For Democrats Pining for an Alternative, Biden Team Has a Message: Get Over It


When it comes down to it, a lot of Democrats wish President Biden were not running this fall. Only 28 percent of Democrats in a new survey by The New York Times and Siena College expressed enthusiasm about his candidacy and 38 percent said flatly that Mr. Biden should not be their nominee.

But even as many Democrats both in Washington and around the country quietly pine for someone else to take on former President Donald J. Trump, who leads nationwide in the poll by 5 percentage points, no one who matters seems willing to tell that to Mr. Biden himself. Or if they are, he does not appear to be listening.

Surrounded by a loyal and devoted inner circle, Mr. Biden has given no indication that he would consider stepping aside to let someone else lead the party. Indeed, he and the people close to him bristle at the notion. For all the hand-wringing, the president’s advisers note, no serious challenge has emerged and Mr. Biden has dominated the early Democratic primaries even more decisively than Mr. Trump has won his own party’s nominating contests.

The Biden team views the very question as absurd. The president in their view has an impressive record of accomplishment to run on. There is no obvious alternative. It is far too late in the cycle to bow out without considerable disruption. If he were ever to have opted against a second term, it would have been a year ago when there would have been time for a successor to emerge. And other than someone with Biden in their name, it is hard to imagine who would have enough influence to even broach the idea with him, much less sway him.

“There is no council of elders and I’m not sure if there was that an incumbent president, no matter who it was, would listen to them,” said David Plouffe, the architect of President Barack Obama’s campaigns and one of the strategists who helped him pick Mr. Biden as his vice-presidential running mate in 2008. “He thinks, ‘Hey, I won and I beat the guy who’s going to run against me and I can do it again.’”

Members of Mr. Biden’s team insist they feel little sense of concern. The president’s closest aides push back in exasperation against those questioning his decision to run again and dismiss polls as meaningless this far before the vote. They argue that doubters constantly underestimate Mr. Biden and that Democrats have won or outperformed expectations in 2018, 2020, 2022, 2023 and even a special House election this year.

“Actual voter behavior tells us a lot more than any poll does and it tells a very clear story: Joe Biden and Democrats continue to outperform while Donald Trump and the party he leads are weak, cash-strapped, and deeply divided,” Michael Tyler, the Biden campaign’s communications director, said on Saturday. “Our campaign is ignoring the noise and running a strong campaign to win — just like we did in 2020.”

Outside the White House, though, many Democrats wish that the no-panic White House would exhibit some urgency. Mr. Biden’s weakness in polls, especially those showing him trailing in all of the half-dozen swing states necessary to assemble an Electoral College majority, have generated widespread anxiety within the party. Some privately say that Georgia and Arizona may be out of reach, requiring Mr. Biden to sweep Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

The discontent is not necessarily a judgment on the merits of Mr. Biden’s presidency. Many Democrats say he has done a good job on many fronts — winding down the pandemic, rebuilding the economy, managing wars in Europe and the Middle East and enacting landmark legislation on infrastructure, climate change, health care, industrial policy, veterans’ care and other issues.

But his support has been undercut by concern about his age, his support for Israel’s war on Hamas, the record influx of migrants at the southwest border and the lingering effects of inflation even though it has come back down. More than 100,000 Democrats in Michigan, or 13 percent of the total, just cast protest votes for “uncommitted” to voice their dissatisfaction, most notably over Gaza.

Mr. Biden, 81, is just a little older than Mr. Trump, 77, and both have exhibited moments of confusion and memory lapses. After his annual physical this past week, Mr. Biden’s doctor pronounced him “fit for duty.” But polls show that more of the public is unsettled by Mr. Biden’s advancing years than Mr. Trump’s.

“Would I rather that Joe Biden were 65? Sure, that would be great,” said Elaine Kamarck, director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution and a member of the Democratic National Committee. “But he’s not. And that’s why I think we’re in the silly season where everybody is casting around for some alternate scenario.”

The alternate scenarios remain far-fetched. The long-shot challenger, Representative Dean Phillips of Minnesota, has gotten no traction and with Super Tuesday coming up this week it is almost certainly too late for a more heavyweight candidate to jump into the contest even if any were willing to take on the president, which none seem prepared to do.

Plenty of dinner-table conversations in Washington these days focus on what would happen if Mr. Biden changed his mind at the last minute the way President Lyndon B. Johnson did in 1968 or experienced a health situation that prompted him to drop out. If that happened before the Democratic National Convention in August, it would set the stage for the first open competition at a convention in decades. After the convention, any vacancy at the top of the ticket would be filled by the Democratic National Committee.

All the talk, though, is just that. Mr. Biden is helped by the fact that no one from the next generation of Democrats waiting in the wings, like Vice President Kamala Harris or Governors Gavin Newsom of California or Gretchen Whitmore of Michigan, has a proven national following or track record of success in primaries.

“You could name five or six alternatives to Biden but they haven’t been through the system,” said Ms. Kamarck, one of the country’s leading experts on the nomination process who has just published the fourth edition of her quadrennial guide, “Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know about How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates.”

“We don’t know enough about them to hand them a nomination,” she continued. “It’s crazy. The whole thing is so nutty. There is no alternative.”

Ms. Kamarck said that more and more, Democrats have come to accept that. “Democrats are increasingly getting very, very vocal in their defense of Biden,” she said. “The guy’s a good guy. He’s not senile. He’s made good choices. The economy’s the best economy in the world. I mean, shut up. Let’s get behind this guy.”

The notion that someone outside his family could talk Mr. Biden into stepping aside has always been a fanciful one. There are few Democrats with the kind of gravitas that might mean something to Mr. Biden. He still feels sore that Mr. Obama gently pushed him not to run in 2016, deferring to Hillary Clinton, who went on to lose to Mr. Trump in the fall. Mr. Biden is old enough to have no mentors left and few peers from his Senate days. And Jill Biden and other family members strongly support this final run.

“There were only two people who could prevent Joe Biden from being the nominee — Joe Biden if he decides not to run or someone serious who would challenge him,” said Mr. Plouffe. And no matter how appealing a younger Democrat might seem in theory, he added, nothing is certain until someone actually runs and wins. “The political graveyard is full of people who look good on paper,” he said.

Mr. Plouffe agreed that “the concerns about his age are more pronounced than people thought” a year ago. “The only thing you can do is normalize it and ultimately take the fight to Trump.” He said he was pleased to see Mr. Biden get out more, go on late-night television and utilize Tik Tok. The more voters see him, Mr. Plouffe reasoned, the less any particular miscue might matter.

An important moment for the president to assert himself will come on Thursday night when he delivers his State of the Union address to what historically should be his largest television audience of the year. He will talk about his record and what he wants to do for the next four years. But as important as any policy pronouncement will be how he presents himself.

The president’s advisers express confidence that when the moment of decision arrives, most voters will again prefer Mr. Biden, whatever his faults, to Mr. Trump, a twice-impeached defeated former president who faces 91 felony counts, has been found liable in civil trials for sweeping business fraud and sexual assault and talks of being a “dictator” for a day.

“Where most Democrats are,” said Mr. Plouffe, “is, ‘OK, this is going to be really hard, a high degree of difficulty, but ultimately there’s probably enough of the country who doesn’t want to sign up for a second Trump term that we can make this work.’”

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