When President Bill Clinton and his political team prepared for his 1996 re-election bid, Clinton didn’t bother to hold an official campaign kickoff event. The Clinton-Gore re-election team instead simply opened its campaign headquarters in April 1995. So obvious was the fact that the president would be seeking a second term that he just steamed straight into the campaign.
Though most modern presidents have officially announced re-election runs, they have done so mostly to gin up excitement and attract extra media attention. They haven’t done so to lay to rest questions about their political plans, because those were taken for granted. And whether they have formally announced or not, they have certainly not hemmed and hawed about their intentions, then leaked through thirdhand sources that they will be going for it.
The very fact that a Biden 2024 White House bid is publicly in question reflects the set of deep political challenges he faces compared to other first-term presidents.
Yet that’s what Biden has done. Two weeks ago in a “60 Minutes” interview on CBS, he alluded to making a final decision about running after the Nov. 8 midterm elections. Then, on Monday, NBC News reported that the president recently told the Rev. Al Sharpton in a private conversation at the White House that he will seek a second term. Sharpton, who is also an MSNBC host, informed his staff at the National Action Network, one of whose officials spoke to NBC News.
The very fact that a Biden 2024 White House bid is publicly in question reflects the deep political challenges he faces compared to other first-term presidents, as well as his personal circumstances as the oldest U.S. president in history. When Biden launched his presidential bid in 2019, his campaign team presented the former vice president and 36-year Delaware senator, now 79, as a “transition figure” who could beat Donald Trump and then pass the leadership mantle to another Democrat.
But Biden, not surprisingly, clearly wants to run again.
Biden was elected to the Senate in 1972 at age 29 and first considered a White House bid as early as 1980. He waited until 1988 to take his initial plunge and took a second shot exactly 20 years later. Having finally won the White House in 2020, toppling Trump, no less, Biden isn’t in a hurry to give up the office. Yet his public hesitance to declare, with only private intimations that he plans to, are a sign that the most powerful person in the world is still limited by political realities.
Only extraordinary circumstances have kept presidents from seeking second terms. Even exceptionally weak candidates have usually thrown their hats in the ring. President Gerald Ford, who assumed office when President Richard Nixon resigned over Watergate, hardly had a strong grasp on the Republican grass roots or widespread appeal as the representative of a damaged party. Elected only to a House seat in western Michigan and then elevated to vice president and president through accidents of history, Ford barely staved off a 1976 GOP primary challenge from former California Gov. Ronald Reagan.
Similarly, the Democratic president who vanquished Ford from the White House, Jimmy Carter, himself had a weak political hand. Thanks to the ongoing Iran hostage crisis, double-digit inflation and a renewed Soviet threat, Carter’s poll numbers fell all the way to 21% as 1980 progressed. Yet a primary challenge from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts was unsuccessful.
The one sitting president in recent history who did step aside was Lyndon Johnson in 1968. Despite his landslide 1964 win over Republican Barry Goldwater, LBJ had grown incredibly unpopular because of the rising casualties in a war in Vietnam that was increasingly perceived as unwinnable. Johnson’s approval rating in the Gallup Poll fell to 36% in March 1968.
After having barely eked out a win in the first presidential primary, LBJ announced he would forgo his re-election bid. Johnson was effectively pressured out of the race by his own party as he faced challenges from Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and the anti-war candidacy of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York, the brother of his slain former boss, who entered the race days before Johnson quit.
Biden’s political predicament isn’t that dire, but it’s still plenty challenging. Biden’s approval ratings are middling at best. They’re comparable to where Clinton stood in the polls around the same time in early October 1995, 13 months before he won re-election. While that might seem an optimistic data point for Biden, he’s also below where President George H.W. Bush stood around the same time in fall 1991, before he lost to Clinton the next year.
And there’s a very real prospect that after the midterm elections Biden will face a hostile Republican majority in the House or the Senate or both. Moreover, as president, Biden hasn’t been able to avoid self-inflicted political wounds from running his mouth, which only plays into the hands of those eager to portray him as too old for the job. Most recently, at a White House event in late September, Biden asked whether Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind. — who died in a car accident the previous month — was in the room.
Some of these issues were inevitable with Biden’s having been the oldest person to have taken office as president. But Biden also has faced unprecedented criticism from his immediate White House predecessor. Trump called Biden “an enemy of the state” at a Pennsylvania rally last month. Fairly or not, Trump has cast a long shadow over Biden’s presidency, often making him seem reactive. And while Biden’s verbal gaffes were familiar and sometimes endearing before he became president, they take on a more serious tone when he is the leader of the free world.
None of which is prohibitive to Biden’s winning a second term. In an upended political world in which Trump could plausibly emerge as the 2024 GOP nominee, it would be inane to discount Biden’s chances. To get there, though, Biden at the very least will have to announce he’s running again. He could certainly use an opportunity to build up enthusiasm among his base and garner some positive headlines.