To answer, set aside the (legitimate!) questions of whether Biden, now 79, is too old for a second term. Don’t wonder if Democrats think he would be a good president for a second term. Let’s look at how electoral politics actually play out.
Unpopular presidents have lost re-election bids – Donald Trump, George HW Bush, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford. The last two times an unpopular president who was eligible dropped out of a renomination fight, in 1952 and 1968, his party lost anyway. This is hardly surprising. If a president is unpopular, then his party will be unpopular. George W. Bush was unable to run for a third term in 2008, but given his low approval ratings, Republicans never stood a chance that year.
All of this suggests that if Biden remains unpopular, Democrats are likely doomed whether they name him or not. Indeed, given partisan polarization, candidates are unlikely to matter much in most presidential elections. But we don’t and can’t have side-by-side comparisons, and it’s no surprise that party actors are reluctant to reappoint an unpopular president, regardless of what the evidence suggests.
Which comes down to the question of whether the 2024 Democratic nomination belongs to Biden if he wants it. Party actors have no formal veto power over any candidate. But they control many resources – money, expertise, party-aligned media – that are essential to winning primary elections. If a united party wanted to get rid of an incumbent president, surely it could at least hurt him badly.
After all, most White House staffers and almost all of the president’s appointees to the executive branch have backgrounds as loyal Democrats, not primarily Biden supporters. Imagine if Biden’s cabinet threatened to step down unless he agreed to end his campaign for re-election. He could go on anyway. But it’s hard to imagine him doing that. Likewise, Biden would struggle to continue if enough major Democratic donors refused to support him, or if he struggled to staff his campaign with experienced party members. Of course, if things got to that point, it might not matter anyway, since a president so unpopular among party actors would likely be defeated in the primaries.
But realistically, even the least popular presidents retain the support of about half of their party’s voters, and it’s likely that many party players would stick with Biden if he tried to run. His cabinet and White House staff probably would because they enjoy their jobs, if for no other reason. In an age of campaign finance abundance, it’s hard to believe that even an unpopular president wouldn’t manage to raise enough money. And some organized groups within the party would like to reward even unpopular presidents for their support. This was even true for Jimmy Carter, the president least tied to his party after four years in the White House; one of the reasons he was able to defeat Senator Ted Kennedy and win a re-nomination in 1980 was that some unions and other organized groups chose to support him.
So the real question is not whether the Democrats are stuck with Biden. This is a scenario in which enough party players want a second term for him that he has a solid chance of being renominated, but enough others want a new candidate that it is also possible that he loses. If that’s the situation, it really comes down to what’s on a politician’s mind, and it’s always hard for outsiders to predict.
Remember this about Joe Biden, though: his talent has always been to adjust his positions to stay right at the center of the Democratic Party. If the center of this party wants him to leave, he probably will.
There are no guarantees; no politician withdraws from a winnable presidential election by chance, and there is nothing easier for a politician and his entourage than to convince himself that he is indispensable. Biden could surely make this deal. But he also has a built-in excuse for bailing out — age — that few presidents have had. And he really is a party animal. So my best guess is that if enough party actors push, it would back down.
It’s also possible that he intends to retire anyway and just isn’t ready to say so.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and politics. A former political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion