The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Mr. President, I read the polls. Democrats don’t want you to run again.

President Biden stops to refute a reporter's claim that Democrats don't want him to run again as he hosts a congressional picnic on the South Lawn of the White House on July 12. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the California governor. He is Gavin Newsom.

When a reporter asked President Biden about a new poll showing most Democrats don’t want him to run again in 2024, Biden turned, walked over and snapped: “They want me to run. Read the polls. Read the polls, Jack!”

Well, I did read the polls, and Democrats have a clear message for Biden: Hit the road, Jack.

A New York Times-Siena College poll out this week shows only 26 percent of Democrats want Biden to be their standard bearer in 2024, while 64 percent say they want someone else. This is in line with the findings of a new Harvard-Harris poll, which found that only 30 percent of Democrats would vote for Biden in a Democratic presidential primary and that 71 percent of Americans don’t think he should run for a second term.

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But Biden was having none of it. “You guys are all the same,” Biden scoffed at the reporter. “That poll showed that 92 percent of Democrats, if I ran, would vote for me.” No, it didn’t. The Times-Siena poll found that 92 percent said they would vote for Biden in a general election rematch with Donald Trump. That doesn’t mean Democrats want him to be their nominee; it means they don’t want Trump to be president again. Big difference.

Why is Democratic support for a second Biden run collapsing? Two-thirds of Democrats say it is because he is too old or cite his terrible job performance. They see what the rest of the United States sees: Biden is struggling under the burdens of his office. He has delivered the worst inflation in 40 years, the highest gas prices ever recorded in this country, the fastest drop in inflation-adjusted wages in four decades, a record labor shortage that is fueling inflation, the worst crime wave in many cities since the 1990s and the worst recorded border crisis in U.S. history. That litany of worsts is almost without precedent. As a result, Biden is the most unpopular U.S. president since Harry S. Truman. The Times-Siena poll put his job approval at a dismal 33 percent.

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Given that record, it’s a miracle any Democrats want him to run again. The problem is they have no good alternatives. Ask yourself: Why did Democrats nominate Biden in the first place? They spent the 2020 primary season searching for an alternative and could not find one who was electable. They ultimately settled on Biden because he was the “least-worst” choice — an inoffensive, genial moderate who was the candidate least likely to drive away moderate swing voters wary of the Democrats’s leftward turn.

Who can replace him in that role? Not Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Not any of the left-wing also-rans from 2020, such as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Not his vice president, who is just as unpopular as he is. And certainly not California Gov. Gavin Newsom, whose record is so bad that his state ran out of U-Haul trucks last year because so many Californians are fleeing to red states such as Texas and Florida — or Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, whose state is second only to California in out-migration. There is no moderate alternative palatable to suburban swing voters who put Biden in the White House.

The New York Times reported recently that “Biden’s top advisers reject the idea that an open primary would deliver Democrats a stronger standard-bearer. They fear his retirement would set off a sprint to the left.” They are right. And that’s not what Democratic primary voters want. According to the Times-Siena poll, only 10 percent of Democrats say they want to replace Biden because he is “not progressive enough.” So, Democrats may be stuck with Biden — whether they like it or not.

Biden does not seem to understand why the American people elected him. He did not beat Trump because voters wanted more spending, more regulation, more inflation and open borders. He was elected because he promised to end the chaos and division and unite the country. The reason people disapprove of him today is because he abandoned that promise and threw in his lot with members of his party’s progressive wing, who convinced him that if he rammed through their radical agenda he could go down in history as a new FDR. Instead, he’ll go down in history as an unparalleled disaster.

Now Democrats are in a bind of their own making: Americans see that Biden appears incapable of addressing the cascading series of crises his bad decisions have unleashed, and conclude that he is incompetent. They see him go to Israel and flub his words, promising to “bear witness” to the “honor of the Holocaust,” and conclude that he is too old for the job. If Democrats renominate Biden, his serial failures could sink their chances of holding onto the presidency.

But nominating an even more leftist standard-bearer provides no safe harbor for moderate swing voters they need, who don’t like Trump but also don’t want socialism. Unless Democrats are ready to change their policies, and move to the center, getting rid of Biden won’t make a difference.