the inside game

Old Beats Crazy

Biden was always going to run again, and a longtime adviser explains how he might argue that age is but a number.

Biden and Trump, his likely opponent, were both born in the 1940s. Photo: DOUG MILLS/The New York Times/Redux
Biden and Trump, his likely opponent, were both born in the 1940s. Photo: DOUG MILLS/The New York Times/Redux

About a year ago, when Joe Biden’s approval rating was dipping to dangerous lows and whispers about a one-term presidency were more or less inescapable in and around D.C., I spoke to a handful of extremely annoyed Democrats. These people, who were close to the president, couldn’t quite believe that no one believed Biden when he kept saying he wanted to run for reelection in 2024.

Sure, he’s already the oldest president ever, but all this commentary misunderstood the size of the chip on his shoulder and the fact he’s been talking about running for president since the early ’70s, one person told me, as I wrote at the time: “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’?” Another Biden friend I quoted back then put a finer point on it: “It’s been his life. It’s like a shark that keeps swimming. It’s how he stays alive.” The barrage of polls showing Democratic concerns with Biden kept up even as he got more and more open in his preparations. His friends stopped finding the second-guessing about his intentions even remotely entertaining, remembering how unamused Biden himself was whenever anyone privately brought up the one-term question when he was considering running in 2015 and 2019. But perhaps now that Biden has formally announced his plan to seek a second term — leaning into his achievements and Democrats’ surprising post-midterm strength — his staunchest supporters will get their wish and the questions will subside, at least for a while.

Biden was always going to run for reelection, no matter how you interpreted his 2020-era promise to be a “bridge” to a new generation of Democratic leaders. His approval rating is still in the low 40s? So were Barack Obama’s, Bill Clinton’s, and Ronald Reagan’s at this point in their presidencies, and they all won second terms. (I’m told that Biden’s team, which is stacked with alums of the last Democratic White House, has been in close touch with Obama’s ahead of his campaign launch.) Biden’s announcement video, published early Tuesday morning, naturally made no mention of his work to consolidate support from his party’s leaders or his efforts to try and dispel questions about his age or popularity.

Instead, it’s a stark message about a choice he’d like Americans to keep making. The three-minute video opens with footage from the January 6 riot before pivoting to a pro-choice protester and then a straight-to-camera shot of Biden, who intones, “Freedom.” After a beat, he explains, “Personal freedom is fundamental to who we are as Americans.” The video broadens to paint his first term as being in the service of protecting democracy and rights, and warning of his “MAGA extremist” opposition’s attempts to cut Social Security, abortion rights, and voting access.

Biden has been building toward this moment with increasing speed ever since Democrats’ historic overperformance in the midterms, which he saw as vindication of his original promise to rid the country of Trumpism with an understated approach that implicitly set a blunt contrast with his predecessor. Still, his White House knows that last year’s landscape was also fundamentally shaped by the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, and his political lieutenants have been trying to gauge how different 2024’s now looks with abortion as an inescapable central issue. The answer may depend in part on the opposition, which is busy defining itself with a race to its own extremes as an indicted Donald Trump tries beating up on Ron DeSantis and others try making their own headlines. (As I typed this, Nikki Haley was addressing the Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America group, which promotes a federal ban on abortion after 15 weeks.)

To understand how leading Democrats understand the battleground now taking shape, I spoke briefly with top party pollster Celinda Lake, who has known Biden for decades, a few hours after the reelection video was published. Lake was not speaking as a representative of Biden’s new campaign, but she co-led polling on his successful 2020 campaign (and his failed 2008 effort) and polled and ran focus groups for his DNC and a series of other liberal groups during the 2022 midterm season.

There was a lot about this launch video that reminded me thematically of 2020’s, if you sub out January 6 footage for scenes from the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

I think it’s actually pretty different. Both focus on the “battle for the soul of the nation,” and that started for him with Charlottesville; that was a very authentic reason why he ran to begin with. But obviously, the whole abortion piece is new and due to the overturning of Roe. The urgency around “freedom” is highlighted by Roe and the fight over medication abortion, as well as January 6 and voting restrictions. So it’s “soul of the nation” with a new urgency brought about by the actions of the MAGA Republicans in the last four years.

Have you seen him try to work out this “freedom” theme? How did we get to that shorthand for the fight over rights targeted by the “MAGA Republicans” he loves to talk about?

I can tell you that freedom has been testing very, very strongly, and it was a major theme in 2022. The strongest critique of the MAGA Republicans is that they are taking away our freedom. The strongest critique of politicians, particularly to women, is that they are trying to control our lives, control our bodies. It’s a very, very strong thematic, and it’s a strong way to think about the economy, too, because people think of the “freedom to thrive,” which is very, very powerful to Latinos and men.

Are those findings from the midterms? We know the 2022 results have shaped how Biden is thinking about this race, but based on your work in focus groups and polling, and as you’ve studied the results of those elections, is there anything specifically new about that electorate that you think foreshadows the early days of this contest?

Three things come from those midterms. One is how the president framed 2022 as a contrast rather than a referendum with this message of taking away our freedoms. That dynamic is going to be very, very important in 2024, as well. Second, that message was very strong for mobilization. It mobilized young voters, African Americans who associate “freedom” with voting rights and civil rights, and it really motivates women, and younger women, around the abortion issue, and medication abortion. And then it’s very persuasive to blue-collar men who are kind of populist and libertarian, and it’s very persuasive to suburban women who associate with the abortion issue.

Of course, the midterms are one thing and the president’s own numbers are something else. Plenty of parallels have been drawn to previous reelection campaigns, and I know there were some expectations that the run-up to this one would look like Obama’s in 2012, but clearly not. Biden’s in the video over and over, he narrates it, and it shows images of Trump, DeSantis, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and so on, along with insurrection footage. So what accounts for the fundamentally different approach?

I think it was very, very important to show the president being energetic and forceful. I think the video was very successful in doing that. That wasn’t a question for Obama. The question for Obama was more: Was he for all people, or just certain people? And that’s what he emphasized in the video.

I also think that the way that President Obama announced wasn’t that strong in terms of setting up the contrast, and it wasn’t until later in 2012 that he came to that. Whereas it seems that President Biden is comfortable with, and knows that, the contrast is very important from day one. And as he constantly says, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.

You just alluded to his energy being a concern. Obviously, the main objection Democrats have had to his running for a second term is his age. Have you seen any change during your polling or focus groups in how voters talk about or perceive this issue?

Well, it’s present.

But I would say two things about it. First of all, if age is the biggest critique you have against the president, then we’re in pretty good shape, particularly when Trump is just as old. [Ed. note: Biden is 80; Trump turns 77 this summer.]

Secondly, I think the best way to deal with age is to show, not tell. And that’s what the video did. You demonstrate results, demonstrate your energy, demonstrate your resilience, demonstrate your productivity, and that’s what he’s doing. He does it in the video, he’ll do it on the trail, he’ll do it in the speech today. That’s the best antidote to concerns about aging.

Obviously it comes up a lot among Republicans, but they’re also focused on their own primary now. I’ve heard some assumptions that this primary would look like 2016 — fractious, huge, dominated by Trump — give way to an understanding that it might be more akin to 2012, with one front-runner ahead all along, even if other candidates may have temporary moments in the sun. We know Biden is watching this play out and that he believes he needs to beat Trump. With that in mind, has anything surprised you about the early contours of the GOP race?

One aspect that has surprised me is the resilience of Donald Trump, which is a big problem, I think, for the Republicans. This is one of their problems in their primaries: The rational Republicans — the third of Republicans who don’t like Trump — have exited the party, and so no matter whether he’s indicted or whatever, he seems to be strengthening.

And I have been surprised at the weakness of DeSantis and at the tack he is taking. He is clearly sacrificing general-election viability in a desperate attempt to achieve primary viability.

Biden certainly doesn’t seem like he’s in a hurry to hit the campaign trail while this is all playing out. The thinking seems to be that just sticking to the White House makes that contrast you mentioned earlier clear enough.

The best thing he can do is keep getting out what he’s done so far, and keep getting out the contrast.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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