As his first, up-and-down year as president nears its end, Joe Biden really wants you to know he plans to run for a second term in 2024. He reiterated his intentions in an ABC News interview last week, while making the requisite hedge that a reelection bid depended on him being “in good health.”
Biden doesn’t actually have to talk about 2024 so early in his presidency. The 2022 midterms over ten months from now will mark the beginning of the 2024 cycle, and even then, successful presidential candidates — particularly those with the advantage of incumbency — have waited later than that to announce formally.
So why is Biden antsy about making sure everyone knows he’s already wearing his running shoes? There are five pretty good reasons:
(1) There is legitimate doubt about whether someone his age could serve two terms.
Joe Biden isn’t just any president. Earlier this year he became the oldest to take office by a goodly margin (he was 77, already the same age as Ronald Reagan when he left office after eight years; the oldest to first take office prior to Biden was Donald Trump at 70). If he runs in 2024 he would be the first octogenarian to seriously pursue a major-party presidential nomination.
If Biden decides not to run again, he could claim he’s already accomplished his initial stated reason for pursuing the nomination in 2020: ejecting Donald Trump from the White House and serving as a transition to a new generation of Democratic Party leaders. The logic of Biden hanging it up after one term is strong enough that the suspicion it may happen will continue to percolate through political circles, unless he really acts like he’s running and says metronomically that he’s still in the game.
(2) Biden could become the lamest of lame ducks if everyone thinks he’s not running in 2024.
Biden is not currently on a glide path toward recognition as one of America’s great presidents. Indeed, he’s got some ground to make up if he is to regain the modest popularity he had at the beginning of this year. And he’s already bearing at least a president’s-size share of the blame for what has been a disappointing 2021 for Democrats.
Considering his relatively low-profile presidential style, Biden could get taken for granted or even written off if political observers think he’s out of there in 2024. This is actually a problem for every struggling first-term president. In mid-1979, a very unpopular Jimmy Carter facing an uphill nomination fight against Ted Kennedy went out of his way to tell reporters that if Teddy ran “I’ll whip his ass.” Biden needs to show some fight as well. If, by contrast, the 46th president looks like he might become the first chief executive since Rutherford B. Hayes to pack it in after a single four-year term, he’s going to lose some juice for real.
(3) He needs to protect Kamala Harris.
As Biden’s vice-president, Harris is his heir apparent. But that doesn’t mean she’s anything like a lock for the 2024 presidential nomination if Biden does decide not to run.
Since World War II, four sitting vice-presidents have run for the big job. The first, Richard Nixon, won the 1960 Republican presidential nomination by near-acclamation, though not without making some controversial policy concessions to keep Nelson Rockefeller from challenging him. Subsequently Hubert Humphrey (in 1968), George H.W. Bush (in 1988), and Al Gore (in 2000) had to win their party’s nomination against serious opposition.
Harris is positioned well ideologically to unify Democrats if she runs as Biden’s preferred successor. But she has some significant popularity issues, and the Beltway insider class that influences media coverage has regularly disrespected her.
The longer Biden freezes potential opposition in place by planning — or pretending to plan — a reelection campaign, the easier it would be for Kamala Harris to take over that campaign and marginalize rivals. If, as we have been told, Biden feels a debt of gratitude to Harris for helping him win in 2020 and perhaps a little guilt for how he has deployed her as veep, protecting her interests as a potential party leader ought to be a priority.
(4) He might relish a rematch with Trump.
In the ABC News interview, Biden was asked directly about the possibility of a rematch of the 2020 presidential election:
Asked whether he would run against Trump if the former president was the Republican nominee, Biden chuckled and said he would.
“Why would I not run against Donald Trump as the nominee?” Biden said. “That would increase the prospect of running.”
Makes sense to me. Whatever Biden does or does not achieve as president might pale in significance when compared to protecting the country twice from Donald J. Trump. And that’s not the only advantage of a rematch. To the extent that Biden’s age is a factor, Trump is a lot older (he will be 78 in 2024) than any of the other likely Republican nominees. But more importantly, Biden’s biggest political problem at the moment is a falloff in support and enthusiasm among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. He’s in really serious trouble with young voters, a group that was pivotal in his 2020 general-election victory.
Nothing would motivate Democratic base constituencies to turn out in 2024 — along with keeping swing voters from stampeding to the GOP — like Trump winning his party’s nomination again. Biden has every reason to position himself as a candidate for reelection so long as that possibility — perhaps it’s even a probability — exists.
We’ll obviously know more about Biden’s viability and interest in a second term once this bizarre year has ended and he gets a second shot at returning America to normalcy, assuming that’s even an option any more.
(5) With some skill and luck, he can win again.
Biden may look a little toasty right now in terms of reelection, particularly if (as appears likely) Democrats wind up with some big-time midterm losses next year. But the president has been around long enough to remember Bill Clinton winning reelection in 1996 after a calamitous 1994 midterm, and Barack Obama and himself winning a second term in 2012 after an equally terrible 2010 midterm. Everyone in politics and in life likes the idea of going out on a high point. A Biden reelection would represent the last time this old pol was underestimated.