President Biden is launching a second-term White House campaign without a high-profile primary challenger, a relief to Democrats who want the smoothest possible transition for the incumbent president heading into 2024.
Most notably, he averted a primary battle from the left.
For months, progressives were taking inventory of their talent, assessing whether anyone from their flank could pose a credible threat. But after a lot of wishing and whispering, most of that desire waned, sending Biden on a path to a drama-free spring launch as planned.
“Progressives have nowhere to go. They can’t torpedo Biden,” said Michael Ceraso, a Democratic strategist who worked on Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) and current Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaigns.
“If progressives are too aggressive, they’ll be isolated further,” he said.
Another Democratic strategist suggested that Biden’s dominance within the party has blunted others’ confidence in their electoral prospects. “I don’t think anyone thinks they can beat him. It’s a gambit,” the source said. “He’s the president of the United States. No one had a chance in hell.”
For now, Biden has two less visible Democratic opponents. Spiritual author Marianne Williamson, a progressive and Sanders ally, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., part of a political dynasty, both launched formal campaigns to take him on from the outside.
While political primaries can be unpredictable — Sanders’s credible challenge against Hillary Clinton took the party by storm in 2016 — most Democrats are anticipating another Biden nomination.
Democrats say clearing the way for him is just smart politics. There’s a GOP field forming, and everyone is waiting to see whether former President Trump is able to maintain his front-runner status. Dealing with a major intra-party opponent would complicate Democrats’ cohesion and create unnecessary headaches, some say.
“This is an opportunity for the Democrats to watch the Republican primary candidates go crazy at each other,” said Robert Wolf, the longtime Democratic donor who serves as the chairman of Community, a new texting platform that connects organizations with individuals. “Why would we put ourselves in the mix?”
Many within the party share that view. Left-wing lawmakers, including Sanders and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, have not wanted to send Biden packing, drawing a contrast with the 2020 primary, where liberals like Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) thought Biden was too centrist.
That changed over time, and progressives spent much of their bandwidth pushing him on policy, yielding some positive results. The sense that Biden and close advisors were willing to work with progressives helped establish trust, making the prospect of a big challenge from Capitol Hill less likely.
“We ‘settled’ on him because he’s done a ton of shit that is popular with every part of the Democratic Party and independents, and he is going to beat Trump again,” said Democratic strategist Eddie Vale, raising a closely held belief in Democratic circles that the next general election could be a Biden-Trump rematch.
“No one ran against him because they know it’s all just general Democratic complaining and no [actual] Democratic voters are going to vote for someone else in a primary,” Vale said.
The reality that Biden was proven to be the overwhelming choice for voters was a motivating factor for progressives, even among those thought to have national aspirations themselves.
One liberal House member, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), has gone to early states like South Carolina and New Hampshire and courted top party brass, raising questions about whether he would primary the president. But during a recent trip to Iowa, Khanna stressed that he supported Biden’s reelection bid ahead of the midterms — “before it became conventional wisdom,” he said, when talk about a potential rival was considered a little more serious.
Worried about how Biden’s standing with the public at low points of his term could affect candidates down the ballot, some in the progressive movement were discussing possible alternatives if he didn’t run again or if they could find a suitable challenger. But as the midterms went better than expected, many, including Khanna, believe the party should “not have a firing squad on someone who is going to be our nominee.”
“He’s our quarterback, and we need to rally around him,” he told The Hill.
Some also think forgoing a primary fight might have future policy payoffs. Several progressive wish-list items have taken a backburner as the economy and abortion rights have gained precedence. But they’ve seen the president push for their concerns before, and some are making calculations based on what they hope he can achieve in a second term.
An untested primary challenge could complicate that planning.
“Right now, their policy issues — voting rights, climate, criminal justice, etc. — are not on the minds of the electorate,” Ceraso said. “That means they can push hard to resurrect them now or wait for the beginning of a second term to deluge President Biden with election results that favored progressive candidates and expectations they have from them,” he said. “They are choosing the latter.”
The fact that no top-tier challenger has emerged is notable because polling has shown at various points of Biden’s presidency that voters would be open to another Democratic candidate at the top of the ticket.
In one survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research released in early February, most Democratic voters polled said they would prefer another candidate, with 37 percent supporting Biden for reelection.
Part of that desire is about his age. Biden is 80, and some have expressed wanting a younger candidate for the next term. Still, those arguments have mostly tapered off as his policy achievements stacked up.
“You can argue about his age, but arguing against deliverables is a steeper hill to climb,” Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist who serves as the director of the public policy program at Hunter College.
Among the two declared primary challengers, Kennedy, who is a prominent anti-vaccine advocate, has seen some initial signs of traction since launching his campaign last week. A USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll found that 14 percent of respondents who voted for Biden last presidential election support the newer candidate. Williamson had less than half of that support in the same poll, coming in at 5 percent.
Despite the outpouring of support, not all progressives are happy with his apparent reelection launch, with one prominent activist saying he is “determined to sleepwalk toward electoral disaster in 2024.”
“With Biden at the top of the ticket, the Democratic Party would represent the status quo at a time when ‘wrong track’ polling numbers are at an unprecedented high,” said Norman Solomon, who is one of several activists leading a grassroots movement to primary the president. “In 2024, Biden would be the incumbent — especially problematic if the economy is weak. In 2020, Trump was the incumbent and Biden narrowly won, thanks to massive progressive organizing in swing states. Next year, Biden would be the defender of an unpopular status quo.”
But any lingering appetite for another option hasn’t influenced most Democratic lawmakers, strategists, donors and even other activists’ planning. Many see him as in a strong position to start campaigning against a fractured GOP.
“We like to grumble — often to the media,” said Democratic strategist Christy Setzer. “We like to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But ultimately, we’re not stupid — we know Joe Biden has accomplished a lot in an impossible environment, and we know no one is better positioned to run, and win, in 2024.”