It’s a year before the presidential election, and Democrats are panicking. Their incumbent is unpopular, and voters are refusing to give him credit for overseeing an economic rebound. Polls show him losing to a Republican challenger.
What’s true now was also true 12 years ago. Today, Democrats are alarmed by recent surveys finding that President Joe Biden trails Donald Trump in five key swing states. But they were just as scared in the fall of 2011, when President Barack Obama’s approval rating languished in the low 40s and a pair of national polls showed him losing to Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who would become the GOP nominee. Barely one-third of independent voters said Obama deserved a second term. A New York Times Magazine cover story asked the question on many Democrats’ minds: “Is Obama Toast?”
A year later, Obama beat Romney handily, by a margin of 126 in the Electoral College and 5 million in the popular vote. Those results are comforting to Democrats who want to believe that Biden is no worse off than Obama was at this point in his presidency. “This is exactly where we were with Obama,” Jim Messina, the former president’s 2012 campaign manager, told me by phone this week. For good measure, he looked up data from earlier elections and found that George W. Bush and Bill Clinton each trailed in the polls a year out from their reelection victories. Perhaps, Messina hoped, that would “calm my bed-wetting fucking Democratic friends down.”
Yet the comparison between Biden today and Obama in 2011 goes only so far. The most obvious difference is that Biden, who turns 81 this month, is nearly three decades older than Obama was at the time of his second presidential campaign. (He’s also much older than Clinton and Bush were during their reelection bids.) Voters across party lines cite Biden’s age as a top concern, and a majority of Democrats have told pollsters for the past two years that he shouldn’t run again. Obama was in the prime of his political career, an electrifying orator who could reenergize the Democratic base with a few well-timed speeches. Not even Biden’s biggest defenders would claim that he has the same ability. Put simply, he looks and sounds his age.
In a recent national CNN poll that showed Trump with a four-percentage-point lead over Biden, just a quarter of respondents said the president had “the stamina and sharpness to serve”; more than half said the 77-year-old Trump did. Privately, Democratic lawmakers and aides have fretted that the White House has kept the president too caged in for fear of a verbal or physical stumble. At the same time, they worry that a diminished Biden is unable to deliver a winning economic message to voters.
“The greatest concern is that his biggest liability is the one thing he can’t change,” David Axelrod, Obama’s longtime chief strategist, wrote on X (formerly Twitter) on the day that The New York Times and Siena College released polls showing Trump ahead of Biden by as much as 10 points in battleground states. “The age arrow only points in one direction.” Axelrod’s acknowledgment of a reality that many senior Democrats are hesitant to admit publicly, and his gentle suggestion that Biden at least consider the wisdom of running again, renewed concerns that the president and his party are ignoring a consistent message from their voters: Nominate someone else.
Tuesday’s election results, in which Democratic candidates and causes notched wins in Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio, helped allay those concerns—at least for some in the party. “It’s way too early to either pop the champagne or hang the funeral crepe,” Steve Israel, the former New York representative who chaired the Democrats’ House campaign arm during Obama’s presidency, told me on Wednesday. “Biden has the advantage of time, money, a bully pulpit, and, based on last night’s results, the fact that voters in battleground areas seem to agree with Democrats on key issues like abortion.”
The Biden campaign embraced the victories as the continuation of a trend in which Democrats have performed better in recent elections than the president’s polling would suggest. “Time and again, Joe Biden beats expectations,” the campaign spokesperson Michael Tyler told reporters Thursday morning. “The bottom line is that polls a year out don’t matter. Results do.”
The Democrats’ strength in off-year elections, however, may not contradict Biden’s lackluster standing in a hypothetical matchup against Trump. The political realignment since Obama’s presidency—in which college-educated suburban voters have drifted left while working-class voters have joined Trump’s GOP—has given Democrats the upper hand in lower-turnout elections. The traditionally left-leaning constituencies that have soured on Biden, including younger and nonwhite voters, tend to show up only for presidential votes.
As Messina pointed out, the overall economy is better now than it was in late 2011 under Obama, when the unemployment rate was still over 8 percent—more than double the current rate of 3.9 percent. But voters don’t seem to feel that way. Their biggest economic preoccupation is not jobs but high prices, and although the rate of inflation has come down, costs have not. Polling by the Democratic firm Blueprint found a huge disconnect between what voters believe Biden is focused on—jobs—and what they care most about: inflation. “It’s very alarming,” Evan Roth Smith, who oversaw the poll, told reporters in a presentation of the findings this week. “It tells a lot of the story about why Bidenomics is not resonating, and is not redounding to the benefit of the president.”
Nothing stirs more frustration among Democrats, including some Biden allies, than the sense that the president is misreading the electorate and trying to sell voters on an economy that isn’t working for them. “It takes far longer to rebuild the middle class than it took to destroy the middle class,” Representative Ro Khanna of California, a former Bernie Sanders supporter who now serves on an advisory board for Biden’s reelection, told me. “No politician, president or incumbent, should be celebrating the American economy in the years to come until there is dramatic improvement in the lives of middle-class and working-class Americans.” Khanna said that Biden should be “much more aggressive” in drawing an economic contrast with Trump and attacking him in the same way that Obama attacked Romney—as a supplicant for wealthy and corporate interests who will destroy the nation’s social safety net. “Donald Trump is a much more formidable candidate than Mitt Romney,” Khanna said. “So it’s a harder challenge.”
Just how strong a threat Trump poses to Biden is a matter of dispute among Democrats. Although all of the Democrats I spoke with predicted that next year’s election would be close, some of them took solace in Trump’s weakness as a GOP nominee—and not only because he might be running as a convicted felon. “Donald Trump, for all of his visibility, is prone to making big mistakes,” Israel said. “A Biden-versus-Trump matchup will reveal Trump’s mistakes and help correct the current polling.”
The New York Times–Siena polls found that an unnamed “generic” Democrat would fare much better against Trump than Biden would. But they also found that a generic Republican would trounce Biden by an even larger margin. “Mitt Romney was a much harder candidate than Donald Trump,” Messina told me. (When I pointed out that Khanna had made the opposite assertion, he replied, “He’s in Congress. I’m not. I won a presidential election. He didn’t.”)
None of the Democrats I interviewed was pining for another nominee, or for Biden to drop out. Representative Dean Phillips of Minnesota hasn’t secured a single noteworthy endorsement since announcing his long-shot primary challenge. Vice President Kamala Harris is no more popular among voters, and all of the Democrats I spoke with expressed doubts that the candidacy of a relatively untested governor—say, Gavin Newsom of California, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, or Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania—would make a Democratic victory more likely. Messina said that if Biden dropped out, a flood of ambitious Democrats would immediately enter the race, and a free-for-all primary could produce an even weaker nominee. “Are we sure that’s what we want?” Messina asked.
Others downplayed Biden’s poor polling, particularly the finding that Democrats don’t want him to run again. Their reasoning, however, hinted at a sense of resignation about the coming campaign. Israel compared the choice voters face to a person deciding whether or not to renew a lease on their car: “I’m not sure I want to extend the lease, until I looked at other models and realized I’m going to stick with what I have,” he explained. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut said that voters he talks to don’t bring up Biden’s age as an issue; only the media does. “I don’t know. He’s old, but he’s also really tall,” Murphy told me. “I don’t care about tall presidents if it doesn’t impact their ability to do the job. I don’t really care about presidents who are older if it doesn’t impact their ability to do the job either.” He was unequivocal: “I think we need Joe Biden as our nominee.”
For most Democrats, the debate over whether Biden should run again is now mostly academic. The president has made his decision, and top Democrats aren’t pressuring him to change his mind. Democrats are left to hope that the comparisons to Obama bear out and the advantages of incumbency kick in. Biden’s age—he’d be 86 at the end of a second term—is a fact of life. “You have to lean into it,” Israel told me. “You can’t ignore it.” How, I asked him, should Biden lean into the age issue? “I don’t know,” Israel replied. “That’s what a campaign is for.”