Things are going pretty damn well for President Joe Biden on Capitol Hill. Except for one thing.
Even as Biden’s domestic agenda accelerates at surprising speed for an election year — climate, health care and taxes may follow veterans and manufacturing through Congress this summer — within his own party there’s been a slight but unmistakable political drift away from him ahead of the midterms.
As Biden polls poorly in battlegrounds while congressional Democrats see a brightened political outlook for themselves, lawmakers are tying themselves in knots over whether to cheer on a second term for the 79-year-old president. It’s not that they’re abandoning Biden early, just that many see little upside in taking a firm stand either way when that risks alienating either independents or the party base.
And some can’t understand why the question is even being asked.
“He’s the president. I support him, and the voters decide. He decides. I don’t even understand why that’s a question today,” said Patty Murray, the No. 3 Senate Democratic leader who’s facing a promising GOP recruit this fall in the blue state of Washington.
Sometimes it’s subtle, like a Democrat saying “if” Biden runs they will support him. In rare instances it’s direct, like Minnesota Democratic Reps. Angie Craig and Dean Phillips calling for a “new generation” of Democrats to take over.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said during a Tuesday debate that she didn’t think Biden is running again, only to later put out multiple statements clarifying that she’d support him if he runs. Her reelection opponent, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), said at the same debate that it’s “too early to say” if Biden should run.
Swing-state Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) said he rarely gets asked about Biden but “if he runs for re-election, I’ll support him.” Kelly described his focus as passing the Democrats’ tax, climate and health care bill: “I don’t spend much time thinking about the top of the ticket.”
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), another incumbent the GOP is trying to topple this fall, said simply that Biden has “said that he’s going to run again, and that’s his decision to make.”
“It’s impossible to express the level of gratitude for Joe Biden having run for president to begin with. Because he was the only person of 330 million Americans who could have beaten Donald Trump. And he did beat Donald Trump,” Bennet said.
In the 2020 presidential primary’s early days, Biden accrued a wealth of Hill support that later proved invaluable, particularly from House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.). Biden powered past a slew of rivals, including several sitting Democratic lawmakers, partly due to his electability advantages over Trump. Polls still show him as perhaps the former president’s biggest threat in a rematch.
“President Biden has emphasized that he intends to run for re-election,” said White House spokesperson Andrew Bates, who added: “Right now his focus is not on himself, but on the stakes for families because of the contrast between our agenda” and Republicans’.
Support for Biden across the party hasn’t exactly been sky-high on Capitol Hill over the last year: Democrats have lashed out against the White House’s failure to get more of its domestic agenda done — and for its messaging flops on what has actually gotten passed. Outbursts about Biden’s handling of inflation or Covid haven’t been uncommon, especially on the House side.
Democratic leaders publicly support Biden, even as they equivocate somewhat on whether the oldest president in U.S. history should try to tack on four more years. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said “if he runs, I’ll support him.” And House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) similarly praised Biden for “doing a good job” as president, even as he responded to a question about Biden’s future much like Nadler did: “Getting into this game this early is not very productive.”
The party’s presumptive nominee in the Wisconsin Senate race, Mandela Barnes, similarly says he’s happy to have the conversation after the midterms. And Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who’s finally given Biden the big party-line bill he’s been seeking for a year, has repeatedly declined to back the president for 2024. Manchin told MSNBC on Tuesday that “I’m not going to talk about it.”
While speculation over Biden’s reelection choice remains a popular Washington parlor game, many Democratic lawmakers are aghast that their colleagues would engage with the question publicly. The timing couldn’t be worse, they say, considering Biden’s on the verge of clinching much of his agenda on manufacturing, climate, taxes, deficit reduction and health care while taking out al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
“I don’t understand” why more Democrats aren’t discussing that this “has arguably been the most successful week of his entire presidency,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said. “There’s almost a conventional wisdom of ‘let’s just get in the press knocking the president.’”
If Biden were to run, some of his previous primary opponents may stand down. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) says Biden “should be running” and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he’d back Biden if he runs. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said on Wednesday: “The president has said he’s planning to run again, and I plan on supporting him.”
Still, senior Democrats said in interviews that they feared open support for a Biden 2024 bid could become a painful new litmus test for a midterm campaign that’s found many of their vulnerable members already keeping the president at a distance. So far, their party has remained competitive with the GOP on the so-called generic ballot — where the question is just about control of Congress — and they hope to keep it that way.
Throwing the question of 2024 into the midterms, however, could imperil the House’s battleground Democrats. Many of them hold seats where Biden had a double-digit lead in the last election, only to see it all but evaporate now.
Biden’s future is plainly toxic among at-risk House Democrats. One aide to a member in a tough race said their boss wouldn’t go near the issue “with a ten-foot pole.” Another called it a “distraction” that could destroy any chance they have of running hyper-local campaigns designed to deflect from GOP attempts to pin every Democrat to Biden.
So few in the party were surprised when Phillips — who’s criticized Biden previously — said last week that the president shouldn’t run for reelection. Craig, Minnesota’s most vulnerable Democrat and a friend of Phillips, followed shortly after.
Those comments earned some pushback on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) deemed the duo “out of cycle” with their comments and Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) declared: “If he decides he wants to run, he deserves our support.”
“I’m a little puzzled by people talking about 2024 when we’ve got November 2022 elections staring us in the face,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who added that Biden needs to make a re-election call himself. “It just makes me scratch my head.”
Still, it’s not like there’s a ton of clamoring for Biden to get going; in some ways, the Democratic hedging is an echo of the GOP’s public ambivalence about a third Trump run.
“I’m not going to be telling him what he should do or shouldn’t do,” battleground-district Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) said recently when asked about Biden. “I think he’s done a lot of good and smart things. I think there’s more that can be done.”
And Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), himself undecided on reelection in 2024, also stayed positive — as well as above the fray.
“That’s Joe Biden’s call. I think Joe Biden’s had a pretty damn good week this week,” he said. “I would want [congressional support] if I was president.”