I’m old enough to remember when the media buried the Biden presidency. That is to say, I was around two months ago.
On June 11, The New York Times ran a story with the provocative headline: “Should Biden Run in 2024? Democratic Whispers of ‘No’ Start to Rise.” The piece appeared on the front page of the print edition, and quickly kicked off a weeks-long frenzy of fevered speculation over who should replace the sitting president on his own party’s ticket. Politico reported that a progressive group was preparing a campaign to pressure Joe Biden not to run. Slate ranked nine different Democratic politicians who could replace him. The Washington Post listed 18. My colleague Conor Friedersdorf solicited 20 such recommendations from Atlantic readers. And the less said about Twitter’s predictable meltdown, the better.
The full-fledged anti-Biden freak-out culminated in a New York Times poll, which found that 64 percent of Democrats wanted someone else to run for president in 2024. To many, this was the nail in the coffin. Biden had not just lost the country. He has lost his own party.
I had a different response to the New York Times poll, because I noticed another finding in it that went mostly overlooked, buried in the 16th paragraph of the paper’s story:
This framing might seem trollish, but I was trying to make a serious point. When it comes to evaluating a presidential candidate for 2024, what matters is not whether some voters in 2022 prefer an idealized hypothetical alternative, but whether they favor the candidate over the actual alternative at the polls in 2024. And even amid a summer of disastrous inflation rates, Biden trumped Trump.
At the time, this was not a popular opinion. But times have changed. Over the past month, Biden’s standing among Democrats has rebounded, transforming him from floundering failure to folk hero. The reason for this is relatively straightforward: Biden started winning. He passed the Inflation Reduction Act, striking the greatest legislative blow against climate change in American history. He ordered the assassination of the al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. He forgave billions in student-loan debt. Gas prices plummeted from over $5 a gallon to under $4. Inflation, which peaked at a record high in June, finally began to fall. This is not to mention earlier bipartisan bills on gun control, infrastructure, and domestic semiconductor production.
As triumphant Dark Brandon memes proliferated on social media, Biden’s approval rating began to rise. As of August 31, both FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics, which calculate the average of all polls on presidential approval, have registered a near five-point increase in Biden’s popularity over the last month.
None of this should come as a surprise. As I noted back in July, Biden’s dip in popularity was primarily tethered to the economy and the price of everyday consumer goods. Contrary to what some progressive commentators claimed, average Americans weren’t upset about these things because “the media” told them to be, but because they were personally impacted by them at the supermarket and the pump. It wasn’t CNN that made people angry about the economy and inflation; it was their experience of the economy and inflation. As consumer prices have gradually receded, Americans’ confidence in the economy has improved. And so has Biden’s popularity:
These trends underscore a simple point: Far from desperately casting about for someone to replace Biden, Democrats should be desperately hoping that he runs again in 2024. Here are just a few reasons why:
1. Biden already beat Trump in historic fashion. Most sitting presidents get reelected. Prior to 2020, only 10 had run for a second term and failed to attain it. Before Trump, the last incumbent president to lose reelection was George H.W. Bush in 1992, and that was after the Republicans had held the White House for 12 years. But not only did Biden defeat an incumbent, he did so by such a decisive margin—4.4 percent, or 7 million votes—that he overcame the Republican structural advantage in the Electoral College, which had enabled the party to repeatedly win the presidency despite losing the popular vote.
2. Biden has incumbency advantage. As noted, incumbent presidents almost always win reelection. Incumbents dominate the news cycle simply by being president, and benefit from voter aversion to change; that’s part of what made Biden’s 2020 win so impressive. Conveniently for Democrats, the incumbent president is now a Democrat. The party would be foolish to throw away this advantage and voluntarily level the playing field between the Republican candidate and the Democratic one.
3. Biden is the best candidate on the Democratic bench to reassemble his own winning coalition. To defeat Trump and overcome the Electoral College, Biden had to unite a diverse and fractious amalgam of hard-core progressives, minority voters, and small but decisive portions of non-college-educated white voters and anti-Trump Republicans. All of these groups were essential to his victory. For instance, one crucial difference between Barack Obama’s and Biden’s wins and Hillary Clinton’s loss was that they garnered 5 percent more of the non-college-educated white vote, which is disproportionately concentrated in swing states. Biden also outran Democratic Senate candidates in purple states like Michigan and Maine, thanks in part to his appeal to conservative Never Trumpers.
To accomplish this tall task, Biden banked on several personal characteristics that were unique to him. To begin with, in appealing to independents and conservatives, Biden took advantage of his moderate political persona, which predated our current culture wars and made it quite difficult for Trump to tar him as an extremist, especially after Biden defeated socialists like Bernie Sanders in the primary. At the same time, Biden benefited among Democrats—and particularly Black voters—from his association with President Obama, and was seen by many as the faithful successor to the party’s most popular figure. Given these assets, it is unsurprising that Biden consistently outpolled his Democratic primary rivals against Trump. To date, no other Democratic politician—from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Pete Buttigieg—has demonstrated Biden’s broad-based appeal to the electorate. That doesn’t mean none of them can, but suggests that Democrats need not roll the dice when they already hold a potentially winning hand.
This is not to say that there aren’t real pitfalls to another Biden candidacy.