WASHINGTON — Pick a metaphor: President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign is a “five-alarm fire.” It’s a cardiac case in need of a “defibrillator.” Or a lemming on course to “slowly march into the sea and drown.”
All come from Democratic strategists whose low-boil frustrations with Biden’s candidacy erupted over the weekend amid a spate of bleak polling numbers. No less a party mastermind than David Axelrod, architect of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, suggested in a social media post that Biden consider dropping out of the race and letting someone more electable take his place as the Democratic presidential nominee.
The 2024 presidential election looks increasingly like it will be a rematch of four years ago, and Democrats are more and more worried that the outcome may not swing their way this time. Yet at this point, they're stuck with Biden — whether they like it or not.
Biden has given no indication he is interested in dropping out. Nor does his campaign team seem to be sweating the New York Times/Siena College poll that showed him losing to Republican Donald Trump in five of the six swing states that he captured in his 2020 victory.
Troubling signs for Democrats jump out from the poll. The party’s bedrock constituency, Black voters, appears to be eroding. In 2020, Black voters favored Biden over Trump by a margin of 78 percentage points. In the new survey, Biden’s margin had dropped to 49 points.
Democratic pollster Terrance Woodbury said when he hears from young and Black voters in focus groups, they feel frustrated by foreign aid instead of domestic spending, and it's important for Biden to explain why these foreign investments are necessary.
"'We don’t have money for student loans, but we’ve got money to send to Ukraine.' 'We don’t have money to invest in schools, but we have money to send to the Middle East,'" Woodbury said. "It is less about a position either way and more about, 'Stop investing there until you have taken care of home first.'"
Poll numbers, Biden advisers counter, aren’t all that meaningful at this stage of the race.
“I’m going to wait to do my panicking” until there is a GOP nominee, said Jim Messina, who managed Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012. He noted that polls in 2011 looked bad for Obama, who went on to defeat Republican challenger Mitt Romney. What's more, Messina added, “The economy for Barack Obama in 2011 was way more difficult than the economy for Joe Biden."
Biden’s political aides point to a memo from campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez last week that said: “In the off-year, we have built a strong operation to once again mobilize the coalition of voters that sent President Biden and Vice President Harris to the White House with a record number of votes in 2020."
A source familiar with the Biden team's thinking also dismissed Axelrod's comments, calling him one of Biden's "most consistent detractors going back to before Biden even launched his presidential campaign."
"Once more regular people are tuning in, our record will come into focus," this person added.
Reassuring words from Team Biden hasn’t staved off what has the feel of an intra-party uprising. Democratic officials and strategists point to weaknesses in Biden’s message and missed opportunities to build leads in swing states.
"This is a five-alarm fire," said a senior Democratic aide to a lawmaker in a battleground state. "We have a deep bench of folks who could run and win. But that’s not happening.”
Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., said in an interview she has told the president’s advisers that he needs to spend more time in Michigan, a state where Trump is leading Biden by five percentage points in the NYT/Siena survey. (Biden has spent seven days in Michigan as president, compared to 28 in another important battleground, Pennsylvania, where he has also gone for family events.)
“I’m moving forward to doing what we have to do to win Michigan next year, and maybe some people will believe me,” Dingell said. “We’ll need some attention and resources. I do hope the president will start to come to Michigan more.”
Biden’s main economic message has fallen flat. He touts “Bidenomics” — a cluster of economic policies — as the formula for spreading wealth more widely in the U.S. But polling shows that voters still believe Republicans will be better stewards of the economy than Democrats.
“The five-alarm fire in the polling is the 25-point-deficit on the economy,” Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., said in an interview. “It is malpractice for us not to be leading on the economy given the president’s record and the choice where the Republicans are literally campaigning on tax breaks for the wealthy and cuts to education.”
A fresh trouble spot for Biden opened on Oct. 7, when Hamas militants launched attacks that killed 1,400 Israelis. Biden is facing a backlash from within the party over his support for Israel as it conducts a ferocious counterattack inside the Gaza Strip.
A series of Democratic lawmakers have called for a ceasefire, including prominent progressive Reps. Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley.
The Biden administration maintains that a ceasefire would only help Hamas, “giving them time to regroup and plot a new attack,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in a recent press gaggle.
The divisions within the party over the month-old war echo the searing debate over the Vietnam War, which caused then-President Lyndon Johnson to forego a re-election bid in 1968.
Johnson’s undoing should be a warning sign for Biden, said a former Iowa Democratic official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to talk more freely.
“The killing of little children in Palestine may quickly develop and spread like fire leading to a nationwide effort to force Joe out of office," this person said. "I fear this is going to happen to Joe unless he stops the slaughter of children in Palestine. He needs to hear from his longtime old friends and supporters like me before it is too late.”
The person familiar with the Biden team's thinking added that while the president is getting criticism, "imagine the backlash from many more places if we hadn’t forcefully sided with Israel."
Restive though they are, Democrats can’t do much at this stage to give American voters another option. Once Biden decided to run, the party apparatus went all-in for his candidacy. Democratic heavyweights like California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer stayed out of the race. The structural barriers to defeat Biden at this stage are daunting.
Filing deadlines for the New Hampshire and Nevada primaries have already passed, and South Carolina’s deadline is Friday. Candidates have only until Dec. 8 to file for the ballot in Michigan, which will move into the early-state window in 2024 for the first time. And numerous other states, including delegate-rich ones like Texas and California, have deadlines in mid-December, leaving precious little time for prospective challengers to jump in.
While party rules provide for changing the nominee at the convention and even after, the process is messy, untested and likely to result in litigation. Moreover, Biden controls the Democratic National Committee through allies he appointed, as is standard practice, and the party apparatus is already enmeshed in Biden’s campaign.
Indeed, the DNC re-wrote the primary calendar at Biden’s behest, moving up South Carolina, which Biden won in 2020, and demoting New Hampshire and Iowa, which he lost.
Any new changes would go through the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee, which is stacked with Biden allies that have easily rubber-stamped his wishes so far.
What that means is Biden will be the nominee unless he voluntarily chooses to step aside. Were he to bow out, that would create another set of complications. Vice President Kamala Harris would be the natural successor, yet her approval ratings are also low. If Harris ran, other Democrats would likely jump in and challenge her, potentially alienating Black voters and dividing the party ahead of the general election.
“When David Axelrod can convince [former First Lady] Michelle Obama to run for the presidency, we can have that conversation," Khanna said. "Until then, show me the candidate who will have higher polling than Joe Biden in the swing states. The polling that I’ve seen, that tries to get others into the race, still shows that Biden is the highest in those swing states compared to all the leading contenders that the media has bandied about.”
Still, some Democrats believe that a Biden-less ballot might be the more viable path to victory.
One progressive leader said that if Biden loses to Trump, "he goes down in history as being incredibly selfish and possibly dooming democracy as a result. It’s a giant gamble and most people will be deferential to him in terms of making the choice. But more people are now acknowledging that he has a real choice to make.”