The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats are skeptical of Biden in 2024. Will the party’s left finally win?

A Biden-Harris sign in suburban Dublin, Ohio, on Sept. 18, 2020. (Julie Carr Smyth/AP)

President Biden has now spent more time as an unpopular president than a popular one. He came into office amid historical turbulence from the coronavirus pandemic and his predecessor’s effort to seize a second term. The first few months of his presidency saw declines in new infections and an apparent relegation of Donald Trump to the political wilderness from which he benefited. But by last summer, thanks to infections surging and his own missteps, his popularity plunged. By now, Biden is the sort of president that candidates from his own party avoid on the campaign trail.

It gets worse. A new poll from Siena College conducted for the New York Times finds that most Democrats don’t want him to seek another term in office. Only a quarter of Democrats in the survey said they thought Biden should get a second nomination. Within that group, as many respondents said that their concern was Biden’s age — he’d be 82 if inaugurated in 2025 — as his job performance.

Those data obscure a more interesting pattern, though. Biden’s age and job performance are both salient in this discussion, but the new poll also reflects something else: the simmering power struggle within the party between its left and moderate factions. And that’s a struggle that often overlaps with a divide between its older and younger members.

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In early 2015, it seemed pretty clear what was going to happen in the upcoming Democratic primary. Hillary Clinton, a fixture of the party’s establishment, would box out other primary contenders and coast to the nomination. But Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) turned out to be a potent countervailing force, leveraging frustration among younger Democrats that the party was calcified in precisely the way that nominating a Clinton would indicate.

This wasn’t about age, certainly; Sanders was older than Clinton. Instead, it was often about approach, about how the party engaged in politics. Speaking in admittedly broad terms, younger and more liberal Democrats wanted a party that would leverage or reshape institutional power to benefit working Americans. Older and more moderate Democrats were skeptical, with the party’s older, more moderate leadership having deep roots in the institutions to be overhauled. Clinton won, but not by as much as once expected.

Four years later, the situation was very different. Trump was president and Democrats were freaked out about the prospect of his serving another four years. The early primaries were muddy, with Sanders again faring well. What one heard in polling and speaking to voters, though, was fairly consistent: The top priority was finding someone to beat Trump. Since Trump had secured his office by winning narrow victories in the Rust Belt, Biden was seen as the safest bet, using his Scranton roots to peel those voters back to the Democrats. Black Democrats, a more broadly moderate pool of votes, were essential to powering Biden to the nomination. He won back those Rust-Belt states and was inaugurated as the oldest president in history.

If you dig into the Siena College poll, what you see is that younger Democrats are those least likely to cite Biden’s age as a reason for opposing his renomination. An astonishing 94 percent of those under 30 say that he shouldn’t be the nominee in 2024, but the reasons relate to his actual presidency. Two in 5 likely Democratic primary voters in that age group point to Biden’s poor job performance as a reason for him not to run again; 1 in 5 say he isn’t sufficiently progressive. By contrast, 3 in 5 of those ages 65 and up who plan to vote in the party’s primary point to Biden’s age; only 4 percent say he’s insufficiently progressive.

The release of the poll overlaps with a potent example of the difficulty Biden has had in keeping his party’s more vocal, more aggressive segments happy. Facing criticism for his administration’s slow response to the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Biden’s communications director snipped that his goal was “not to satisfy some activists who have been consistently out of step with the mainstream of the Democratic Party.”

A member of Biden’s 2020 campaign and a former administration official expressed her frustration with that dismissiveness this weekend.

But this is the tension. The party’s younger, more aggressive and more progressive segment wants the president and senior leaders to leverage their power differently — at times, in ways that fail to recognize the reality of an evenly split Senate with two moderate Democrats. Senior Democratic officials, for their part, have an entrenched approach that’s both more cautious and more moderate. It also often dates from an era in which politics moves at the pace of weeks, not minutes.

The Siena poll — which, of course, is just one poll — suggests that there’s space for a challenge to Biden from the left. As there was in 2020 and as there was to Clinton in 2016. Over the past eight years, of course, many of those young Sanders voters have become older Sanders voters, replaced with other young voters, many fiercely liberal.

What might save Biden is, once again, Trump. Speaking to CNN, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), one of the key progressive voices in the House, suggested in strong terms that the party should stand behind Biden. Asked if he himself might run, Khanna said “absolutely not.”

“I plan to support [Biden] because of the danger that Donald Trump poses,” Khanna said. “I would certainly not do anything to weaken him, and I hope no one else will do anything to weaken him.”

Consider a less remarked-upon part of that Siena College poll. Asked who they’d prefer in a general election contest between Trump and Biden, the sitting president earned 44 percent of total support while his predecessor got 41 percent.

Khanna also said of Biden that “he’s still the safe brand in the Midwestern states to make sure Trump is kept far away from the Oval Office.” This is far less clear. In the Midwest, Trump has a 6-point edge, according to Siena. But that idea that Biden is the best bet to offset Trump, the idea that powered his 2020 success, is a powerful psychological counterweight to the urge to change horses midstream.

Biden is not loved by the left but he will always be far more popular than Trump. Young and more progressive voters would probably rally around a more-liberal challenger to Biden but they would also probably vote for him against Trump — if they voted. Apathy was a central reason for Clinton’s loss in 2016, but that was before Trump’s approach to wielding power had been manifested.

Electability will again be the key. Biden would need to convince Democrats that he could fare better than a more liberal candidate who might spur more young people to vote, a challenge that would be more difficult against a non-Trump Republican nominee. If even more moderate Democrats aren’t convinced, the faction that emerged in 2016 with Sanders might at last get a nominee of its own.

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