The Catch-24 of Replacing Joe Biden

Democrats would like a new presidential candidate. The problem is that the current president is plugging along fine.

A gif alternating between "Biden!" and "Biden?"
The Atlantic

Most Democrats don’t want Joe Biden to run for president again in 2024. And yet, as things look now, most Democrats are likely to vote for Joe Biden to run for president again in 2024.

Biden has a few reasons for running: He seems to enjoy being president. His administration has already been more successful than many people expected, though this also gives him a reason to retire gracefully. But nothing motivates Biden more these days than turning back the threat to American democracy that he sees posed by Donald Trump and his heirs, and Biden worries that there is no Democrat who could marshal the same coalition he led in 2020 to defeat Trump.

This is the Democratic Party’s catch-24: Biden will run as long as he doesn’t see any plausible alternative, but as long as he’s running, it’s impossible for any alternative to arise.

As Biden plugs along and makes clear his intention to run, leaders in the Democratic Party have coalesced around him, some excitedly and others more grudgingly. But voters are still not buying it. An AP/NORC poll this week found that just 37 percent of Democrats want him to run again. A Washington Post/ABC News poll was even worse, with only 31 percent of Democrats hoping for a Biden encore and 58 percent wishing for another candidate. These results are not simply reflections of the particular moment—in fact, his approval numbers are the best they’ve been since about the end of 2021. Yet voters have consistently been cool on a second term.

Biden has the wisdom, or the tolerance for pain, to not worry too much about being wanted. After all, he’s been here before. His campaign in 2020 looked for some time like a depressing coda to a long and successful career, right up until the moment when his nomination began to seem inevitable. He also has the ego to worry that no one can manage to stop Trump like he can.

Biden may well draw a challenge from the left. He might also draw a challenge from left field, whence the 2020 candidate Marianne Williamson is thinking of another run. He is unlikely to draw a challenge from the sort of candidate who’d try to unify the party in the way he has, though. First, anyone who did so would be vying for the very same voters who supported Biden, which would not only make them de facto dividers rather than uniters but would also give their candidacy little raison d’être. Second, Biden has neutralized many of his potential challengers by drawing them into his administration, a clever “team of rivals” move that could also be a Pyrrhic victory if it freezes things up.

In any normal situation, the vice president would be a clear heir apparent, but Democrats seem even less eager for a Kamala Harris candidacy than they do for a second Biden one. In the 2020 primary, Harris enjoyed a brief moment of success but came across as a somewhat clumsy candidate without a clear message. Running as the sitting vice president, she’d be able to capitalize on the current administration’s record, but her time in that role hasn’t instilled any new confidence. Harris hasn’t really had any signature moments or policies, and she hasn’t looked any more deft as an officeholder than she did as a candidate. Even some allies are concerned. Her closest aides—the ones who haven’t left—say it isn’t her fault. She certainly hasn’t been helped by Biden, who has often handed her no-win assignments.

Elsewhere in the administration, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg seems to have the right politics—if not necessarily the common touch—to succeed Biden. But he also faces the difficulty that he’d have to resign and challenge the president he served in order to run, then explain what alternative he was offering while also winning Biden’s voters. Buttigieg may be an agile politician, but that’s awfully tricky. (He, too, has had to deal with some politically toxic portfolios recently.) The same goes for someone like Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor who has the enviable job of bestowing fat checks as Biden’s infrastructure czar: He has no clear path to running against the guy signing those checks.

Other potential claimants to the moderate mantle from outside the administration are hard to find. Among those who considered claiming it in 2020, Andrew Cuomo has resigned in what some would call disgrace, Andrew Yang has left the party, and others are safely ensconced in the Senate.

Here’s the deal, as Biden himself might say: Whatever his weaknesses—his age, his tendency to make verbal gaffes, and so on—it’s possible that no one else could pull off what he has. Biden has managed to stare down sectors of the Democratic base on key issues without losing them. Environmentalists have been frustrated by his compromises, but they haven’t mobilized behind an alternative. Organized labor was infuriated by his decision to block railroad workers from striking, but the unions haven’t abandoned Joe from Scranton. Does anyone think they’d be so quick to forgive Pete from McKinsey?

The positive reception of Biden’s State of the Union on Tuesday only solidifies his position and accentuates the catch-22. Who would challenge a president who’s plugging along fine? And why would that president who’s plugging along step aside without some promising replacement?