The Case for a Primary Challenge to Joe Biden

There must be some freethinking Democrat who’s willing to get in the race.

Illustration showing Joe Biden facing the silhouette of an unidentified challenger
Daniel Zender / The Atlantic. Source: Eric Baradat / Getty

Joe Biden seems like he’s running again, God love him.

He will most likely make this official in the next couple of months, and with the support of nearly every elected Democrat in range of a microphone. That is how things are typically done in Washington: The White House shall make you primary-proof. The gods of groupthink have decreed as much.

Unless some freethinking Democrat comes along and chooses to ignore the groupthink.

In private, of course, many elected Democrats say Biden is too old to run again and that they wish he’d step away—which aligns with what large majorities of Democrats and independents have been telling pollsters for months. The public silence around the president’s predicament has become tiresome and potentially catastrophic for the Democratic Party. Somebody should make a refreshing nuisance of themselves and involve the voters in this decision.

Yes, this would be a radical move, and would anger a bunch of Democrats inside the various power terraria of D.C., starting with the biggest one of all, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. There would be immediate blowback from donors, the Democratic National Committee, and other party institutions. But do it anyway. Preferably before Biden makes his final decision, while there’s an opening. If approached deftly, the gambit could benefit the president, the party, and even the challenger’s own standing, win or lose.

There has to be one good Challenger X out there from the party’s supposed “deep bench,” right? Someone who is compelling, formidable, and younger than, say, 65. Someone who is not Marianne Williamson. Someone who would be unfailingly gracious to Biden and reverential of his career—even while trying to end it.

Before we start tossing out names, let’s establish a big to be sure. To be sure, primaries can be very bad for presidents seeking reelection. There is good reason no incumbent has been subjected to a serious intraparty challenge in more than three decades—not since the Republican Pat Buchanan launched a populist incursion against President George H. W. Bush in 1992. A dozen years earlier, President Jimmy Carter had endured an acrid primary challenge from Senator Edward Kennedy. Both Carter and Bush managed to hold off their challengers, but they came away battered and wound up losing their general elections.

Biden, however, is a special case, for two reasons. The first concerns the disconnect between how affectionately most Democrats view him versus their desire to move on from him. Recent surveys show that 60 percent of Democrats don’t want Biden to run again. These spigots of cold water in the polls have been accompanied by icy buckets of liberal commentary and chilly assessments from (mostly) anonymous elected Democrats in the press. By contrast, large majorities of Republicans wanted Donald Trump to seek reelection in 2020, and an overwhelming consensus of Democrats wanted Barack Obama to run again in 2012. Same with Republicans and George W. Bush in 2004, and Democrats and Bill Clinton in 1996.

Why should Biden not enjoy the same coronation? He’s done a good job in the eyes of the people who voted for him in 2020. His party overperformed in the midterms. He seems to be humming along fine—feisty State of the Union here, muscular visit to Ukraine there, and endless jokers to the right. He has achieved important things, has clearly enjoyed the gig, and appears quite eager for more. The difference in Biden’s case, of course, goes directly to the second reason for his special predicament. It begins with an 8.

Allow me to point out, as if you don’t already know this, that Biden is old. He is 80 now, will be 82 on Inauguration Day 2025, and will hit 86 if he makes it all the way through a second term. He was born during the Roosevelt administration (Franklin, not Teddy, but still).

The Delaware Corvette has flipped through the odometer a time or two. I’ve pointed this out before, in this publication. The White House did not like that story. But it was true then, and it’s truer now—by eight months, and a lot more Democrats are getting a lot more anxious.

“This is not a knock on Joe Biden, just a wish for competition,” says Representative Dean Phillips of Minnesota, one of a tiny number of elected Democrats who have expressed on-the-record trepidation about Biden’s plans. Phillips couches the absurdity of this in terms of free enterprise. “In the business world, if the dominant brand in a category had favorability ratings like the current president does, you would see a number of established brands jump into that category,” Phillips told me. “Believe me, there are literally hundreds in Congress who would say the same thing,” he said. “But they simply won’t fucking say a word.”

Here’s the deal, as Biden would say. No one wants to be accused of messing around with established practices when the alternative—very possibly Donald Trump—is so terrifying. But just as Trump has intimidated so many Republicans into submission, he also has paralyzed Democrats into extreme risk aversion. This has fostered an unhealthy capitulation to musty assumptions. And if you believe groupthink can’t be horribly wrong, I’ve got some weapons of mass destruction to show you in Iraq, not to mention a Black man who will never be elected president and, for that matter, a reality-TV star who won’t either.

The big riddle is: Who? Let’s assess an (extremely) hypothetical primary field. First, eliminate Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, and any other member of Biden’s administration from consideration. Such an uprising against the boss would represent an irreparably disloyal and unseemly act and simply would not happen. Let’s also eliminate Senator Bernie Sanders from consideration, because been there, done that (twice), and he’s actually Biden’s senior by a year.

Otherwise, indulge me in a bit of mentioning. Here is a hodgepodge of possible primary nuisances: Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer; Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey; Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut; Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; former Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio; Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York; California Governor Gavin Newsom; Maryland Governor Wes Moore. This is a noncomprehensive list.

Let’s take the first Challenger X on the list, the newly reelected Whitmer, who, for the record, says she will not be running in 2024, regardless of what Biden does. She declared as much after her double-digit crushing of Republican Tudor Dixon in November. “Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says she is committed to a full second term,” reads the report in Bridge Michigan, the local publication to which she revealed her plans. The article refers to the 46th president as “aging Democratic incumbent Joe Biden.”

What might it look like if Whitmer did make a run at said “aging Democratic incumbent”? The how dare you types would be unpleasantly aroused. Words like ingrate, disloyal, and opportunist would be hurled in her face. She would be blamed for creating a turbulent situation for the self-styled “party of grown-ups,” and at a time when they can credibly portray Republicans as an irresponsible brigade of nutbags, cranks, and chaos agents. Whitmer would also, implicitly, be accused of not “waiting her turn.” Just as Obama was in 2008, when he opted to skip the line and sought the Democratic nomination, even though the groupthink memo at the time stipulated that it was Hillary Clinton’s turn.

But perhaps the pushback would not be as rough as Challenger X expected. In all likelihood, it would occur mostly in private or anonymously. Biden would be somewhat obliged to project calm and indifference in public. “The more the merrier,” the president and his surrogates would say through tight smiles. Nobody would benefit from any appearance of resentment.

Challenger X could earn goodwill by campaigning with class and expressing unrelenting gratitude to Biden. She could simply nod and shrug in response to the various admonitions. Emphasize her own credentials and the grave threat posed by Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, or any other Republican. Say repeatedly that she would do whatever was necessary to help and support the president if primary voters nominated him again.

For any Challenger X, the main selling point would fall into the general classification of representing “new blood,” a “fresh start,” or some such. These terms would serve as polite stand-ins for the age issue rather than smears about Biden’s mental capacity. Another thematic argument would involve popular American ideals such as “choice” and “freedom.” As in: Democrats deserve a “choice” and should enjoy the “freedom” to vote for someone other than the oldest president in history—the guy well over half of you don’t want to run.

Challenger X would almost certainly receive tons of press coverage—probably good coverage, too, given that the media are predisposed to favor maverick-y candidates who inject unforeseen conflict into the process. When the voting starts, maybe this upstart would overperform—grabbing 35 percent or so in the early states, say. Maybe she wouldn’t surpass Biden, but could still reap the good coverage, gracefully drop out, and gain an immediate advantage for 2028. Or maybe Biden would take the hint, step away on his own, and let Democrats get on with picking their next class of national leaders. To some degree, the party has been putting this off since Obama was elected.

Quite obviously, Democrats today have a strong craving for someone other than the sitting president. (Also obvious: That someone is not the current vice president.) Many voters viewed Biden’s candidacy in 2020 as a one-term proposition. He suggested as much. “Look, I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else,” Biden said nearly three years ago at a campaign event in Michigan, where he appeared with Harris, Booker, and Whitmer. “There’s an entire generation of leaders you saw stand behind me. They are the future of this country.”

Some mischief-maker should give Democrats a path to that future starting now. Voters bought the bridge in 2020. But when does it become a bridge too far?