Joe Biden’s announcement that he will seek a second term in the White House has framed Democratic presidential politics in ways that will keep ambitious young Democrats on the sidelines for another four years. But it’s not impossible to campaign along the sidelines, as Ro Khanna is proving with considerable success.
Khanna is not running for president just now. But, if the California congressman were mounting a campaign, he’d be having a very good spring.
Khanna is earning high marks in politically vital states, such as Iowa and South Carolina, as the representative from the Silicon Valley who wants to bring tech jobs to rural regions of those states. At the same time, he’s become a go-to cable-TV commentator on everything from Donald Trump’s indictment to turbulence in the banking industry, from resetting relations between the United States and China to the debt-ceiling debate, and to the importance of “holding corporate railroads to account” after the East Palestine, Ohio, train wreck. He’s grabbing headlines with his bold pronouncements about the future of the Democratic Party, including a call for ailing California Senator Dianne Feinstein to resign, and a gutsy endorsement of progressive Representative Barbara Lee—“a hero of mine in the anti-war movement”—in the crowded 2024 primary to replace Feinstein.
And now, Khanna will keynote the biggest annual Democratic gathering in New Hampshire.
Hitting precisely the right note for New Hampshire Democrats—who are determined to renew their state’s status as the first stop on the primary trail, despite moves by the Democratic National Committee to alter the schedule in favor of South Carolina—Khanna accepted the invitation to appear at the May 12 McIntyre-Shaheen Dinner in Nashua. He declared that “2024 will be a pivotal moment for this country, and the road to continued progress in Washington runs right through New Hampshire.”
The dinner invite is a big deal for any Democrat who would like to be considered presidential timber. So is the generous praise from Ray Buckley, the veteran chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party who announced the dinner plan with a reference to Khanna as a “longtime friend of the Granite State.” While a handful of unlikely challengers, including author Marianne Williamson and environmentalist and vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr., struggle for attention in New Hampshire and other states, Khanna’s face is now splashed across the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s website.
That’s precisely where a smart presidential prospect aspires to be.
But, of course, Khanna has made it quite clear that he isn’t a 2024 contender. “President Biden will enjoy strong support from many progressives when he runs for reelection. He will certainly have mine,” he said ahead of the president’s reelection announcement. Indeed, Khanna has already been identified by the Biden team as one of his top national surrogates for the 2024 campaign.
So Khanna knows what he will be doing next year. But he’s also sending some powerful signals about what he might be doing in 2028. Or 2032.
The 46-year-old Democrat’s ambitious schedule and rising profile has publications describing the congressman as “future Democratic hopeful Ro Khanna.” Khanna doesn’t go that far in talking about when and if he might seek the nation’s top job. But if he does run, he’ll do more than the average representative. A savvy political observer who served as deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Commerce under President Obama and who cochaired Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s bid for the party’s 2020 nomination, he’s a well-established presence in the circles where presidential campaigns take shape.
Khanna understands that serious presidential bids don’t begin with a formal announcement. They begin years, sometimes even decades, before the paperwork is filed and the debates are scheduled. And that goes double for relatively young contenders who hope to take the party in new directions.
John F. Kennedy didn’t start running for the nation’s top job when he announced his presidential bid on January 2, 1960. It can fairly be said that Kennedy’s campaign began when he made a spirited, if ultimately unsuccessful, run for the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 1956. From there on, he was working to secure the top spot on the ticket. Jimmy Carter began traveling to early caucus and primary states years before strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire put him on track to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency in 1976. And Joe Biden first stirred talk of a potential presidential bid in the early 1980s, years before his initial bid for the 1988 Democratic nomination crashed and burned, and decades before he finally won the nomination and the office in 2020.
Khanna knows this history. “They say Bill Clinton showed up in New Hampshire in 1980,” he recalls. Twelve years later, a better-than-expected showing in the 1992 New Hampshire primary put Clinton on track to win the nomination and the presidency.
There’s no telling whether New Hampshire will be so critical a primary state in 2028 or 2032. But if it is, and if Ro Khanna does indeed run for the presidency, he’ll arrive as a very familiar and, by most accounts, quite popular prospect.