In 2024, the fate of the Democratic Party will rest in the hands of an 81-year-old incumbent president whom a majority of the country disapproves of and even many Democratic voters think should step aside rather than run for re-election.
In the past, the conventional wisdom would be that President Biden faces an uphill battle to win a second term. But in today’s volatile, polarized political environment — in which Mr. Biden’s predecessor and potential general election opponent, Donald Trump, became the first ex-president to be criminally indicted and Democrats posted a history-defying midterm performance — he opens his re-election campaign in a stronger position than many would expect.
He can make a compelling case for his first-term accomplishments, his steady leadership and a vision of the country fundamentally different from what is on offer from Republicans — of freedom of opportunity and opportunity of freedom for all Americans.
A number of factors have worked in his favor. Because of his age, Mr. Biden has been dogged by speculation about his re-election plans. But no major candidate has stepped up to challenge him in the Democratic primary, which will allow him and his campaign team to focus their time, efforts and resources on the general election.
For months, Democrats have been frustrated with the gap between Mr. Biden’s accomplishments and the public’s awareness of them. Despite a flurry of big-ticket legislation that the president signed into law in 2021 and 2022, a February poll showed that 62 percent of Americans — including 66 percent of independents — believed that the Biden administration has accomplished either “not very much” or “little or nothing.” The administration has already begun chipping away at this perception deficit, with the president, vice president and cabinet officials fanning out to battleground states and other parts of the country to spotlight these accomplishments.
The timing is right, because these programs are starting to have a big impact on the lives of many Americans. In March, Eli Lilly became the first major drug company to announce that it would cap out-of-pocket insulin costs at $35 a month, matching the Inflation Reduction Act’s cap on insulin costs for seniors. The administration says it has financed over 4,600 bridge repair and replacement projects across the country. And the private sector has committed over $200 billion in manufacturing investments since the passage of the Chips and Science Act, including $40 billion to build new semiconductor factories in Arizona and $300 million to manufacture semiconductor parts in Bay County, Mich.
Mr. Biden has even made gains in mitigating voters’ concerns about his age. First, there was his lively, 73-minute State of the Union address, where he sparred ably with heckling Republicans, baiting them into backing his positions on Social Security and Medicare. And his surprise trip to Ukraine, which was the first time in modern history that a president visited an active war zone outside of the control of the U.S. military, received expansive coverage.
But Mr. Biden’s biggest advantage might not come from anything he has done. Instead, it might come from the chaos among Republicans. This is welcome news for the president, who is fond of telling voters, “Don’t compare me to the almighty; compare me to the alternative.”
There has been talk among many Republican leaders and donors about moving on from Mr. Trump — most recently, in the weeks after the 2022 midterms — but the base isn’t following their lead. Since his indictment by a Manhattan grand jury, his grip on the party, at least based on recent polling evidence, has grown tighter. That may be good news for his campaign, but he has significant vulnerabilities in a general election.
And Mr. Trump is just the beginning of the G.O.P.’s problems. In recent years, the electorate has become more supportive of abortion rights. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, election after election has provided evidence of that. Yet Republicans have not come up with an answer — and in some ways, they seem to be making the problem worse. This month, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signed into law a six-week abortion ban, which would prohibit the procedure before many women even know they are pregnant. Candidates and likely contenders including former Vice President Mike Pence, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas have endorsed extreme anti-abortion measures that would be effected nationally — upending years of Republican claims that abortion should be “left to the states.”
There are no signs that abortion is letting up as a top issue for voters. This month, liberals won control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court for the first time in over a decade after Judge Janet Protasiewicz ran a campaign focused on abortion rights and extremism on the right and secured an 11-point victory.
A key part of Mr. Biden’s appeal for Democrats is that he doesn’t provoke the sort of divisiveness that Mr. Trump does. Despite Mr. Biden’s sagging approval ratings, in the 2022 midterms, we saw that voting against the president was not a big motivator for many Americans (compared with 2018, when casting a vote against Mr. Trump was a substantial motivator).
If these trends continue, Democratic voters will continue to be motivated to vote against an extremist Republican Party — and Democrats will stand a good chance of winning the critical independent bloc.
President Biden and his team still have work to do to firm up his support before the election. First up is navigating a debt-ceiling showdown with Speaker Kevin McCarthy in the House, where Republican gamesmanship threatens the nation’s credit rating and could spike Americans’ mortgage, student loan and car payment rates. The issue is tailor-made to play to Mr. Biden’s core strength — that he is a competent, steady hand in an otherwise chaotic political system.
The Biden team will also need to increase their messaging to voters about what he has been able to achieve in his first term and what’s at stake over the next four years. That effort will focus in particular on swing-state voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia, and will highlight progress in critical areas like infrastructure, manufacturing and job creation.
Mr. Biden’s announcement video provides a preview of what we’ll be hearing from him over the next 18 months, and the subsequent four years if he’s re-elected: He is a defender of democracy and a protector of Americans’ personal freedoms and rights, including the rights of Americans to make their own decisions about reproductive health, to vote and to marry the person they love. The video juxtaposes chaotic images of Jan. 6, abortion protests outside the Supreme Court and Republican firebrands like Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene with wholesome videos of Mr. Biden hugging and holding hands with Americans from every walk of life.
The message is as subtle as sledgehammer: Do you really want to hand the country over to the Republicans and relive the chaos of the Trump years?
Ultimately, if Joe Biden emerges victorious in November 2024, it will be because voters preferred him to the alternative — not to the almighty.
Lis Smith (@Lis_Smith), a Democratic communications strategist, was a senior adviser to Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign and is the author of the memoir “Any Given Tuesday: A Political Love Story.”