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Democrats fret as Biden tries to bolster re-election case touting legislative wins

Biden, riding a wave of success recently, will give a year-end speech on Thursday afternoon.
President Joe Biden delivers his state of the union address to Congress
President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address to Congress on March 1. Sarahbeth Maney / Pool via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — As 2022 draws to a close, President Joe Biden plans to give an upbeat national address Thursday afternoon with a unifying message.

The celebratory tone caps a season in which Biden promoted a slew of hard-won legislative successes. His aim has been to build enough momentum at the midpoint of his term that would make a run for re-election look unstoppable, sources said, even as many Democrats remain anxious about rallying behind a party standard-bearer who recently turned 80.

The next two years are rife with uncertainty: the fragile economic recovery, the war in Ukraine, the prospect of GOP-led congressional investigations into Biden's administration and family, and Donald Trump's future within the Republican Party.

In this volatile moment, Biden sees opportunities.

Should the Republican takeover of the House result in gridlock and grinding investigations, Biden aides are preparing to contrast any legislative inaction over the next two years with the bipartisan policy successes of the first two. Biden would be traveling the country touting reduced insulin prices and new road projects, while House Republicans hold hearings into obscure conspiracy theories.

Americans will be left with no doubt that “the president and his administration are prioritizing their families and the Republicans are prioritizing his family,” a person close to Biden argued in an interview, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk freely.

Early in the new year Biden will deliver a State of the Union speech and roll out his agenda covering the second half of his term, building toward a campaign announcement that could come as early as February, people familiar with his planning say.

“Coming into office, nobody since FDR had faced more challenges and uncertainty,” said Robert Gibbs, who served as White House press secretary during Barack Obama’s first two years in office. “It’s likely that the history books will remember these two years, and it’s likely that these first two years will be the vital centerpiece of his re-election campaign in 2024.”

For all the triumphalism brimming from Biden’s speeches, he faces an unhappy conundrum: leading a party that’s grateful to him for ousting Donald Trump, but also ready for him to retire and cede the field to a younger generation.

One poll taken this month found that, by 59-40 percent, Democrats and independents who lean Democratic still wanted a different nominee in 2024.

The party’s relief over holding the Senate and minimizing House losses in the midterms has gradually given way to collective angst about what it means if Biden runs again. Two possible scenarios leave Democrats a bit queasy. The first is Biden runs and loses, perhaps to a younger Republican opponent who eclipses Trump as the new GOP favorite. The second is he runs and wins — and then must cope with the unrelenting pressures of office as he enters his mid-80s.

“He’s 80 years old. He’ll be 82 when he runs and 86 at the end of the term,” said Robert Reich, who was labor secretary under President Bill Clinton. “I don’t mean to be ageist about that, but the public and press will look at every tiny slip and any evidence of him not being able to do the job.”

 “Would he be a good president at the age of 84 or 86?” Reich continued. “It’s impossible to tell, but it is taking a little bit of a risk.”

Democrats still float the possibility that Biden may limit himself to one term, arguing that he would have cemented an honorable legacy even in that shortened span. History would surely remember his victory over Trump and his effort to restore a sense of normalcy to the government after the former president shattered deep-rooted traditions.

Yet even an early Biden exit sparks a fresh set of complications. Under normal circumstances, Biden’s successor would be Vice President Kamala Harris, who would make history as the first woman to become president, if successful. But she is polling as poorly as Biden, suggesting that his departure could trigger a free-for-all in a Democratic primary race with no obvious front-runner in sight. 

“All this accounts for a profound sense of Democratic unease right now,” said a former Clinton White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely about Biden's political viability. “I share it.”

For now, Biden is giving every sign that he’s not ready to walk away.

His top aides have been meeting privately with left-leaning interest groups urging them to go out and showcase Biden’s record. A memo sent out this week by one of his senior advisers, Mike Donilon, invoked one of Biden's heroes, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was elected a record four times and whose portrait now hangs in the Oval Office. “President Biden became the first president since FDR in 1934 to not lose a single incumbent United States Senate seat” in the midterms, Donilon wrote.

Democratic leaders make clear that Biden has earned the right to run. Governing at a time of fierce polarization, he has passed many of the tests he’s confronted since taking office. Biden has mobilized NATO allies after Russia invaded Ukraine, convinced more people to get vaccinated against Covid-19, and helped to rebuild an economy devastated by the pandemic. But party lawmakers still seem ambivalent about whether they want him to mount one final campaign.

Senior Democrats use a careful formulation when discussing Biden’s future. Asked if he wanted Biden to run, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D., Conn., said, “If he runs again, I’ll support him.”

When NBC News posed the same question to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D., Vt., he said: “I want him to do whatever he wants. If he does, I’ll support him.”

A separate challenge Biden faces is persuading voters that the bills he has signed are making a demonstrable difference in their lives. New public works projects are beginning to pop up and a provision in the Inflation Reduction Act that caps insulin at $35 a month for Medicare recipients starts in January. 

“We believe that the president has had one of the most successful first two years of any president since FDR,” the person close to Biden said.

Most people don’t seem sold on such comparisons. More than 70 percent of people surveyed in an NBC News poll last month said the country is headed in the wrong direction. Voters aren’t necessarily impressed by the White House’s hard work in forging compromises on Capitol Hill despite the slimmest of Democratic majorities.

“It’s a remarkable record given the hand Biden was dealt in terms of the closeness in the House and Senate,” Reich said. “Without that, it’s not that unusual. In terms of the amount done, I would say it’s pretty typical of recent administrations.”

The White House is betting the record may look more impressive once Republicans take control of the House. GOP lawmakers are poised to open investigations into Hunter Biden’s business dealings. They’re also threatening to impeach Biden’s homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, over his handling of border security.

Stacked up against Biden’s record over the past two years, the Republicans risk looking vindictive and out of touch — a point that the White House and its outside allies will surely emphasize.

“If they [Republicans] go ahead with the investigations, I don’t know that that’s going to work to their advantage as much as they think it does,” said Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University history professor who, along with other historians, met privately with Biden at the White House in August. “They’ve been doing this since the 1980s. When you don’t have anything to do — investigate.”