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_______‘24: Can Democrats Find a Biden Replacement to Fill in the Blank?

Image via Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Biden and the Democrats are in deep trouble. Despite the recent favorable redistricting cycle, the national political environment is overwhelmingly negative for the Democratic party. Today’s news cycle is dominated by high inflation and international turmoil over the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A few months ago in January, the top stories were supply chain issues and the Biden administration’s waffling on Covid-19 guidelines. And back in September 2021, media attention hung on Biden’s bungling of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. With the midterms about seven months away, Republican Glenn Youngkin’s unexpected victory in last year’s Virginia gubernatorial election seems like a harbinger of a bloodbath for democrats in November. Even looking beyond the midterms, Democratic prospects still seem dim: Biden’s approval ratings have collapsed and Democratic infighting has ground whatever legislative momentum the party had to a halt, severely limiting the President’s political options for recouping his popularity. Anxious Democratic voters and activists alike are well aware of their party’s bleak political outlook but much less certain on how to improve it. Their desperation is evidenced by the repeated resurfacing of a once-absurd question: Should the Democrats replace Biden as their 2024 nominee? And if so, who should the replacement be?

The prospect of Democrats nominating someone other than Biden has reasonable electoral backing. For starters, the President will be 82 by November 2024. Polling has repeatedly indicated that voters prefer younger candidates, and while age was a non-issue with the 74-year-old Trump as Biden’s opponent in 2020, it may become a serious factor if Republicans nominate a younger candidate. And President Biden’s approval numbers, as previously mentioned, are in the gutter. New York Times correspondent Nate Cohn astutely noted that Biden’s 41.4 percent approval on February 18 matched Trump’s the same number of days into their respective terms. Biden’s low popularity could hinder Democrats’ chances in the midterms and in 2024. 

Despite the strong arguments in favor, replacing Biden as the Democratic nominee would still be a drastic move. The incumbent president has never been bested in a primary since the advent of the primary system in 1972, and the last incumbent not to seek a second term was Lyndon Johnson in 1968, who was similarly beset by woeful popularity numbers. Even in the cases of highly unpopular candidates, incumbency provides a massive electoral boost at both the presidential and congressional levels. Replacing Biden on the ballot would signal to voters that the party feels boxed-in and desperate, which is never a prudent move if avoidable. With this in mind, it’s worthwhile for Democrats to examine Biden’s potential avenues for political recovery before making the consequential decision to replace him.

Unfortunately, Biden doesn’t have many cards left to play. The Build Back Better Act, once the centerpiece of Biden’s legislative agenda, has been buried by the opposition of Democrats Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ). Democrats already passed a Covid-19 stimulus bill last March, and another one is likely off the table given current high levels of inflation. Grander dreams of D.C. statehood and major voting rights legislation are long-dead. It’s difficult to see Democrats passing anything of substance with a frail 50-vote majority, especially with Republicans likely to take control of the Senate.

Unfortunately for Democrats, Biden’s executive options aren’t much better. He has fulfilled his promise to vaccinate much of America, but the country is not out of the woods with Omicron, and similarly vaccine-resistant Covid-19 variants may be yet to come. He has also delivered on his pledge to end the war in Afghanistan but did so at tremendous cost to his popularity. Biden’s meticulously-tailored communications strategy, designed to avoid tarnishing his general likability during his 2020 campaign, has proven ineffective over the past year. Recovering from Biden’s current approval ratings would be an uphill battle for any president, much less for one who has shown reticence to actively self-promote and aggressively campaign.

With Biden’s political options as limited as they are, Democratic political strategists have been privately and publicly lending thought to the question of replacing him. This process would have to start relatively soon, as the 2024 campaign will kick off soon after the 2022 midterms conclude. For context, both Biden and Hillary Clinton announced their presidential bids in April of the year before their respective elections. 

Even if Democrats are already set on replacing Biden, one crucial question remains: Who should Biden’s replacement be? The answer, unsatisfyingly, is nobody. To maximize electability, a presidential nominee, at least for the Democratic Party, should meet three basic criteria: They should have a national profile, executive experience, and general popularity. These criteria are a best effort at approximating what party bigwigs and voters alike would prioritize in a candidate, and they seem relatively straightforward. Looking over the most frequently-suggested Biden replacements, however, there isn’t an immediately obvious candidate. Pete Buttigieg? Serving as Secretary of Transportation for two years does not qualify as executive experience, and he had trouble generating support among non-white voters in 2020. Kamala Harris? Though she has name recognition and executive experience, Harris remains widely unpopular outside of a narrow voter base. Michelle Obama? No true executive experience, and more importantly, as she’s said multiple times, she has no interest in running. Other candidates with more executive experience, like Governors Roy Cooper of Colorado and Jared Polis of North Carolina, are popular statewide but lack the necessary national profile. For emphasis of the latter point, speedy readers may have missed that the states these two men govern were switched (intentionally) in the previous sentence. 

Some of the blame for this severe lack of viable alternatives rests on Democratic-party leadership, which has repeatedly failed to elevate once-rising stars like Cory Booker, Ben Ray Lujan, and Polis (of Colorado) to the national limelight. Yet with reporters hanging on every last word uttered by Senators Manchin and Sinema, it is difficult for any other Democratic Congressperson or Governor to make a name for themselves. Polis, however, is particularly intriguing. He has the electoral strength to win in a swing state, and his Covid-19 policies are clear and popular, sharply contrasting with Biden’s. In December, Polis opposed instituting a statewide mask mandate, saying that statewide health experts “don’t get to tell people what to wear” and telling unvaccinated Coloradans “it’s your fault when you’re in the hospital with Covid.” Polis also favors the federal legalization of marijuana, a broadly popular policy which Biden has steadfastly refused to adopt. This voter-friendly agenda has buoyed Polis’ statewide approval even as his fellow statewide Democrats have accrued negative net approvals. But if Polis hasn’t been able to break out on the national scene like the now-ignominious Andrew Cuomo, he may never get the chance.

It’s reasonable for Democrats to look to replace Biden as their nominee for the 2024 election and as the de facto party leader, but an electorally potent non-Biden presidential candidate does not appear to exist. Like it or not, the Democrats seem stuck with Uncle Joe and the low approval ratings, high inflation (exacerbated by the war in Ukraine), and unpopular foreign policy that are associated with him. Incumbency is a strong advantage: The last Democrat to lose re-election was Jimmy Carter in 1980. But his case of a badly-perceived economy—see the 1979 energy crisis—and faltering foreign policy situation—see the Iran hostage crisis—has parallels with Biden’s situation today. Can Biden avoid a crushing defeat in 2024, the likes of which Carter suffered in 1980? All hope is not yet lost. Biden just announced Ketanji Brown Jackson as his replacement for the retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, a move which could galvanize his Democratic base. And some experts are projecting that inflation will begin to slow in the latter half of 2022. The best approach the Democrats can take to boost their electoral chances in 2022 and 2024 is to search high and low for a reasonable replacement for Biden as the party nominee. If they don’t find one? Confirm a Supreme Court Justice, and cross their fingers.