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On a Tuesday evening in April, nearly half a century after Joe Biden first publicly mused about running for president, an unsettled cross section of the Democratic Establishment assembled at Pinehurst, a golf resort in North Carolina. Inflation was at a 40-year high, Biden’s disapproval rating sat at 56 percent, and editors at the New York Times were readying a front-page report about how his signature achievement — $1.9 trillion in coronavirus-relief spending — has “barely registered with voters.” The lobbyists, donors, staffers, and elected officials were gathering for the spring policy meeting of the Democratic Governors Association, and the scheduled sessions concerned such topics as health care and diversity in governance. But between panel discussions, in the hallways and at the cocktail reception on the lawn, conversation shifted from grim — the midterms — to grimmer: the state of the party’s planning for 2024, when Biden will stand for reelection on the eve of his 82nd birthday.
Biden hasn’t formally announced his campaign for a second term, but in his mind there’s no question he’s running. “That’s my expectation,” he said early in his tenure. “Yes!” he told an interviewer nine months later, sighing a little performatively at having to keep repeating it. “It’s been his life,” says one of his longtime advisers. “It’s like a shark that keeps swimming. It’s how he stays alive.” Or as another top Democrat puts it, “He was told in ’16 he couldn’t cut it. He runs in ’20 and everybody rolls their eyes, and he still wins. So why in the world now would he be like, ‘You guys are right. I am old’?” And yet many of the plugged-in Democrats wandered Pinehurst not entirely persuaded, calculating contingencies: If Biden’s health turned, or if his polling truly collapsed, which of the party’s governors might step up and save them from electoral ruin — and the nightmare of a Trump comeback?
Governor Roy Cooper — the conference’s host, who had twice won North Carolina in the same years the swing state was carried by Donald Trump — was the most frequent topic of shadow-campaign chatter. Governor Phil Murphy, the New Jerseyan whose national ambitions are among Washington’s worst-kept secrets, was a close second. Also in heavy rotation, according to Democratic power brokers in the mix (and familiar with months of similar conversations): Governor J. B. Pritzker, the billionaire hotel-chain heir from Illinois, and Governor Jared Polis, the Coloradan with a mandate-light approach to COVID. When the conversation stretched into the bar, it lingered on Governor Gavin Newsom, who is coasting to reelection after defeating a recall attempt in California, and Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who knows from personal experience about the rising threat of white nationalism in Michigan.
Toward the end of the event, phones buzzed with an alert: A memo from Bernie Sanders’s last campaign manager had been leaked to the Washington Post. “In the event of an open 2024 Democratic presidential primary, Sen. Sanders has not ruled out another run for president,” Faiz Shakir wrote to the senator’s aides and surrogates. It was the first acknowledgment that the two-time candidate is still considering his options. “So we advise that you answer any questions about 2024 with that in mind.”
Inside the White House, 330 miles north, a handful of Biden’s aides were monitoring Pinehurst and reading the Sanders memo with a measure of bafflement, even scorn. From their perspective, the hypothesizing was absurd. Every one of the would-be candidates has consistently maintained that their own presidential prospects are moot because Biden is running with their full support. As far as Biden’s camp is concerned, there isn’t any ambiguity about 2024 at all. He has said in private that he sees himself as the only thing standing between the country and the Trumpian abyss and has instructed his aides to redouble their planning for a rematch. “People ask me with some regularity, ‘When is Biden going to come out and say what he’s going to do?’ ” an exasperated longtime Biden adviser told me recently. “And I say, ‘Well, he has!’ ”
Relatively few people outside the White House totally buy it. With Trumpism reascendant, ambivalence about Biden’s age and political standing is fueling skepticism just as the image of his understudy, Vice-President Kamala Harris, dips even further than his. The most recent analysis from the Los Angeles Times has her net approval rating at negative 11. The result is a bizarre disconnect within the Democratic Party, with two factions talking past each other. One group consists of Biden and his loyalists, who are convinced that while the ticket’s numbers are undeniably bleak, they’re historically unsurprising for a president and VP facing their first midterm and will surely bounce back. The second group comprises a broad swath of the Democratic elite and rank and file alike, who suspect that vectors of age, succession, and strategy have created a dynamic with no obvious parallel in recent history.
No one seriously wondered about Barack Obama’s plans to seek a second term in the spring of 2010, or Bill Clinton’s in 1994, or even Jimmy Carter’s in 1978. (He got a strong primary challenge from Ted Kennedy, but there was never any doubt Carter would re-up.) In the past few months, though, many of the Democratic Party’s biggest donors — even as they pledge to back Biden’s reelection in earnest — have quietly started to poke around for alternatives in 2024, partly out of a sense of responsibility just in case Biden steps aside. Several have bombarded Obama’s old associates with pleas for insight into some sort of top-secret real plan that must exist for the next presidential contest.
There is no substantial precedent for the volume of questions about Biden’s future. His inner circle’s insistence that his doldrums will pass, that there’s no cause for concern, is of little reassurance even to some close allies in the party. One person who fits this description has tried casually mapping out ways Biden could get away with avoiding a reelection bid without losing face, if it comes to that, such as insisting he is too busy to campaign because he’s trying to prevent Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from turning into World War III. But the ally hasn’t gotten anywhere. As this person puts it, “The fumes from the paint in the White House are pretty strong.”
It’s not clear if anything can change the dynamic — not even the epochal shock that the Supreme Court is all but certain to overturn Roe v. Wade. After Politico broke the news, Biden had an opportunity to revitalize his standing. But rather than galvanize his party around a cataclysmic moment, Biden, who has never been comfortable saying the word abortion out loud, issued a statement but didn’t upend his schedule. Others got out in front on the response, starting with Senator Elizabeth Warren, who joined a protest on the Supreme Court’s steps the next morning. Within hours, Newsom proposed an amendment to the California constitution codifying the right to abortion. “Where the hell is my party?” he asked before TV cameras. “Where’s the Democratic Party?”
As they look toward 2024, Democrats are unified in their conception of doom: the restoration of Trump, joined down-ballot by anti-democratic Republicans who will end fair elections and any hope of combating climate change. But Democratic divisions remain over how to prevent that dismal future. Many are preoccupied by the midterms, which are less predictable now that post-Roe fury may well send more pro-choice voters to the polls, and others are focused on the even more immediate threat of rampaging inflation. Hanging over it all is a genuine debate over whether Biden’s being on or off the ticket is the best course of action. “Is this a real question?” one disbelieving White House aide asked me on a recent evening when I brought up what might happen in 2024. “Great question,” one of that staffer’s close friends high up in the administration said the next morning, nodding enthusiastically. It’s possible to read the actions of nearly a dozen Democrats as putting themselves in position to run on the off chance that Biden doesn’t — or can’t. That also didn’t happen to any of his recent predecessors.
Imagining an alternative is far from just a D.C. parlor game. Only three in ten Americans think Biden will seek a second term, according to a recent Wall Street Journal poll. That survey also revealed that even among Democrats, a group that likes and approves of Biden in general, fewer than half are sure the president is planning on round two and a third outright think he isn’t. Biden can’t discredit the findings; the data was gathered in part by the research firm led by his own pollster, John Anzalone. More troubling — because it indicates that such doubts aren’t just about transitory twitches in popularity — is that similar skepticism arose in a series of private focus groups conducted by left-leaning organizations supportive of Biden last year. And that was before his approval ratings started to approach Trumpian lows.
This untenable state of affairs — in which Biden insists he wants the job until he’s 86 but much of his party won’t listen — is only partially a by-product of his not yet officially declaring his candidacy. (He’s following the traditional timeline, in which the incumbent relaunches after the midterms.) It’s partly because of Biden’s own occasional hedges: With family tragedies and two brain aneurysms in his past, he has always allowed that he might step aside if his health declined or if “fate intervened.” But its origins may also be traced precisely to March 9, 2020, when Biden pitched Democratic voters on a certain vision of the future.
Look, I view myself as a bridge,” Biden said that day. “Not as anything else.” He was onstage in Detroit, on an exhilarating high, less than a week after a shock Super Tuesday romp that supercharged his once-flagging primary campaign and made it almost impossible for Sanders to catch up. One by one, younger competitors had dropped out and endorsed him, consolidating his power and momentum. Biden had appeared triumphantly with Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Beto O’Rourke in Dallas; now he was in Michigan with Harris, Whitmer, and Cory Booker. A strange new virus was days away from effectively shutting down the nominating contest. As Biden made his closing argument, more attention was focused solely on him than at any point since he left the vice-presidency. Gesturing at Harris, Whitmer, and Booker, he said, “There’s an entire generation of leaders you saw stand behind me. They are the future of this country.” Biden didn’t intend his remarks to be a one-term pledge, but the notion had been in the air; some allies had debated the idea semi-openly in the press just a few months earlier. Regardless, this appearance in Detroit was replayed frequently and promoted enough in the ensuing months to become a symbol of Biden’s promise to defeat Trumpism and then let the country move on, ushering in a new era of leadership.
He did get Trump out of D.C. and away from the nuclear football. But after the immediate crisis slunk away to Palm Beach, Biden’s presidency passed from early success into torpor, dragged down by a chaotic exit from Afghanistan, sometimes shocking rises in prices, and the determination of two senators from his own party to block his grandest legislation, all while the virus lingered longer than expected. It became clear that Biden’s bridge, to consider his analogy on its terms, wasn’t built to completion at the far side. For liberal and progressive voters, the cognitive dissonance has been significant. It is possible for Democrats to feel profound gratitude to Biden for vanquishing Trump and even to love some of his work as president (Ukraine, vaccines, Ketanji Brown Jackson) and at the same time to retain an intense feeling of unease about a visibly aging 79-year-old whose Republican opponents are only growing more extremist.
This might be more straightforward to process if not for the slide in Harris’s public image, which has been in some ways more startling than that of Biden’s. In the summer of 2020, Biden was clear that he chose her to join his ticket in large part because he thought she represented Democrats’ future and saw in her not just the first woman vice-president but also possibly the first woman president. Yet in Washington, that was a political lifetime ago. After the inauguration, Harris took on a substantive but, in hindsight, politically impossible portfolio, focusing on voting rights and the roots of the Central American migrant crisis. As those issues languished, so did her office’s relations with Biden’s. That was a surprise to some in the White House. Biden, a former vice-president, has three former vice-presidential chiefs of staff on his own senior team. Harris was also perceived to have botched a few TV interviews, and within the first year and a half on the job, she replaced much of her staff, including her communications director, chief spokesperson, and chief of staff.
Harris has a rapport with Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, with whom she confers regularly, but Biden has let their regular lunch meetings slip from weekly to biweekly to just twice this year. The two get along, but when Harris tested positive for COVID in late April, the administration was put in the awkward position of admitting that she was not technically one of the president’s “close contacts.” None of this constitutes an especially surprising situation in a vaguely defined job that, as Nelson Rockefeller put it, makes the occupant “standby equipment.” Lacking Biden’s decades of experience on Capitol Hill and abroad, Harris was never going to play the role Biden did for Obama. But her approval rating is 15 points below where Biden stood at this stage in Obama’s first term and 11 below Mike Pence under Trump.
There’s a quiet frustration among some of Harris’s allies about the consistently negative tone of her coverage. They point out that women leaders, especially women of color, are too often criticized as hostile and unlikable. A few have encouraged Harris and her new staff to fight back more aggressively against the barely coded racist and sexist attacks she receives regularly from right-wingers; some wish Biden’s aides would back her up more.
The imminent demise of Roe has afforded Harris a chance to claim the single most charged issue in America as her own. One night after the draft decision leaked, she appeared at D.C.’s Omni Shoreham Hotel to address the annual gala of EMILY’s List, the abortion-rights political group, and made her outrage clear. “Those Republican leaders who are trying to weaponize the use of the law against women, well, we say, ‘How dare they!’ ” she said. “How dare they tell a woman what she can do and cannot do with her own body. How dare they! How dare they try to stop her from determining her own future. How dare they try to deny women their rights and their freedoms.” It was a thunderous performance by her, or any, standard, and she made a series of similarly ardent appearances over the next two weeks. But if the moment has cemented her position as the face of the administration’s response, it has yet to meaningfully change her poll numbers.
In the meantime, nothing has budged Biden’s sense that nobody but him can keep Trump out of the White House. Anzalone articulated it on a Politico podcast this spring: “A lot of us feel that if Trump runs, there’s no one else that could beat Trump than Joe Biden.” Facing a country dubious that he will run, Biden just gets more convinced that he must.
Harris has never let anyone doubt that she expects Biden to seek a second term, and she has made no moves to set up a contingency campaign. She has effectively ceased to have contact with many of the highest-ranking advisers to her own 2020 bid. Yet if Biden did step aside, Harris would start the succession contest as the clear front-runner. A Politico newsletter recently pointed out that 27 surveys have tested the prospect of a Biden-free primary in the past year, and Harris has led 21 of them. (The remaining six were led by Michelle Obama, who is perhaps less likely to run than her constitutionally ineligible husband.) Underwater or not at the national level, Harris’s popularity among Black voters in particular may make her impossible to beat in a primary — which Biden, who won largely on the strength of his own relationship with Black voters, especially in South Carolina, knows as well as anyone.
How Biden regards Harris’s electability is informed by one of the richest psychodramas in Washington. No one is more sensitive to the subject of veep succession than Biden, after Obama essentially opted to support Hillary Clinton over his own VP in 2015. Biden still doesn’t like to talk about that experience, even privately; close observers can only guess whether he would find it appropriate to offer an outright endorsement to the ostensible carrier of his legacy if he were to step aside. Obama didn’t formally endorse during the 2016 primary, but behind the scenes, there was little ambiguity about his preference — and if anything, Biden could pointedly choose to do the opposite.
Most think Harris would win the nomination if Biden backed her, and no one thinks he would ever actively endorse anyone else. But to her doubters, that itself is reason to think that “Biden has to run again, because he desperately has to keep Trump out of the White House and defend our democracy,” as one Capitol Hill supporter puts it. “And I have no doubts Kamala Harris can’t win.” The inside-baseball gripes and anonymous knifing would be easier to shrug off if not for the flurry of sub-rosa activity elsewhere in the party, which suggests a potential Harris candidacy may not be intimidating enough to keep others away from 2024.
Last fall, a rumor started to spread within the West Wing. Some of Transportation Secretary Buttigieg’s 2020 donors and fund-raisers had started to meet privately to debate his future and map out a possible path toward the presidency — perhaps as early as the next election. The whispers were mostly true, if sometimes egregiously overstated. Plenty of attendees thought a 2028 campaign would be premature, let alone a 2024 one, and instead just wanted to use the sessions to kvetch with like-minded liberals. But Buttigieg knows he has to nip such rumors in the bud to allay any suspicions that could complicate his relatively charmed life in the government. As Insider prepared to reveal the meetings’ existence in October, Buttigieg’s staff warned the White House the story was coming, and some of his supporters went on record to clean up the mess: These donors were freelancing without his knowledge, and he had no thoughts of running for president.
The short-term migraine was averted, but that wasn’t the whole story. Buttigieg has kept in sporadic touch with some major donors from his campaign and has indicated to them that he is aware of the brutal dynamics pummeling the president. He is always careful to avoid even the appearance of wanting to discuss his own political future on these calls, according to people familiar with the conversations. But he hasn’t shut down the PAC and nonprofit associated with his old campaign — they’ve been kept dormant but alive by ex-aides — and he hasn’t shied from some of the kinds of meetings a presidential aspirant tends to chase. This spring, when the Democratic National Committee’s finance council met quietly in Charleston and both Biden and Harris passed on attending, Buttigieg went. His presence was explained to some of the donors, somewhat implausibly, as simply due to his being the highest-ranking Cabinet official who could spare the time. Shortly thereafter, he formally brought one of his top political aides from the campaign onto the DOT payroll.
Every one of these moves can be read innocently, and people close to Buttigieg say that as a careful curator of his own career, he is unlikely to run in 2024 even if Biden were to step aside, partially because it would be hard to see an immediate path against Harris. (Also: Their husbands have become close, and Buttigieg and Harris themselves have been friendly ever since he played Pence in her 2020 debate prep.) Still, the simplest through-line of these data points is that they support at least a just-in-case strategy meant to keep him in the broader game.
Buttigieg isn’t alone. A handful of senators are doing the basic work they would need to do if the opportunity to run opened up, while maintaining plausible deniability that this activity is just standard political hygiene since they’re up for reelection in 2024. It’s unclear if any would truly move against Harris — their former colleague and potentially the first woman president — but recent federal filings show that Klobuchar, Booker, and Warren are all still spending heavily on digital investments or fund-raising consulting. Insider speculation rose around Warren especially after she wrote a widely read Times op-ed in April about how Democrats could save themselves before the midterms. (Her subsequent present-tense insistence on Meet the Press that Biden “is running for reelection in 2024 and I’m supporting him” didn’t deter the chatter.) Booker and Klobuchar have both visited New Hampshire recently for the state party, and the latter was at the DNC donor summit, too. She has kept in touch with staffers and consultants from her previous run.
The same is true of Sanders, though only in recent weeks did the idea of his running in 2024 reignite within his orbit. It was prodded in part by a sense of concern that he was being written off — and his political leverage thereby sapped — when Maureen Dowd quoted a new book by a top adviser concluding that “while Bernie Sanders will never be president, his two campaigns have transformed the Democratic Party and this country.” That column landed just as the Post omitted Sanders from a speculative ranking of possible candidates and only weeks after Politico reported that a pair of former top Sanders aides had pitched Congressman Ro Khanna, a co-chair of Sanders’s most recent campaign, on a run of his own. Soon, as operatives gathered at Pinehurst, Shakir sent the memo cracking open Sanders’s window.
Without Sanders in the picture, Khanna still would not be a consensus choice on the left. Many close to the Vermont senator would prefer to convince Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to consider running, but they concede that her youth makes it unlikely. The logic for Khanna, a media-friendly Silicon Valley congressman, is easy to follow: He might start out as a long shot given his low name recognition, but if a crowded field full of moderates took shape and one progressive stepped in, the path to the nomination could be smoother than expected.
This “Why not at least think about it?” style of reasoning has become popular in moneyed corners of the party, too. Some Wall Street types have started musing about whether former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, who has been overseeing Biden’s infrastructure spending, might be interested. More still have recently become enamored of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, the former Rhode Island governor. Yet no whispers are as developed as the ones around governors like Cooper, whose prospective advocates talk up his liberal accomplishments in a reddish state, or Murphy, whose associates launched a second political nonprofit for him in February but remain wary of the Chris Christie precedent of overinterpreting state-level success. (A recent poll showed that New Jersey residents, who just barely reelected Murphy, think little of his White House prospects.)
The Christie example is illustrative in more ways than one. The flip side to the notion that it can’t hurt to casually consider a run is that the political landscape may soon be scrambled dramatically by Roe and the midterms, propelling new pols to prominence and others to the scrap heap. For evidence, look no further than 2018, when so much national Democratic energy was concentrated on O’Rourke in Texas, Andrew Gillum in Florida, and Stacey Abrams in Georgia — only for all three to lose and Ocasio-Cortez to emerge from the cycle as the party’s biggest new star. And presidential viability, specifically, is fickle. Just ask Andrew Cuomo and Terry McAuliffe, both of whom expected a year ago to be headliners in stories like this one.
In the fall of 2018, when Biden was deep into his conversations about whether to pursue the presidency one last time, he occasionally got fed up reading Times or Post reports about his future. Some former aides were out there arguing that his candidacy would offer a reset, a chance to simply erase the Trump experience. The problem, Biden fumed, was that this implied he was in it only to beat the incumbent, not to affirmatively lead the country — and that he would therefore be in it for only one term if he did win. On occasion, he got frustrated enough that he had an aide or a friend call the quoted ex-staffers to make the point clear. Those people then made a practice of waving off donors who wanted to bring the one-term idea up with Biden themselves.
They should have known this was coming. In 2015, when Biden was agonizing over the wisdom of a run after the death of his son Beau, his counselor Steve Ricchetti occasionally floated the question of whether they should consider a one-term pledge, as it might appeal to voters concerned about Biden’s age. Biden always dismissed the gimmick quickly, refusing to engage even when some of his family members brought it up. It wasn’t just the conventional wisdom that he would be making himself a lame duck from day one. It was that Biden wanted to govern for as long as he could.
Lately, some of Biden’s associates have reminisced uncomfortably about his obvious exhaustion during the 2020 primary and expressed wariness at the prospect of another campaign. “I’m 66 and I’m fucking exhausted,” one of his longtime buddies told me recently. “I can’t even imagine being 78, 79, 80, 81, 82 and starting again. Just waking up is a chore.” Anyone who has watched Biden can see that he walks more stiffly now — as noted publicly by his White House physician late last year — and that he appears to speak more slowly at times. Biden doesn’t hide his seniority. He joked about it at the recent White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and in 2019 he told voters it was a valid concern. “There are some people who are old and decrepit at 55 and haven’t had an original thought since they turned 40. It all depends on the person,” says former California senator Barbara Boxer, a longtime Biden friend. “The best way to answer is to be yourself and show people you can do what you were elected to do.” But here again is a disconnect — this one between a cluster of those with firsthand knowledge who maintain there is no cause for concern and a larger group of outsiders who think, He’ll turn 82 the month of the election. How can there not at least be some?
The consensus of people who deal with Biden in person, from aides to journalists to senators, is that he has shown no signs of slowing down mentally and that the clips frequently circulated by right-wing media personalities of his momentarily struggling to speak are nothing new — just examples of his lifelong stutter and his (long notorious within Washington) difficulty with teleprompters. To think anything else, the Biden faithful argue, is to fall for Republican misinformation. To take one bad-faith example, Senator Tom Cotton recently tweeted a video of Biden stumbling badly over the word kleptocracy during an address about Ukraine. Biden closed his eyes and tried to recover, landing on “the guys who are the kleptocracies” and laughing ruefully. They were some of the only garbled moments in a long speech, but the video gathered more than 3.4 million views within four days.
Many of Biden’s backers are taking solace in the idea that his own unpopularity is more structural than personal. “We’ve had three straight presidencies now in which 100 percent of the other side can’t stand you, 85 percent of your side is with you, and there are a certain number of people who are pissed off on your side so you’re stuck in the low 40s,” says one congressional representative who is close to the White House. This analysis is true enough but not necessarily sufficient to those who have been around long enough to recognize the unique peril of the moment. Bill Clinton, who suffered mightily in his first midterms, has been texting friends with frustration that Biden hasn’t been getting enough credit for his successes. Biden invited him over for lunch in early May, soon after having Obama — the victim of 2010’s midterm “shellacking” — back to the White House for a second lunch of his own in as many months. Another Biden friend of 30-plus years said to me, sighing, that with the Democratic-led Senate looking unlikely to take up the rest of the president’s legislative agenda, “I’m trying to figure out if Joe Biden is Herbert Hoover instead of Franklin Roosevelt.”
Some former Obama advisers recently urged Biden’s inner circle to remember that their reelection team unofficially set up in Chicago as early as February 2011 because they needed more than a year to prepare for a brutal campaign. Knowing that this one will surely be worse, Biden has stepped up his fund-raising schedule for the Democratic National Committee, brought Anita Dunn (who effectively ran much of his 2020 campaign) back into the administration, and dispatched confidant Cedric Richmond to the DNC, which has started investing in swing states that will be central not just to the midterms but to 2024, too. He also made sudden trips to Iowa and New Hampshire in April.
Biden is sustained by his contempt for Trump and the imperative of keeping him out of office. “If Trump is alive,” one veteran adviser says, “Biden is running.” But in recent weeks, Florida governor Ron DeSantis — widely regarded as the second favorite in the 2024 GOP field — has risen in Biden’s hierarchy of disgust, and some of the president’s aides have been thinking about whether it makes sense to intensify the politically spicy fights they’ve begun picking with him.
Still, Trump is who Biden can’t stop thinking about. Whatever doubts his party harbors, his inner circle believes that “if it’s Trump, Democrats will circle the wagons,” in the words of a former aide. “We’ve done this before. Yeah, everything seems bad, but when it’s game time and you’ve got a fascist up there, everyone will say, ‘Let’s do this.’ ” In private moments, Biden has been reflective, recently musing about his predecessor in a way that reminds his confidants of the aftermath of the 2017 neo-Nazi attack in Charlottesville — the moment Biden started to take 2020 seriously. The first question he asked his advisers was whether he could beat Trump. Then he lingered on a second one: “If I don’t run, who’s going to beat him?” He didn’t know it would remain an open question half a decade later.
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