Democrats Debate Their Options: Should Biden Ignore Pressure to Step Aside?

In the wake of a series of devastating polls showing Donald Trump defeating Joe Biden in the battle for the White House in 2024, Democrats have taken to consoling themselves that past party incumbents, including both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, also faced stiff challenges three years into their first term in office but still went on to win re-election.

There’s some truth to this claim:  Not just first-term Democrats but also Republican ones, most notably, Ronald Reagan in 1983-84 and Bill Clinton in 1995-96, have looked headed for defeat only to rebound and earn a second term – usually by decisive margins.

In fact, there may be something close to an iron law operating in American politics that seems to doom first-term presidents to a collapse of bipartisan support not long after taking office.

Many come to power with considerable fanfare, and even broad-based appeal,  only to see their popularity decline, usually under the weight of economic travails combined with disappointment among the party faithful that their standard-bearer doesn’t quite measure up or has outright failed to fulfill a major campaign promise or two.

Obama, who took office with a 69% approval rating, faced this double-whammy in the fall of 2011, as continuing economic travails and pushback from his Latino supporters, angry over his failure to promote immigration reform, pushed his approval rating to 40%, the lowest of his presidency.

Obama faced real doubts about his ability to win re-election, which only grew after his dismal performance against GOP nominee Mitt Romney in their first nationally televised debate.  Even Obama’s hard-core female supporters began defecting in droves; some even considered crossing over to support Romney. It was shocking, but the rebellion proved short-lived

Obama rebounded.  A combination of good statecraft – an executive order granting legal status to the DREAMers – and good fortune – an economic upturn combined with Operation Sandy, which thrust Obama into the spotlight, showcasing his executive abilities – turned the tide.

It also helped that former president Clinton launched a one-man crusade to convince the country to-reelect the president.  Clinton delivered a rousing and robust defense of Obama’s first term achievements at the Democratic party convention in September 2022 then barnstormed across the swing states over the next two months to win back the wavering and the uncommitted.   Obama ended up winning handily.

Some leading Democrats,  most recently Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012  campaign manager, believe that Biden’s growing chorus of critics are over-reacting to the latest polls showing the president losing to Trump in the 2024 election.  Yes, the polls are bad, but “we’ve been here before,” he insists.  Obama won, and so will Biden.  In fact, he’s in better shape than his predecessor, says Messina

This is complete nonsense.  The malaise facing Biden is far deeper than Obama’s and far less amenable to remedy.

First, Obama did not face concerns over his age and physical health.  Many of the president’s doubters do support him and his policies, but they still harbor grave doubts about his ability to serve another term.  If anything those doubts will continue to grow in the coming year as more signs of Biden’s obvious infirmity appear.

Second, questions about Biden’s ethics and integrity, while generally ridiculed by his Democratic supporters, are beginning to take their toll on the president, as evidenced in latest polling.  Even a majority of Democrats now say that clear-cut evidence of influence peddling, especially in the Biden family’s dealings with China, will be sufficient reason for considering another candidate.

Obama, it will be recalled, faced no major scandal – “Fast and Furious,” while notably quickly passed – let alone an impeachment push, while in office.   Here again, the next 12 months are unlikely to be kind to Biden.  If anything, the drip-drip of new revelations and the fanning of the impeachment flames by the conservative media will further  weaken the president’s standing.  And an actual impeachment vote will sting, just as it did with Trump

In 2016, with Hillary Clinton, Democrats learned the hard way what happens when their own standard-bearer’s negatives are on par with her Republican opponent’s.  It cancels out whatever positives she might otherwise enjoy. Clinton and the Democrats ignored their candidate’s deepening scandal – just as Democrats are doing now with Biden – and they paid for it.  Clinton completely lost the moral high ground.  In the end, voters saw no real reason to prefer her over Trump

Biden faces a third major threat that is also out of his hands: the challenge posed by third-party candidates.  Despite persistent efforts by Democrats to dismiss this threat, it is serious and growing. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Cornel West are capturing a share of the electorate not seen since H. Ross Perot ran virtually neck-and-neck with Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush in 1992.  Recent polls suggest that Biden, on balance, is suffering slightly more than Trump at the hands of RFK, Jr. and West combined.  But if you add a No Labels candidate like Joe Manchin to the mix, even more Democrats are likely to defect, which in tight swing state races, could tilt the entire election to Trump.

The magnitude of the challenge Biden faces far exceeds anything Obama confronted in 2012.  For a while, there was talk that a dissident Democrat might challenge Obama in the primaries but it disappeared almost as quickly as it surfaced. By contrast, Biden has already faced an initial primary threat from RFK, Jr. (prior to his declaration of an independent candidacy) and more recently from Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN).  Phillips may pose a brief challenge to Biden in New Hampshire assuming Biden chooses not to run and Phillips ends up winning by default.  But Phillips may be damaging the president far more by hammering away at his age and questioning his fitness to govern through a second term.

But the challenge from RFK, Jr. – even as an independent – is actually far more threatening.  The latest New York Times/Siena poll has RFK, Jr beating both Biden and Trump among young voters and among independents.  Kennedy’s also within single digits of both men among all voters in a number of the critical swing states.   Not since H. Ross Perot ran neck and neck with George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton back in 1992 – before dropping out and ending up with 19% of the vote –  have we witnessed a third-party candidacy on this scale and with this degree of resonance within the broad electorate.

Were RFK, Jr. Biden’s only challenger, he might well benefit from his presence in the race, just as Clinton probably did thanks to Perot’s presence in 1992. Polls seem to indicate that now that RFK, Jr. is no longer running as a democratic dissident, he is pulling far more from Trump than Biden.  For example, an NPR/PBS poll conducted in early October showed Biden’s lead of 3 points over Trump ballooning to 7 with RFK, Jr. in the mix.  However, that advantage largely disappears with the other third-party candidates considered.

But RFK could also conceivably win a state outright – something Perot never did –  and if so, it’s possible that neither of the two main candidates will get to the 270 electoral votes needed to claim victory.  If so, the election will be decided in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which means Trump would emerge the victor.

For Democrats these are not happy scenarios.  The problem for Biden is that all of these threats are likely to grow worse in the months ahead.  Even the economy, which may not be as bad off as the president’s critics suggest – and most voters feel – might deteriorate.  Some economists still hope that inflation, which has cooled somewhat from its 40-year high in 2022, will continue to subside, allowing Biden to claim a victory of sorts.  But many others say the long-predicted recession is coming, just in time to dash his chances in 2024.   In any event, lower-income Americans are bearing the brunt of home foreclosures, skyrocketing rents and evictions and high food and gas prices.   If it’s still  the “Economy, Stupid,” Biden and the Democrats may well be screwed on this front, too.

Messina, like many Democrats, thinks Biden’s main problem isn’t his policies – which he deems a major success – but the public’s perception of them.  So, the solution is how to alter public perception – not to change course.  Biden does have a large campaign war chest – $71 million, by the latest estimates – to finance TV ad blitzes highlighting his message that the economy is working much better than voters – actually looking at their pocketbooks – know it to be.  Biden can also, as Obama did, make specific policy gestures and offer special incentives to aggrieved constituencies,  In 2012, Obama decided to issue an executive order providing temporary legal status to the DREAMers, and virtually overnight, his Latino supporters returned to the fold.  He also continued to draw sharp contrasts with Romney on racial issues, a strategy that has worked well for Democrats when their own candidates were White, but with Obama, barely needed reiterating to pay dividends at the polls.

That’s another huge difference between 2012 and 2024 that Messina seems to miss completely.  Biden is facing defections not just from Hispanics – on a massive scale, according to recent polling – but also from African Americans, especially Black men.  Amazingly, about half of each of these voter groups now supports Trump, which could spell disaster for Biden in Hispanic-rich swing states like Arizona and Nevada as well as swing states with large Black voting constituencies, like Georgia and North Carolina.  Biden carried Arizona, Nevada and Georgia in 2020    But recent swing state polls have Trump beating Biden in 6 of 7 critical swing states, in some cases by double digits. That’s enough to tilt the Electoral College – and the presidency – to the former president by a wide margin.

Could Biden rebound?  In theory, perhaps.  But Messina, like many Democrats, is vastly underestimating the scope of the challenge, especially in light of the mounting and compounding challenges that Biden now faces.  Even accepting some of the inherent advantages conferred by incumbency – and a certain inertia among the electorate when it comes to tossing out incumbents – Biden has no reason to assume that conditions still naturally favor his re-election. Even with a war chest that could well exceed Trump’s. he has no ground game or field operation to match his opponent’s to say nothing of the sheer grassroots fervor – and persistent media attention – that a plethora of vibrant third-party candidates will likely generate. Surrogates can help, but voters want to see their candidate in the flesh.  And it’s not clear that Biden – already challenged by foreign diplomatic travel – has the stamina to campaign for his re-election in any way that voters would find compelling.  Simply campaigning from the basement, which might have been justified, in part, during COVID, won’t pass muster with voters in 2024, especially those in need of the most reassurance.

The fact is, perceptions of Biden’s basic leadership abilities aren’t likely to improve that much, if at all, in the months ahead.

While Democrats like Messina are loath to admit it, Trump enjoys some important advantages over the president, including a track record in office that a majority of voters now seem to recall – however, nostalgically perhaps – as superior to Biden’s.  On the economy and on foreign policy, crime and immigration, most voters – including, critically, most independents – now trust Trump more than Biden.  If voters were so concerned about Trump’s role in the events of January 6, 2021, or other acts of possible criminal wrongdoing they would have registered that discontent by now.  In some ways they have – in Trump’s low favorability ratings –  but to the Democrats’ chagrin, it hasn’t changed voter assessment of the two men’s relative governing abilities.  Democrats may be hoping that an actual conviction will move the needle in Biden’s direction; it might, but probably not as much as they hope.

So why not replace Biden?  In one fell swoop Democrats would solve two of the biggest problems they currently face – the president’s age, and his deepening corruption scandal.  They might also eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, the third party challenge. A fresh nominee – Gavin Newsom, of course, readily comes to mind– would reset the political landscape virtually overnight.  It would also galvanize the party base and give Democrats renewed vigor for battle.  Indeed, it might well electrify the entire country which at present, is deeply disgusted with the options that both parties are currently providing the voters.  It would be a clear and unmistakable sign yet that Democrats – unlike Republicans – have the courage to inspire a new generation of Americans to step up and lead.

Messina’s right:  Democrats shouldn’t panic.  Instead, they should soberly face the facts – and take pre-emptive action.   Biden never promised to serve more than one term.  In fact, he strongly hinted that he wouldn’t and was prepared to step aside.  For the good of the party and for the good of the nation, it’s time that he did.  The details can be worked out, and a soft landing assured.  Removing Kamala Harris from the equation can also be arranged.  She might even stay on as VP if a more promising Democratic nominee can be found.

Breaking tradition and replacing an incumbent mid-stream is risky, of course.  But it’s less risky than standing still and watching the current standard-bearer sink himself and his party into oblivion.  If Democrats really believe the country deserves better than Trump, then it’s time they really showed it and earned back the respect of voters across the spectrum who feel the country’s being poorly served and who have a right to demand better from their leaders.

Stewart Lawrence is a long-time Washington, DC-based policy consultant.  He can be reached at