PHILADELPHIA — Nine months ago, amid sky-high gas prices and legislative gridlock, anxious Democrats routinely offered the same assessments of President Joe Biden as a candidate for reelection: too frail, too politically weak, too much of a throwback.
But now, as Democratic National Committee members gather in Philadelphia for their winter meeting this week, nearly all have come to the same conclusion: It’s Biden or bust.
After Democrats far exceeded their own expectations in the midterms, and now that they are facing the possibility of a rematch against a far more vulnerable Donald Trump, the bickering about Biden has subsided.
With no other serious contenders making early moves to enter the race, the official party structure has united behind the president’s reelection bid — despite the inherent risks in an octogenarian candidate’s undertaking the rigors of a national campaign.
Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, who is chair of the Democratic Governors Association, an organization full of members predisposed to imagine themselves in the White House, said any discussion of possible challenges had gone quiet in recent months.
“I don’t hear any chatter of anybody considering taking him on in our party, and I think for good reason,” Murphy said. “What I see is a guy who’s still on top of his game.”
While challenges to a sitting president are rare, the lack of even a whisper of intraparty opposition this year is notable given Biden’s already record-setting age as president. If he won, he would be 82 when sworn in for a second term.
In Philadelphia, where delegates chanted “four more years” as Biden spoke Friday evening, concerns about his age were confined to quiet conversations — a tacit recognition that the time had passed for Democrats to question the wisdom of nominating a member of the Silent Generation. Despite months of speculation about a restive bench of potential challengers, no serious Democratic contenders appear to be doing the kinds of donor outreach, staff hiring or visits to early primary states that typically portend a presidential bid.
Nor is there any clamoring for a primary race — to hedge Democratic bets or to ensure Biden addresses any perceived vulnerabilities well before a general election — even amid an expanding investigation into Biden’s mishandling of classified documents.
“Let me ask you a simple question: Are you with me?” Biden asked the crowd of DNC members Friday night, to boisterous cheers.
An even more overt acknowledgment is to be made Saturday, when Democrats are set to vote on a measure that would make it vastly more difficult for a potential primary challenger to catch fire. A new primary calendar, devised by Biden and his advisers, would vault to the front a number of states that propelled him to the nomination in 2020, starting with South Carolina.
Still, with the election 641 days away, much remains uncertain. The shape of the Republican field remains unclear, as does the country’s economic forecast. And while Biden intends to run for reelection, he is unlikely to announce his campaign until the early spring, according to people close to the president, and is still working through key details like hiring a campaign manager. (Were Biden not to run, Vice President Kamala Harris could benefit from the new calendar, which increases the influence of states where Black voters make up a large portion of the primary electorate.)
Many Democrats feel warmly about Biden, a party stalwart for half a century, and are hesitant to appear disloyal or insensitive by publicly questioning his fitness for a second term. They are also keenly aware of how primary challenges weakened incumbent presidents: Several Biden allies pointedly mentioned Sen. Edward Kennedy’s failed 1980 primary race against President Jimmy Carter, who then was defeated by Ronald Reagan.
Indeed, Biden’s age is one reason many Democrats are hoping that Trump, who at 76 is just four years younger, wins the GOP nomination. After years of worrying about Trump’s political potency, many Democrats scarred from underestimating him in 2016 now see him as eminently beatable, especially by Biden.
But some fear that a contest between Biden and a younger challenger, like Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida or former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, could create a more challenging contrast for the president.
“Trump would be a preferred candidate,” said Jay Jacobs, chair of the New York State Democratic Committee, even as he said he believed Biden would be strong regardless and noted that DeSantis was untested on the national stage. But a younger nominee, he added, “mixes it up in a way that you don’t have any ability to judge how it will look going forward.”
At a moment when Democrats regard the return of Trump, or the rise of someone practicing his style of politics, as a threat to democracy, there is enormous pressure from all corners of the party to avoid damaging Biden.
“Speaking as a progressive, Biden was not my first choice for president, but I think he’s done an extremely good job with the hand that he’s been dealt,” said RL Miller, a climate activist and Democratic National Committee member from California. “I find the talk of 2024 challengers to him to be both disrespectful and distracting.”
So far, no prominent Democrats are taking even cursory steps to establish themselves as presidential timber. Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois made a much-remarked-upon trip to New Hampshire last summer, but he has pledged allegiance to Biden. Other big names, including Gov. Gavin Newsom of California and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, have followed suit.
Only Marianne Williamson, a self-help author who ran a quixotic presidential campaign in 2020, has acknowledged mulling a primary challenge, citing concerns over a Democratic Party that she said had “swerved from its unequivocal and unabashed advocacy for the working people.”
In an interview, Williamson said she would not run “simply to make a point” but to give Americans options. “The question I ask myself is not ‘What is my path to victory?’” she said. “My question is ‘What is my path to radical truth-telling?’ There are some things that need to be said in this country.”
Absent more credible potential primary threats, Biden allies are reveling in a sense of vindication after a stressful midterm campaign. Biden, they say, will counter concerns about his age in his reelection campaign with arguments about the value of his long experience in government.
“He’s always underestimated by people in his party and outside his party,” said former Rep. Cedric Richmond, who served as a senior adviser to Biden at the White House, rattling off a list of the president’s legislative accomplishments. “They said he couldn’t win the presidency. He did.”