Skip to content

Biden is not the candidate Democrats want voters to focus on

A referendum on an unpopular president does not give Democrats the upper hand

President Joe Biden is increasingly the focus of the 2024 presidential race, which is not advantageous to his campaign, Stuart Rothenberg writes.
President Joe Biden is increasingly the focus of the 2024 presidential race, which is not advantageous to his campaign, Stuart Rothenberg writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

President Joe Biden has done something I assumed was almost impossible: He has made the 2024 election more about himself than about former President Donald Trump.

A presidential election is usually either a referendum on the sitting president or a choice between two nominees.

If it is a referendum and the president is popular and successful, the president and his party generally do well. If the incumbent president is unpopular (for whatever reason), voters usually send a message of dissatisfaction by throwing out the incumbent or punishing his party at the polls.

If an election is a choice between two very different nominees or two different agendas, an unpopular president can win reelection by making his opponent even more unpopular than he is.

Biden’s best chance of winning a second term and improving his party’s numbers in Congress would be to frame the election as a choice between a narcissistic, nasty authoritarian who would, if reelected, threaten American democracy (Trump) and an aging president who shuffles when he walks and looks stiff but is kind, empathetic and still capable of running the country (Biden).

Unfortunately for Democrats and anti-Trumpers, questions about Biden’s mental capability and age have political handicappers and journalists focusing on Biden’s shortcomings and lapses, not on Trump’s lies and lunacy.

Trump, in fact, has become almost invisible over the past 10 days as the national media have become obsessed with Biden’s health, his electability and his vice president’s political future. The only way for Democrats to regain some momentum in the race is to make Trump once again their focus, and the only way to do that is to put Trump under the microscope.

Initially, I wondered whether Biden might survive the damage. While his campaign’s response was far too slow, his plan to have multiple public events seemed like a reasonable strategy.

But while Biden’s debate performance on June 27 was terrible, his interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on July 5 wasn’t that much better. It certainly didn’t help him or his party. 

Biden insisted that he is running for reelection, ignored national and state polls that strongly suggest he has lost ground when matched against Trump, and, in the final exchange, he seemed to say that he was more interested in his own legacy than in the country’s future.

Savvy Democrats now worry that unless the incumbent president gets out of the 2024 contest, most of the media coverage from now on will focus on Biden, not Trump.

Allies of Biden continue to complain that the media should compare him with Trump, not with the Almighty. That’s a clever line, but it doesn’t address Biden’s problem or answer questions about his mental acuity.

The president simply has not acknowledged his frailty and accepted the fact that he can’t guarantee he will be able to serve another four years as commander in chief. 

It doesn’t matter how many “good” events Biden has over the next few months. He isn’t likely to be perfect on the stump, and any instance in which he falls short of perfection will encourage more scrutiny and concern about his electability and his party’s performance in the congressional elections. And, of course, it will divert attention from Trump.

If Biden’s performance changes the focus of 2024, turning it from a referendum on Trump to a choice between Biden and Trump, the only way to alter the trajectory of the election is to change the Democratic nominee.

And if stopping Trump is as important to Biden as he says it is, exiting the race is just the kind of step that he should take.

With Biden no longer the Democratic standard-bearer in November, Democrats can once again try to make the election the choice they initially wanted.

Yes, Vice President Kamala Harris would be the likely Democratic nominee, and she is not without political baggage. But she is not unacceptable to many voters the way an elderly Biden is, and she would bring some assets with her, including her age and potential appeal to core Democratic constituents.

Biden’s exit from the presidential race wouldn’t guarantee anything for his party. Harris could lose. But a Harris-Trump contest would at least give Democrats an opportunity to make 2024 about Trump’s weaknesses and flaws. With Biden as the Democratic nominee, that’s not possible.