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Biden has tamped down talk of a primary challenge, for now

With Trump frequently in the news, Democrats are increasingly accepting — if not enthusiastic — that the president will likely be their 2024 standard-bearer

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden walk on the South Lawn of the White House as they travel to Camp David on Friday. (Al Drago/For The Washington Post)

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.

President Biden said MAGA Republicans “do not believe in the rule of law” in his prime-time speech on Sept. 1. (Video: The Washington Post)

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“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.

How a string of recent big legislative wins shifted Biden’s presidency. But, is it too late to affect the midterms? (Video: Michael Cadenhead/The Washington Post)

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.

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Polls show Biden beating Trump in a hypothetical head-to-head 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.

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

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