WASHINGTON, D.C. — As the year 2022 comes to a close, President Joe Biden plans to deliver an upbeat national address with a unifying message Thursday afternoon.
People familiar with Biden’s plans say he will deliver a State of the Union address early in the new year and lay out his agenda for the second half of his term, leading up to a campaign announcement in February.
“Nobody since FDR had faced more challenges and uncertainty when they took office,” said Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary during Barack Obama’s first two years in office. “These two years are likely to be remembered in history books, and they are likely to be the pivotal focus of his re-election campaign in 2024.”
Despite the triumphalism that oozes from Biden’s speeches, he finds himself in an unenviable position: leading a party that is grateful to him for dethroning Donald Trump, but also eager for him to retire and hand the reins over to a younger generation.
According to a recent poll, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents still want a different nominee in 2024 by a margin of 59-40 percent.
The party’s relief at retaining the Senate and limiting House losses in the midterm elections has gradually given way to collective dread about what it would mean if Biden ran again. Democrats are concerned about two scenarios. The first scenario is that Biden runs and loses, possibly to a younger Republican opponent who overtakes Trump as the new Republican favourite. The second possibility is that he runs and wins, only to face the unrelenting pressures of office as he approaches his mid-80s.
“He’s 80. “He’ll be 82 when he runs and 86 at the end of his term,” said former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who served under President Bill Clinton. “I don’t mean to be ageist, but the public and press will scrutinise every minor slip and any evidence of his inability to perform.”
“Would he be a good president at 84 or 86 years old?” Reich carried on. “It’s impossible to say, but it’s a risk.”
Democrats continue to raise the possibility of Biden serving only one term, arguing that even in that limited time, he would have left an honourable legacy. His victory over Trump and his efforts to restore a sense of normalcy to the government after the former president shattered deep-rooted traditions will be remembered in history.
However, even an early Biden exit creates new complications. Under normal circumstances, Biden’s successor would be Vice President Kamala Harris, who, if elected, would become the first female president. However, she is polling as poorly as Biden, raising the prospect of a free-for-all in a Democratic primary race with no clear front-runner.
“All of this accounts for a profound sense of Democratic unease right now,” said a former Clinton White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Biden’s political viability more openly. “I agree with you.” The upbeat tone caps off a season in which Biden touted a string of hard-won legislative victories. According to sources, his goal has been to build enough momentum by the midpoint of his term to make a re-election bid appear unstoppable, even as many Democrats remain wary of rallying behind a party standard-bearer who recently turned 80.
The next two years will be fraught with uncertainty, thanks to the fragile economic recovery, the war in Ukraine, the prospect of Republican-led congressional investigations into Biden’s administration and family, and Donald Trump’s future within the Republican Party.
Biden sees opportunities in this volatile era.
If the Republican takeover of the House results in gridlock and protracted investigations, Biden aides plan to contrast any legislative inaction over the next two years with the bipartisan policy successes of the previous two. While House Republicans hold hearings into obscure conspiracy theories, Biden would be touring the country touting lower insulin prices and new road projects.
Americans will be left in no doubt that “the president and his administration prioritise their families, while Republicans prioritise his family,” a person close to Biden argued in an interview, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak freely.
For the time being, Biden is giving every indication that he is not prepared to resign.
His top aides have been privately meeting with left-wing interest groups, urging them to go out and highlight Biden’s record. One of his senior advisers, Mike Donilon, invoked one of Biden’s heroes, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was elected four times and whose portrait now hangs in the Oval Office, in a memo sent out this week. “In the midterm elections, President Biden became the first president since FDR in 1934 to not lose a single incumbent United States Senate seat,” Donilon wrote.
Democratic leaders state unequivocally that Biden has earned the right to run for president. He has passed many of the tests he has faced since taking office, despite governing at a time of intense polarisation. Biden rallied NATO allies after Russia invaded Ukraine, persuaded more people to get Covid-19 vaccines, and assisted in the recovery of an economy devastated by the pandemic. However, party lawmakers remain split on whether he should run one more time.
When discussing Biden’s future, senior Democrats use careful language. Senator 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 be there to support him.”
A separate challenge for Biden is convincing voters that the bills he has signed are making a visible difference in their lives. New public works projects are emerging, and a provision in the Inflation Reduction Act that caps insulin at $35 per month for Medicare recipients goes into effect in January.
“We believe the president had one of the most successful first two years of any president since FDR,” said a source close to Biden.
Most people appear to be sceptical of such comparisons. According to an NBC News poll conducted last month, more than 70% of those polled believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. Despite the smallest of Democratic majorities, voters aren’t necessarily impressed by the White House’s efforts to forge compromises on Capitol Hill.
“Given the closeness in the House and Senate, it’s a remarkable record,” Reich said. “Without that, it’s not out of the ordinary. In terms of accomplishments, I’d say it’s fairly typical of recent administrations.”
The White House is betting that once Republicans regain control of the House, the record will look even better. Republicans are preparing to launch an investigation into Hunter Biden’s business dealings. They also intend to impeach Biden’s homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, for his handling of border security.
When compared to Biden’s record over the last two years, Republicans risk coming across as vindictive and out of touch, which the White House and its outside allies will undoubtedly emphasise.
“I don’t think it’s going to work to their advantage as much as they think it does,” said Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University history professor who met privately with Biden at the White House in August with other historians. “They’ve been doing it since the ’80s. When you’re bored, investigate.”