and commentator and former President Bill Clinton’s chief campaign adviser through 1996, told the Washington Examiner that he did not think Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, if they do choose to run, have wrestled with the prospect of competition.
In this vein, Harris told the Wall Street Journal “without any ambiguity” that she and Biden “do not talk about nor have we talked about reelection.”
Asked whether she believes Biden will run, Harris, in the interview published Thursday, said, “I’ll be very honest: I don’t think about it nor have we talked about it.”
The vice president gave a similar response to the question last month, telling ABC News that she and Biden were “absolutely not” looking ahead to 2024.
Harris has some advantages in a prospective field, including name recognition, a growing track record in office, and recent polling that showed her as the second favorite behind Biden. But her job approval numbers have fared worse than his, calling into question her viability.
A stalled legislative push, including on voting rights and Democrats’ social welfare and climate agenda, has occupied the White House’s efforts. And Democrats have predicted a bloodbath in the midterm elections, limiting their prospects for further action in Congress post-2022.
“It’s not politically smart to engage on reelection yet,” said David Ramadan, an adjunct professor at the Schar School at George Mason University and resident scholar at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “If Democrats lose the House in 2022, then Biden is a de facto lame duck.”
Morris, now a Republican, said he anticipates a split within the party — dividing Democrats between left-wing progressives and right-leaning centrists.
“There will be a runaway primary in the Democratic Party because of the woke left wing,” Morris said, including an opening for Ocasio-Cortez. “The left is going to blame Biden and Schumer for not passing their program and for not getting tougher with [West Virginia Sen. Joe] Manchin.”
But, he argued, as Democrats approach Super Tuesday and a need to rally black voters in the South, a core Democratic constituency, “the major voice will be Obama’s.”
“That’s why he put South Carolina three days before Super Tuesday,” he said, referring to the Democratic National Committee’s decision in 2007 to legally formalize the nominating process in the state, which had switched off primaries with caucuses. The move meant that “the black vote could be structured in South Carolina, and then be carried through the rest of the South and have enough to move the whole convention as it did with Biden — and would be now,” Morris said. African Americans make up some 60% of the Democratic electorate in the state.
Looking backward, the progressive operative said he thought Obama would bide his time.
“I think he's gonna stay out of it until the very end,” he said.
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How the path forward unravels isn’t clear, but the former swing state Democratic Party chairman said Biden could make it easy.
He argued, “We’re not up a pole if the president decides to look straight into the camera one of these days and say, ‘Listen, this virus is out of hand. We can’t move our nation or the world forward until we get a handle on it. Every decision I make is viewed from a political prism. I’m not going to seek reelection. I’m going to devote all my time to doing what’s right.’”