At a press conference alongside South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol in the White House Rose Garden this week, Joe Biden appeared to relish the possibility of a rematch against his one-time opponent Donald Trump.
Asked whether he was the only Democrat capable of defeating Trump in 2024, the president, wearing his trademark aviator sunglasses, smiled.
“I may not be the only one,” said Biden. “But I know him well and I know the danger he presents to our democracy.”
He added: “We have been down this road before.”
The president was speaking just one day after he formally launched his re-election campaign, in a move that quelled speculation about whether the 80-year-old president would run again.
Although there are still 18 months to go before the presidential election and lots of potential shifts in the political climate, many analysts also believe it is increasingly likely there will be repeat of the 2020 presidential election.
Despite losing three years ago, Trump remains the undisputed frontrunner to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2024, even as he faces mounting legal troubles, including criminal charges in Manhattan and an ongoing probe in Georgia into his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
In fact, Trump’s poll numbers have actually improved in recent weeks among the Republican grassroots who will select their party’s candidate, while those of his main rival, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, have faltered.
The opinion polls also show that the overwhelming majority of Americans do not want Trump to run again. An NBC News poll conducted earlier this month found 60 per cent of Americans said Trump should not seek another term in the White House.
In a worrying sign for Democrats, the same survey showed 70 per cent of Americans — including just over half of Democrats — said they did not want Biden to run again, either. Half of those who said Biden should not run again cited his age as a “major” reason.
Already the oldest serving president in US history, Biden would be an unprecedented 82 at his inauguration if he secured another stint as commander-in-chief. He would be 86 at the end of a second four-year term.
Biden dismissed the polling numbers in the Rose Garden this week, saying: “The reason I am running again is [we have] a job to finish.”
He added that his age “doesn’t . . . register with me” — and that it would ultimately be up to voters to decide whether he deserves another four years in the White House.
“They are going to see a race, and they are going to judge whether or not I have it or don’t have it,” said the president.
Back to the playbook
Even though the Republican primary campaign is only in its early stages, Biden is already running against a Trump candidacy.
On Tuesday, he launched his fourth and final presidential campaign — he ran for president unsuccessfully in 1988 and 2008 before his victory in 2020 — with a slick, three-minute campaign video posted to social media. The highly produced video put Trump front and centre, underscoring the central role the former president is likely to play in the next election.
Narrated by Biden, it opens with smoky images of January 6 2021, when mobs of Trump’s supporters stormed the US Capitol and interrupted the certification of Biden’s electoral college victory. In a reference to Trump’s catchphrase, “Make America Great Again,” Biden warns of “Maga extremists” who he says are “lining up” to attack “bedrock freedoms”, including access to abortion and voting rights.
The message echoed Biden’s winning 2020 campaign, as well as last year’s midterm elections, when Democrats defied expectations of a Republican “red wave” and held on to control of the US Senate, along with several governor’s mansions in key battleground states. It is a playbook that many Democrats are keen for Biden to repeat heading into next year.
“Democrats are betting that Biden’s age will be less of a liability when contrasted with a GOP that they will cast as captive to Maga,” says Amy Walter, publisher of the non-partisan Cook Political Report.
There are signs that such a strategy can work. Trump was blamed by many Republicans for their party’s disappointing performance in the midterms, after most of his handpicked candidates for statewide office in swing states failed to win their races.
Democrats are largely confident that with Trump at the top of a 2024 ticket, swing voters will once again break for Biden, even as the president battles stubbornly low approval ratings. Just 43 per cent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing, according to an average compiled by Real Clear Politics.
But a Wall Street Journal poll conducted earlier this month showed that among voters who disapprove of both the Trump and Biden presidencies, they prefer Biden by a sizeable margin, 54 to 15 per cent.
“The most important thing is to ensure that this election is a choice, not a referendum,” says Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, the Democratic think-tank. “Clearly [the Biden campaign] believes that the choice will be Biden or Trump or a Maga Republican. I think that is a very good bet.”
But not everyone is convinced. Some caution that Trump has been underestimated before — most notably in 2016, when he shocked the world by defeating Hillary Clinton. They argue that in a sharply divided country where national elections are won on the margins, Biden is still facing a tough re-election battle.
“Democrats are sort of wishing for Trump to be the nominee,” says Kyle Kondik of the non-partisan University of Virginia Center for Politics. “They are playing with fire to a certain degree.”
One Democratic operative who asked not to be named says: “I really worry about the idea that armies that tend to fight the last war tend to lose the next one.
“There is a lot on the line,” the person adds. “I would love to continue four more years of the Biden administration. I just don’t know if we can pull that off.”
Support from within
During the last election, Biden was not the immediate choice of the Democratic party.
In early 2020, he came back from disappointing finishes in the key early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada to win the South Carolina primary by a whopping 29 points. This forced a consolidation of a crowded Democratic field that included Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, among others.
Biden’s successful primary bid was due, in part, thanks to Democratic voters’ belief that he was the candidate best positioned to defeat Trump.
This time around, he is expected to run without any real challenge for his party’s nomination. So far the only two Democrats to launch long-shot bids against him are Marianne Williamson, the self-help author, and Robert F Kennedy Jr, the anti-vaccine campaigner and scion of the Kennedy political family.
Leading progressives who might have previously opposed a Biden candidacy swiftly endorsed his re-election this week. Sanders, who famously battled Clinton for the party’s nomination in 2016 in addition to his 2020 bid, said hours after Biden launched his campaign that he would forgo another presidential run of his own and “do everything I can to see the president is re-elected”.
Bob Shrum, a veteran Democratic strategist and politics professor at the University of Southern California, says Sanders’ endorsement underscores how the Democratic party is united behind Biden — and in their determination to ward off another Trump administration.
“Biden has managed to hold the party together and no one wants a replay of Trump, or the coming of DeSantis,” says Shrum.
Questions nevertheless linger about Biden’s age and readiness for a gruelling presidential campaign, especially one that involves criss-crossing the country while balancing the demands of the White House. Even Biden’s allies admit the gaffe-prone president may have benefited in 2020 in part by the constraints of the Covid-19 pandemic, which limited travel and in-person campaigning.
Biden’s age is already a central feature of Republican attack ads, and this week Nikki Haley, the former UN ambassador who is running against Trump for the Republican nomination, foreshadowed the likely tone of 2024 when she said in a TV interview that it was not “likely” Biden would “make it until 86 years old”.
Many Democrats are quick to defend the president, saying while he may be older, he has the mental and physical stamina for another four years in the White House.
One prominent Democratic donor, who asked not to be named, framed the argument as Biden versus Trump, arguing critics should acknowledge that on the cusp of his 77th birthday, Trump is not much younger than the incumbent.
“I don’t get it . . . Donald Trump will be 78 on election day and Joe Biden will be 81,” the donor said. “Since when is there a giant difference between 78 and 81?”
With some 18 months to go before election day, Democrats and Republicans alike caution that many things could change before voters head to the polls to decide whether to give Biden another term.
Some point to the uncertainty of the economic outlook, with many economists predicting a mild recession later this year, and a looming crisis over raising the debt ceiling this summer, as potential pitfalls for the Biden campaign.
The White House will also want to see inflation continue to drop from its highs of last summer as voters remain very sensitive to the cost of living. And Biden’s supporters hope that the benefits of the massive investments in green energy and domestic manufacturing under his watch will start yielding political benefits; most Americans still give him low marks on the economy.
“The legislation he’s been able to get flowing is really going to be a big deal for places like Scranton — that’s what America needs, that’s what families need,” says Paige Cognetti, the mayor of the Pennsylvania city where Biden was born. “We need him to win a second term so he can continue all this work.”
But for now, Kondik of the University of Virginia says Biden’s strategy could already be summed up by an adage that the president often attributes to his late father: “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.”
“That might as well be the motto,” says Kondik. “To me, that is the unofficial slogan for Biden 2024.”