Now that Donald Trump is a presidential candidate again, it appears inevitable that Joe Biden will seek a second term. Democrats held the Senate on Election Day and over-performed expectations in the House. It’s plausible, come January, there will be 51 Democratic senators, enough to rush through judicial confirmations and apply pressure on a slim Republican House majority to pass additional legislation. And Biden, it can be fairly argued, had one of the more consequential two years of any president in modern times. He had no singular, memorable accomplishment on par with Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, but he oversaw crucial infrastructure spending, major investments in semiconductor manufacturing, and significant legislation to combat climate change. He fulfilled a long-running Democratic promise — allow Medicare, at last, to lower prescription-drug costs. If the courts side with him eventually, he will be the first president to cancel any kind of student debt.
All of this is a compelling case for re-election, even with Biden’s persistently low approval ratings. Whether Democrats held state legislatures or flipped House seats in the midterms because of or in spite of Biden may even be besides the point: Biden wasn’t an impediment, at the minimum, to the best midterm performance in 20 years by any party in power. Trump remains the favorite to claim the Republican nomination and he is alienating enough to be beaten a second time, perhaps by a much greater margin than in 2020. The persistent questions about Biden’s age — he turned 80 on Sunday — may diminish if a 78-year-old Trump is frothing at the mouth on a debate stage.
But Biden’s age, as much as some liberal pundits want to hand-wave it away, does matter — mentally and physically, the human body is frailer in its 80s, and Biden’s persistent verbal gaffes are increasingly discomforting, if downplayed in left-leaning media. The reality is that if the 80-year-old had a more politically competent and popular vice-president, the calls from party elites for him to step aside would be much louder. Kamala Harris struggles with dismal approval ratings and has not built a meaningful profile for herself in the Biden administration. Her disastrous bid for the presidency in 2020 inspires little confidence that she can top a ticket against Trump or Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who is looming large as a Republican alternative. The case for Harris is weak enough that Biden almost has to run again.
None of this is new. What has changed, however, is the depth and quality of the Democratic bench — and its relative potency should give even Biden-happy Democrats pause. Does the party have to rally around a man who would start a second term at 82, when there are multiple promising contenders in their 40s and 50s who could, if given the chance, run strong national campaigns?
Ironically, this dilemma was made possible, in part, by how well statewide Democrats performed in this year’s midterms. The two red waves under President Obama did more than usher Republicans into House and Senate majorities. They erased a generation of Democrats who could have been in contention to succeed Obama. This time, the future Democratic stars weren’t snuffed out. If Democrats didn’t have to run Biden or Harris in two years, they now have some good alternatives.
Ron DeSantis is heralded as the Republican who seemed to single-handedly turn a purple state bright red. But what of Jared Polis, who just won re-election as governor of Colorado, a state the Republican Party still fiercely contends in. Polis, 47, is a heterodox executive who has a proven ability to inspire the Democratic base while swaying Republicans and moderates. He’s probably best known, beyond Colorado, for pursuing less restrictive COVID policies that didn’t doom his state’s public-health system. Polis, a former congressman, isn’t a stranger to Washington either.
Then there’s Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer. She just won re-election with a higher percentage of the vote than Kathy Hochul in deep-blue New York, and has earned a place atop any discussion of a future presidential primary, even if she is dismissive of the idea of running. Biden considered Whitmer for his ticket in 2020, and one of his worst political mistakes, in retrospect, was choosing Harris instead. Whitmer, 51, would have been an obvious choice to run in 2024 had she been the sitting vice-president. Unlike Harris, she had experience competing in a state that regularly chooses Republican governors, and she’s emerged as an able communicator of a Democratic agenda for the Midwest — granular attention to infrastructure spending and a staunch defense of abortion rights.
Georgia’s Senate runoff on December 6 could establish another top contender for 2024 or beyond. Raphael Warnock, 53, was the pastor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s church before he won an upset in 2020, proving a Black, left-leaning Democrat could win in the Deep South. And it’s plausible Warnock will be able to beat Herschel Walker, the scandal-plagued former football star he ran ahead of in November, one more time. Warnock has already shown he can court crossover voters, convincing a sizable number of Georgians to vote for himself and the Republican governor, Brian Kemp.
There are other Democrats ready to chart a future beyond Biden. Josh Shapiro, the new governor of Pennsylvania, just unapologetically repelled a far-right candidate and is poised to be a more high-profile executive than his predecessor, Tom Wolf. And there’s meme-master John Fetterman, who overcame a stroke to comfortably defeat Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania’s senate race. Fetterman’s strategy of aggressively campaigning in rural counties that Trump won appeared to pay dividends and there’s no national future for the Democratic Party if the white working class exclusively becomes a Republican voting bloc. Fetterman will need time to fully recover from his stroke, but he’ll be a formidable presence on the national stage. Unlike Shapiro and most of the aforementioned Democrats, Fetterman has credibility with mainstream moderates and the vocal progressives who powered both of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns. Though Sanders never built a large enough coalition to seize the nomination, he won many large states and made durable inroads with young voters and Latinos in western states. Someday, Fetterman may be able to do what Sanders never could by uniting older moderates and younger leftists.
If Biden decides to run, the nomination is his. None of these Democrats would dare challenge him. And Harris would surely be the front-runner in the event Biden ever decides, on the advice of his inner circle, to step away after one term. But that shouldn’t be a coronation for the vice-president, either — not with the sheer number of battle-tested senators and governors who stand ready to contend with DeSantis or Trump. The Democrats, for once, have built a political army for tomorrow.