There aren’t many examples of people campaigning for the White House this long, much less finally getting it. Harold Stassen sought the Republican presidential nomination 10 times between 1940 and 1992, deferring only to Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford and coming closest in 1948. Bob Dole won the nomination on his third try, 20 years after he was the vice presidential nominee. He did not become president.
Mourning his son Beau and discouraged by his boss, then-President Barack Obama, Biden wanted to run in 2016 but didn’t. That seemed to close the book on his presidential ambitions, leaving him to settle for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But now, at age 79, Biden hands out those medals himself.
After wanting the job for so long and finally winning it, surely Biden wouldn’t voluntarily give up the job after only one term.
Except Biden and those around him have been surprisingly lackadaisical about the 2024 presidential campaign. First lady Jill Biden said it hadn’t even been discussed, though she added she was optimistic her husband would run again. Vice President Kamala Harris has at least twice used the qualifier “if” to describe a Biden reelection campaign. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who is no vulnerable swing-district Democrat trying to elude a red wave, said, “I’m not going into politics about whether the president should run or not.”
Pelosi, in legislator fashion, later revised and extended her remarks about Biden and 2024. But the most striking example of this trend is Biden himself. The president had previously implied only a decline in his health — he mostly worked through a bout with COVID-19 just weeks ago — would keep him from running. Now, he is saying no “firm decision” has been made.
After initially suggesting he did not want to trigger all the legal requirements of a reelection campaign by definitively stating he was running, Biden sounded genuinely undecided in an interview with 60 Minutes.
“Look, my intention, as I said to begin with, is that I would run again,” the president said. “But it’s just an intention. But is it a firm decision that I run again? That remains to be seen.”
Later, at a Democratic fundraiser in New York, Biden said he was “going to be around at least another two years,” not making any promises past that. Literally true, but odd.
This could be realism about his age, as Biden will turn 80 in a few weeks. Ronald Reagan, the next-oldest president, left office shortly before his 78th birthday. It could mean Biden does not want to get ahead of the midterm elections, with tiny Democratic majorities at stake and the possibility of a Republican Congress for the remainder of his term. It could even be a sign of supreme self-confidence he will win reelection against all comers of either party, so no need to panic or make premature commitments in 2022.
But the 2024 sweepstakes will begin in earnest the day after the midterm elections, give or take a few straggler Senate races deciding control of that body.
Moreover, Biden is not in an ordinary position for an incumbent president. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 56% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents would prefer a new nominee to 35% who would stick with Biden. An August USA Today/Ipsos poll also found 56% of Democrats didn’t want Biden to run. A July New York Times/Siena College poll concluded that 64% of Democrats wanted a different 2024 nominee, a share that jumped to 94% among party sympathizers under 30.
That would seem to be a trend Biden would like to nip in the bud. Given that the two Democrats best positioned to run in place of Biden are taking great pains to appear deferential and seem for the moment disinclined to mount any kind of primary challenge — Harris and California Gov. Gavin Newsom — stronger signs that he is running could help do so.
Democrats have had bad experiences with primary challenges to sitting presidents. Ted Kennedy, a liberal icon, did it to Jimmy Carter. He failed, and then so did Carter, in one of the worst landslide defeats the party ever suffered. Lyndon Johnson dropped out in 1968 after beating Eugene McCarthy by a smaller-than-expected margin. Democrats lost that November too.
Those were weakened incumbents. The conventional wisdom is that the primary opponents weakened them further. That could give Biden leverage to deter one simply by making clear he’s not ready to pass the torch yet.
Or maybe, as Biden said, no “firm decision” has been made. If the answer turns out to be no, Democrats don’t have another 35 years to figure out an alternative.