Joe Biden is telling everyone he will seek re-election in 2024 — including those who don’t want him around. After Barack Obama gave him the cold shoulder at an April White House event, sources revealed to the Hill that Biden had told his former boss he planned to go for it in 2024. You get the sense the leak did not come from Obama’s camp.
“I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else,” Biden said at a Michigan rally in March 2020. “There’s an entire generation of leaders you saw stand behind me. They are the future of this country.”
Every candidate sounds a conciliatory tone in victory, particularly when they need their former foes’ supporters, but humble words aren’t always necessary. The “generation of leaders” to whom Biden gestured wildly consisted of Senator Kamala Harris (D-Unlikable) and Senator Cory Booker (D-Vegan), who mustered zero delegates combined in 2020.
The bridge he described leads nowhere, and Biden knows it: “He thinks he’s the only one who can beat Trump,” the Hill leaker said. The claim would seem hubristic coming from a man who has been underwater in the polls for months, who has overseen the largest inflation spike in four decades and failed to pass all but one significant piece of legislation amid withering attacks from the right and left.
But even hubris can be right from time to time. Forget the polls that show Biden is losing 45-43 in a potential rematch with Trump and consider the alternatives.
Let’s begin with Vice President Harris. She may tick the identity-politics boxes that define Democratic politics, but she had those same qualities when she sought the nomination. She was out of the race by December 2019, cratering the first time voters heard her laugh. (Perhaps Biden saddled her with the border and Ukrainian refugees to prevent that nasal guffaw from besieging the ears of voters.) Nearly 60 percent of Americans approved of the administration’s handling of immigration when Biden handed her the reins early last year; now it’s 38 percent as record-setting numbers of illegal immigrants pour into the country to catch taxpayer-funded flights to sanctuary cities. Harris is still the front-runner to succeed Biden, but that’s bad news for Democrats: Trump would trounce her 47-41 in a head-to-head race, even as polls show 55 percent of voters don’t want him to run. Democratic voters propelling her to the top of the heap may jump ship — just like her aides — when they realize how unpopular she is.
The DC smart set is already salivating for a contested primary, with an obvious horse in the race. The bit players in Obamaworld and the more obnoxious liberal wonks are working themselves into a tizzy at the historic nature of a Pete Buttigieg run. They claim he’d be the first gay president, but at least three of his predecessors have worn helmets while riding bicycles. “His name will be on all the infrastructure checks!” Yes, in union halls across America, ironworkers sit around and toast the soft-handed executives who sign their paystubs. “He has made great strides with the black community by talking about racist traffic patterns!” Buttigieg is indeed enjoying a surge in African-American support. He is up from 0 percent, dating back to the 2020 primary, to a whopping 3 percent in a December Politico poll, narrowly edging out Gavin Newsom (D-Ex-Wife-Dating-Trump-Jr.).
Barack Obama is still the closest thing that the Democratic Party has to a young leader, but liberal partisans do not appreciate how damning that is. It may feel like only yesterday the Illinois senator burst onto the scene, but it was almost twenty years ago. By Inauguration Day 2025, Obama will be sixty-three — one year older than Dwight Eisenhower when he took the oath of office. He can still be a kingmaker: Mayor Pete would redirect funding from every bridge and tunnel in the Rust Belt to modernize the Martha’s Vineyard airport if it meant he could convince Obama to play the same role Representative James Clyburn did for Biden in 2020.
Things do not get better when Democrats look outside the Beltway. Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer (D-Who?) is most famous among her constituents for being a Covid hypocrite. No go. Gavin Newsom enjoys progressive support because he was a pillar in the gay marriage movement, but something tells me feeding Champagne to his teenage girlfriend is not going to play well with the modern Democratic electorate. Also, did I mention that his ex-wife is dating Donald Trump Jr.?
Democrats may shy away from machine politics these days, but that has left them vulnerable to even less savory brands of corruption. If the Democratic establishment wanted to look beyond Washington to find the next Bill Clinton, they would be greeted by a barren wasteland of self-funders and political dynasts. Take your pick from geriatric millionaire Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania, Hyatt heir J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, or former Goldman exec Phil Murphy of New Jersey, who followed up his narrow reelection victory over a penniless no-name Republican by starting a super PAC with its eyes on the White House. Maybe Bulwark-backed Jared Polis, who powered his way to the top of Colorado politics by pouring his tech fortune into dark money groups and his own campaigns, is more your speed. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico was floated as a potential VP pick on the strength of her healthcare experience, which she earned by being born into a political dynasty. Andy Beshear, blue governor in Mitch McConnell’s home state, sounds appealing, right? He also happens to be the son of a previous Democratic governor. Dynasty. Or perhaps you’re willing to forget the sexual misconduct accusations and senior citizen slaughter and welcome former New York governor Andrew Cuomo back into primetime. No?
If Democrats are forced to settle for a Kennedyesque candidate, they would be far more comfortable with a nationally known commodity. Party operatives privately grumble that the only thing that would drag Obama into the race is if Michelle tosses her hat in the ring. She would find an eager audience. A November poll found the former first lady running neck and neck with Kamala atop a potential primary field. Convincing her to abandon a $12 million waterfront mansion and her lucrative career as a media mogul may be a tall order, particularly because of her disdain for the campaign trail.
Michelle may not have the stomach or ambition for it, but everyone knows who does. Hillary Clinton, who will be seventy-seven next Inauguration Day, publicly professes that she will not seek the nomination in 2024, but Americans have learned not to trust a word either Clinton says. A March poll asking Democratic voters who should run if Biden bails found the twice-failed presidential candidate garnering 15 percent, putting her in a solid second place behind Harris. Certain segments of the GOP are salivating at the prospect of a 2016 rematch.
Hillary would inflame the party’s far-left wing in a way that no other moderate would. The youth vote, the lifeblood of Democratic electoral success, cannot be taken for granted. And young activists are decidedly in the corner of the one fresh-voiced rising star since Barack Obama: socialist Vermont senator Bernie Sanders.
Bernie has the highest favorability rating among national Democrats, according to Harvard/Harris. He has been left off many 2024 polls thanks to his age — he is fourteen months older than Biden — and the heart attack he suffered on the trail in 2020. Nevertheless, his appeal has persisted: a February YouGov poll found that 14 percent of Democratic voters want Bernie in ’24; he’s tied for second with Harris behind Biden’s 21 percent.
Earnestness, the late P.J. O’Rourke said, is stupidity sent to college. It is in short supply in a cynical age, and scarcity drives up the value of any commodity. Bernie is in high demand in large part because diploma factories are the only domestic manufacturing left in our post-industrial economy. Bernie has witnessed the collapse of dozens of socialist countries and yet he still believes. And only once has he betrayed his reputation for earnestness. It had nothing to do with all those real estate deals or becoming a millionaire or flip-flopping on guns. It was when he endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016, knowing full well the party had rigged the primary against him. The voting bloc that valued earnestness became cynical and sat out the election, handing Trump the victory.
If Bernie chooses not to run and no one is left to pick up the progressive mantle, Democrats may find themselves with millions of disaffected progressives. Or even more disastrously for the establishment, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Met Gala) might chance her arm. She is already polling about even with Elizabeth Warren, the staunch progressive who poisoned the well by endorsing Biden in 2020.
There is an explanation for the ramshackle state of the Democratic bench. If frustrated Democrats want to get to the real source of their lack of options, they should think back to 2016. No, not Election Day. Christmas. Concentrate hard enough and you will remember cursing under your breath when the tree salesman told you how much the sagging Douglas fir cost. The tree you bought from me in the Catholic school parking lot was planted sometime during the Great Recession when tree farms were hemorrhaging workers; fewer hands meant fewer seeds. The industry still hasn’t recovered.
Similarly, a political party’s bench is only as good as its cultivation; the shortage may pass unnoticed for a generation until the day it can no longer be ignored, much like inflation, illegal immigration and the opioid epidemic. Keystone wasn’t the only pipeline Obama killed: Democrats lost 1,042 state and federal offices from 2009 to 2016. Obama only seemed to be bothered by the 1,043rd one, which saw him replaced by a populist billionaire. Obama surveyed the empty tree farm he bequeathed his party with trademark humility: “If I had run again and articulated it, I think I could’ve mobilized a majority of the American people to rally behind it.” Yes, the Twenty-Second Amendment bears the blame for Democrats’ present-day troubles.
Younger liberals also accuse their forebears of forsaking posterity and failing to yield to the next generation. They are fed up with older people invading spaces meant for them. A Teen Vogue op-ed published in the run-up to Biden’s inauguration as the oldest president ever said it best: “Democratic Leaders in Congress are Old and Out of Touch.” The attitude was widely shared by the magazine’s audience, 96 percent of whom are older than twenty-five, according to recent metrics. Young Democrats direct their enmity toward House speaker Nancy Pelosi (born 1940) and Senate leader Chuck Schumer (born 1950), but no one better embodies the cravenness and self-absorption activists attribute to boomers than Obama himself (born 1961). Did he take an interest in anyone else’s career on his path from Chicago to the White House to doing his best David Attenborough impression on Netflix? Obama may publicly mock the GOP’s bootstraps mentality as a throwback to selfish gilded-age myth, but he seems convinced of his own stature as a self-made man.
Obama’s presidential agenda may have razed the party forest, but the cultural transformation he embodied salted the earth. One of the pitfalls of liberal cultural dominance in finance, Silicon Valley and entertainment is that well-heeled players are eager to use their checkbooks to relieve their guilt. A Republican must go through the humiliation of losing a presidential primary or joining the Lincoln Project before he can gain access to the kind of riches that are carelessly tossed at teenagers who parrot the liberal line on social media. In the not-too-distant past, young Democratic activists would have followed the humble course of John Lewis, working their way up the ladder to elected office. Nowadays they follow Obama into six-figure private sector jobs or, even better, create nonprofits that attract millions from woke capital without ever raising an IRS eyebrow when they are caught buying mansions with the proceeds of their hashtag campaigns. Forget running for county commissioner.
The Democratic landscape after Biden is already drawing comparisons to 1968, when a weak incumbent bowed out and the party establishment rigged the convention to suppress radical candidates.
But the parallel isn’t ’68 with its chaos and violence; it’s 1924. Then, the Democratic establishment’s two key arms — the urban Catholic machine bosses of the north and the populist agrarians of the south and west — went to war. After more than 100 rounds of balloting they decided to split the baby and nominate a man, former ambassador John W. Davis, who excited neither opposition nor much support among the party faithful. He also caused radical peaceniks, socialists and labor groups to flee party confines for Progressive Party nominee Robert La Follette, who siphoned away 17 percent of the vote and allowed Calvin Coolidge to cruise to victory.
More than 60 percent of voters think Biden is “showing he is too old” to lead the free world, including 19 percent of Democrats; they view him as the ice-cream-loving grandpa who drinks non-alcoholic beer in the White House garden. But Biden is just as ruthless as he always was. Voters forget he is the man who baselessly accuses foes of sex crimes; he always goes for the kill (unless you’re talking bin Laden).
Such a man remembers ’24 and ’68. He may strike party youths as a man past his sell-by date. Obama certainly thought so, famously warning donors to never “underestimate Joe’s ability to fuck things up” in 2020. I wonder if Obama has revisited that assessment after Biden’s masterful handling of the White House snub. I imagine the aspiring TV mogul looked at the Silent Generation has-been and realized he is closer to Succession patriarch Logan Roy than he is to the hapless geriatric in aviators. Biden may get confused about governance, but he is keenly aware what a bridge to Harris-Buttigieg-Hillary-Booker would look like. So he’s sticking around. The sad thing is he may actually be his party’s only hope.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s June 2022 World edition.
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