Joe Biden’s reelection campaign isn’t going well. Since announcing his bid for a second term in April, the president’s poll numbers have remained dismal. RealClearPolitics’ average of recent polls gives him a 41.4 percent approval rating among likely voters, while 53.8 percent disapprove. And it won’t necessarily get better when Biden is in a two-person race against a MAGA Republican. The overall RCP average of recent polls currently has Biden trailing former president Donald Trump by 1.4 points, while a mid-May Harvard CAPS/Harris survey put the incumbent down by seven points against the indicted Republican. An early May ABC News/Washington Post poll had Florida Governor Ron DeSantis leading Biden by five points.
These numbers should be a clear wake-up call. Biden’s been a better president than most progressives expected, and he’s clearly preferable to Trump, DeSantis, and the lesser Republicans of 2024. But grassroots Democrats aren’t exactly embracing their president’s repeat candidacy. After he announced, 52 percent of Democrats surveyed for an Associated Press/NORC poll still said they’d prefer Biden didn’t run, while just 25 percent of Democrats under age 45 said they would definitely back him in 2024. That doesn’t mean prospective Democratic primary voters are rushing to back the president’s announced challengers—Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose vaccine skepticism disqualifies him in the eyes of many Democrats, and author Marianne Williamson—who draw a combined average total of roughly 25 percent in nationwide polls. But it does mean Biden’s candidacy suffers from a dangerous enthusiasm gap.
That’s got to change. If Biden won’t step aside—and no one imagines that a man who has been campaigning for the Oval Office since the 1980s will drop out due to shaky poll numbers—he must remake his candidacy. Right now, Biden’s bid is long on avoidance and painfully short on vision. The Democratic National Committee is preparing a coronation, holding the first primary in reliably Republican South Carolina—a move that favors Biden and flatters his ally James Clyburn, but does nothing to excite the base in states he must win in November. The DNC isn’t scheduling primary debates either, making the GOP nomination fight the primary season’s main political story. And the party’s 2024 convention will be in safely Democratic Illinois, rather than a battleground state such as Wisconsin or Georgia.
This coronation—like Biden’s Rose Garden strategy of spurning campaign events—is dangerously misguided. Instead, Biden should be mounting a year-long campaign that energizes Democrats and progressive independents in battleground states such as New Hampshire, where a narrow Democratic loss in 2000 allowed the contest to be decided by scheming Florida Republicans and a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. When Representative Ro Khanna addressed a Democratic Party dinner in Manchester last month, he rallied the crowd with a call for Biden to “come to New Hampshire” next year. Concerned by reports that scheduling disputes might lead the president to skip the state’s contest—leaving voters to choose between Kennedy and Williamson—Khanna told The Nation, “I have no doubt that if the president campaigns here, he’ll win…. He’ll also be doing what’s necessary to win New Hampshire in November.” Biden should mount a full-scale primary campaign in New Hampshire and other battleground states to mobilize voters for his own candidacy—and for the races that will decide control of Congress.
That broader focus is essential. Unless Democrats control Congress, a reelected Biden will spend his final four years in office compromising with MAGA Republicans—a scenario that would have catastrophic consequences for everything from climate change to Social Security, dooming any hopes of taxing the rich or breaking up corporate monopolies. To avoid that disaster, Biden must motivate the base with an economic and social and racial justice vision that excites young people and brings out voters in record numbers in November 2024. That won’t happen if the president cedes the primary-season spotlight to the Republicans.
There will be those who say Biden is best served by focusing on governing in the months to come. That’s only half right. A sitting president can’t spend all his time campaigning. But Biden should recognize the link between bold governance and bold campaigning. Instead of wasting months negotiating with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Republicans happy to keep him pinned down in D.C., Biden should follow the advice of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and override the Republicans—beginning by deploying his 14th Amendment powers to end the debt-ceiling charade once and for all. Then Biden should hit the campaign trail with a bold, progressive message that he needs a second-term mandate to vanquish the MAGA Republicans and transform America.
If Biden’s not prepared to govern and campaign as boldly as the times require, he should think seriously about clearing the way for a Democrat who’s ready to do so.