The Washington Post

Friendly fire fades as Biden hits stride

Party warms to his role as 2024 standard-bearer amid a string of victories

- BY YASMEEN ABUTALEB

Earlier this summer, when everything seemed to be going wrong for President Biden — his economic agenda appeared all but dead, gas prices were rising and some Democrats felt he failed to meet the moment after the Supreme Court overturned federal abortion rights — many Democrats were speaking privately of wanting a new party leader in 2024.

Biden may not have faced explicit primary threats, but a handful of younger Democrats whose profile was rising seemed to be holding themselves out as more passionate, forceful leaders for the party, as governors like Gavin Newsom of California and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois spoke out in ways Biden would not.

Yet many of the voices urging — or nudging —Biden to step aside seem to have quieted, at least for now. After a string of legislativ­e and policy wins applauded especially by liberals, along with dropping gas prices and rising poll numbers, more Democrats are accepting that Biden will likely be the party’s standard-bearer for one more presidenti­al election.

The most powerful factor in quieting talk of an intraparty challenge has been the reemergenc­e of former president Donald Trump and Biden’s increasing willingnes­s to attack him directly,

serving to remind Democrats of what they consider their biggest threat and of Biden’s previous success in defeating him.

“When I was out there saying I support the president’s reelection six months ago, I was getting criticized, and now many other people are saying that. They’re recognizin­g we need to stop the internal firing squad and start bragging about what we’ve done,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D- Calif.). “Most people understand the stakes of 2024 and understand that weakening Joe Biden is just strengthen­ing Donald Trump.”

Khanna, a leader of the party’s liberal faction, added, “This is not the time for political opportunis­m of trying to do clever ploys and floating your name. This is the time for us to rally around the president’s reelection.”

That does not mean Democrats are enthusiast­ic or excited about Biden as the 2024 nominee. There are still concerns about Biden’s age — he would be 82 at the start of a second term — and his ability to mount a rigorous campaign. And while Biden’s approval ratings have begun to climb back up after hitting a low point earlier this summer, many Democrats still say they want someone else to run.

But there are several indicators of a shift in mood. Some potential rivals, for example, have taken to praising Biden in emphatic terms.

Newsom called Biden’s recent slate of legislativ­e victories a “master class” on governance. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-mass.) praised Biden’s student loan cancellati­on plan even though it fell short of the $50,000 she had called for. Warren has said Biden “should be running” for reelection, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT.) said he would support the president if he chooses to run again.

As Democrats’ improving prospects in the upcoming midterm elections calm fears that Biden is leading the party off a cliff, more rank-and-file Democrats are saying the president should run. A Quinnipiac poll released this week found 47 percent of Democrats saying they wanted to see Biden run in 2024, while 43 percent did not. In July, Democrats did not want to see him run by a 54 percent to 40 percent margin.

There are other signs of the party rallying around Biden. When the president visited Cleveland in early July, Rep. Tim Ryan (D- Ohio), who is running for U.S. Senate, was notably absent. But when Biden visits Ohio again this month to celebrate the groundbrea­king of a new Intel plant, Ryan has said he will appear alongside him. John Fetterman, the Democratic Senate nominee from Pennsylvan­ia, seems set to appear with Biden on Labor Day in Pittsburgh.

Biden’s upturn began with a string of legislativ­e victories that silenced some complaints from the left. In the last several weeks, Democrats have passed a $700 billion health, climate and tax bill. Lawmakers also passed bipartisan legislatio­n to help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits and a multibilli­on investment in domestic chip manufactur­ing to help curb China’s influence.

And Biden last month announced he would cancel up to $20,000 in student loan debt for some borrowers, a policy that has divided Democrats but was a priority for liberals.

White House officials say their focus is on drawing a contrast with Republican­s, not the 2024 presidenti­al race. Biden is “forcefully highlighti­ng that he and congressio­nal Democrats are standing up for families and mainstream American values, while ultra MAGA congressio­nal Republican­s are siding with extremism and rich special interests instead,” said White House spokesman Andrew Bates. “That’s where his focus is.”

Republican­s continue to argue that Biden will be a weak candidate if he chooses to run. He can often look his age and stumble over his words, they say, and they accuse him of allowing the country to descend into chaos, presiding over soaring inflation, rising crime and uncontroll­ed immigratio­n.

Some Democrats also continue to say Biden should not run.

When asked if his position on whether the president should seek a second term had changed, a spokespers­on for Rep. Dean Phillips (D-minn.) pointed to a July 28 statement.

“I believe it’s time for a new generation of dynamic Democratic leadership in Congress and in the White House,” the statement said. “Under no condition can we afford another four years of Donald Trump, and while Joe Biden was clearly the right candidate at the right time two years ago, it’s my hope that both major parties put forward new candidates of principle, civility, and integrity in 2024.”

Other Democrats privately say Biden may be the safest choice, if not the most exciting one, an echo of a refrain from many within the party in 2020, as Trump once again looms large in American politics. The Justice Department is investigat­ing whether the former president improperly took hundreds of classified documents to his home in Florida and he faces legal jeopardy on several fronts, even while signaling he is strongly considerin­g another run for the White House.

Polls show Biden beating Trump in a hypothetic­al head-tohead competitio­n. A Wall Street Journal poll this week found Biden leading Trump by six percentage points, 50 percent to 44 percent. In a March poll, the two men were tied at 45 percent apiece.

Much could change between now and early next year when the presidenti­al campaign begins in earnest, and the voices that have quieted could always reemerge. Biden and Democrats have been helped by a number of recent factors moving in their favor, including slowing inflation, while Republican­s have been frustrated that Trump’s legal troubles threaten to drown out their critiques of Biden. But all those factors could reverse themselves.

For now, Democrats who long complained about Biden’s mild tones are encouraged that he is increasing­ly willing to call out Republican­s, including Trump and others attacking the FBI as it investigat­es Trump’s removal of classified documents to his home in Florida.

“There was a lot of chattering that people wanted more histrionic­s and chest-thumping and choreograp­hy. In my view, and I said this at the time, Joe Biden cannot pretend to be somebody he’s not. That’s when politician­s flail,” said Eric Schultz, former deputy press secretary under President Barack Obama. “What we saw last night, and over the last few months, is Joe Biden rising to the occasion.”

It was only two months ago that alternativ­e voices were emerging in the party. Some Democrats felt Biden responded with inadequate force to a series of mass shootings, while others voiced concerns over an increasing­ly conservati­ve Supreme Court and ongoing threats to democracy.

Newsom excited some Democrats when he took out a political ad in Florida over the July 4 weekend attacking the state’s Republican governor, Ron Desantis, who is reviled by many Democrats. Newsom’s impassione­d defense of abortion rights after the leak of the Supreme Court decision overturnin­g Roe v. Wade also attracted notice.

And Pritzker’s fiery response after a shooting at an Independen­ce Day parade summoned the outrage that some Democrats felt Biden was lacking. “If you are angry today, I’m here to tell you to be angry,” Pritzker said. “I’m furious. I’m furious that yet more innocent lives were taken by gun violence.” Pritzker also said earlier in the summer that it was “certainly possible” Biden could face a primary challenge.

Such gestures have not entirely faded, in part because some Democrats may want to position themselves in case Biden faces a health problem or some other unexpected issue. The next few months will be critical to shaping the 2024 presidenti­al race, as the Nov. 8 midterms set the stage and major figures in both parties decide whether to start building campaign operations.

Newsom, for example, recently donated $100,000 to Desantis’s opponent Charlie Crist. Transporta­tion Secretary Pete Buttigieg, also seen as a potential presidenti­al hopeful, is precluded from making overtly political moves, but he continues to travel around the country for his job, including a recent trip to tout a snow removal project in New Hampshire.

Joel Benenson, a former pollster for Obama, said discussion­s about 2024 were premature, but that Democrats have a clear advantage in this moment as Trump’s troubles mount. "How that plays out, and how the Republican Party tries to dig itself out of that cesspool, is going to be a bigger question than whether Joe Biden is running or not again,” Benenson said.

 ?? AL Drago For THE Washington POST ?? President Biden and first lady Jill Biden greet visitors, interns and staff members as they depart on the South Lawn of the White House before traveling to Camp David on Friday. A Wall Street Journal poll this week pitted Biden against Donald Trump in a hypothetic­al election, and found Biden leading Trump by six percentage points.
AL Drago For THE Washington POST President Biden and first lady Jill Biden greet visitors, interns and staff members as they depart on the South Lawn of the White House before traveling to Camp David on Friday. A Wall Street Journal poll this week pitted Biden against Donald Trump in a hypothetic­al election, and found Biden leading Trump by six percentage points.

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