Staring into the Abyss, Biden Should Consider a New VP – Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

Democrats continue to wring their hands over Joe Biden’s rapidly deteriorating poll numbers – as well they should.  No incumbent has polled this badly in the history of the U.S. presidency – and Biden’s slide may only get worse in the weeks and months ahead.  Some White House apologists, most recently Simon Rosenberg, are urging Democrats to ignore the polls and stay the course, saying Biden’s re-election prospects are still bright.  But more than anything, it’s Biden’s age and obvious infirmity and the threat of a sudden succession crisis that cast a large shadow over his bid for a second term.

Should Biden pass from the scene, voters would be stuck with vice-president Harris as his successor.  It’s a horrifying prospect for most voters, including many Democrats.  Her overall approval rating among voters is a negative 24 points (a 33-57 spread) in one USA Today poll – far lower than Biden’s, which for the first time, is even lower than Trump’s (though both are negative).  Her approval rating fell a stark 7-10 points in 2023 alone.  In a hypothetical head-to-head contest with Donald Trump, sheloses – even worse than Biden does.  Though senior Democrats are reluctant to say so publicly, most see her as a campaign albatross.

Vice presidents, we are told by Harris defenders, are never popular, which is not quite true.  But Harris has long been unpopular, even among Democrats, which is why she fared so poorly in the 2020 primaries, and eventually dropped out.  The same dynamic has been apparent among voters at large. Her approval rating started at just below 50%, according to Gallup, but within weeks began to fade – and then continued to fade further, as her public stumbles mounted.  She’s hovered just below 40% for months before her latest slide. Right now she has the lowest approval rating of any VP in more than 50 years.

It didn’t help that Harris started her vice-presidency with a Vogue fashion shoot and seemed more interested in cultivating an “It” girl image than assuming anything resembling the responsibilities of her office.  More publicity ops followed, including videos of her cooking with her mother, highlighting her Indian-American roots.  Yes, she’s the first female vice president, but was that a good reason to start cultivating a traditional female domesticity persona – especially at a time when so many Americans were still suffering the ravages of COVID?

Harris defenders, including Nancy Pelosi, have suggested – cynically – that the VP role isn’t that consequential, statutorily, so why all this concern over Harris?  The VP presides over the Senate, and casts a deciding vote in the event of a tie, which Harris has done, in fact, more than once.  But it’s simply not true that VPs are still considered figureheads by the voters.  In fact, expectations for the VP role are much higher than they used to be.  Moreover, while some presidents have used their VP as a prop, the trend is clearly moving in the other direction, with VPs playing increasingly substantive roles, which is why Harris sticks out like a sore thumb for Democrats – and for Biden.

The upward trend started with Al Gore, who chaired a number of high-level commissions  under Bill Clinton, but the VP role ballooned into a virtual “co-presidency” with Dick Cheney under George W. Bush during the Iraq war.  The first George Bush under Ronald Reagan was also far more than a figurehead.  As a long-time intelligence warrior – and former CIA director – Bush set up a special office managed by his former CIA protege, Donald Gregg, to coordinate covert support to the Salvadoran army and the Nicaraguan contras, helping to ensure that the two forces had the wherewithal to survive, when Congress restricted US aid.  It was illegal but Bush, a master of “plausible denial,” managed to weather the ensuing scandal, and eventually ascended to the presidency.

Biden himself under Obama was also far more than a sidekick.  Using his influence with long-time Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle, he helped broker legislative deals, weighed in on Afghanistan policy and the Bin Laden raid (to his boss’ annoyance) and is still widely credited with pushing his boss to embrace gay marriage.

It’s also true that a weak VP choice can cost a presidential candidate – or a president seeking re-election.  Think of John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, a classic case of pandering to the party base – the evangelical right – that backfired with another broader constituency – women – in the general election.  In 1998, the first George Bush – now running for president – chose a young unknown conservative Republican senator Dan Quayle to help mobilize base voters behind his candidacy.  Bush was running on the coattails of one of the most popular presidents in recent decades – Ronald Reagan – and might have won anyway.  It certainly didn’t hurt.  But four years later, running for re-election, Quayle, like Harris, had a dismal reputation, having committed numerous gaffes while in office. He’d also never distinguished himself in the role, and much like Harris, was widely viewed as a liability.

Bush, of course, had his own liabilities – like Biden, an embarrassing tone deafness on the economy and its impact on working Americans.  But the idea of another four years with Quayle – and the threat of a weak succession – undoubtedly cost him, too – a lesson that Biden has so far failed to heed.

According to a 1994 book, several top Republicans, including top Bush campaign officials Robert Malek and Frederick Teeter, as well as ex-presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, tried to convince Bush to dump Quayle, arguing that he might doom the president’s reelection. Bush, it turns out, concurred with their assessment.  His preferred choice was Army Gen. Colin Powell, the highest ranking Black army officer in the country, who had strong bipartisan appeal.  But according to the book, Bush was reluctant to act. “He [didn’t object] in principle to the idea of doing Quayle in,” the authors wrote.  “But he didn’t want his fingerprints on the weapon. . . . He could not bring himself to be more than a passive actor in the drama, hoping against hope that Quayle would jump without having to be pushed.”

Quayle, of course, didn’t jump, and Bush lost in a near-landslide to Bill Clinton.

Whether Biden has ever considered dumping Harris is unknown.  It’s certainly possible given the documented antipathy between the two and their respective staff. In fact, though largely unreported, most of Harris’s top people have fled her inner circle, beginning with Symone Sanders in December 2021, sensing that their former boss has no real political future beyond the vice-presidency.  Some Democrats reportedly have been hoping that Harris, unlike Quayle, would read the writing on the wall, find a cushy job in academia or corporate America and politely exit on her own. That’s unlikely to happen, without a push from Biden, this late in the game.

Publicly, at least, most Democrats, still view Harris as a positive campaign asset – indeed, perhaps even more so in 2024, with Biden’s support among base constituencies, including African-Americans, slipping to historic lows.  Some polls now have Biden with less than 70% support among Black voters.  A Washington Post poll in November showed Biden with a shocking 50% support among Black voters, compared to 28% for RFK, Jr. and 13% for Trump.  Other polls have Trump as high as 17% among Black voters, far beyond the 12% he earned in 2020 – and on par with the record levelsachieved by Nixon in 1968 and 1972 and Ford in 1976.

These improved margins may be exaggerated, but they’re still large enough to tilt the balance in swing states with large Black voter groups – including Georgia, North Carolina, Michigan and Wisconsin – handing Trump the White House.  Biden’s dwindling Black support would therefore seem to be a good reason for retaining Harris, whatever her other faults.  Her supporters insist that she can help turn out Black voters – especially Black women, who haven’t drifted as far from Biden as Black men, polls show.

But can she, in fact? Harris may have helped on the margins in the 2022 midterms, but the stakes now are much larger, and her popularity with all voter groups, including Black voters, has dimmed considerably since then.  Two powerful Black media influencers – ESPN’s Stephan A. Smith and the Breakfast Club’s Charlamagne tha God, who were strong Biden supporters in 2020 – have made clear that they no longer support Biden as president –  and are urging him to step aside.  Yet neither man supports the idea of Harris taking his place.  In fact they’re both openly hostile to the idea.   In his latest broadcast, Charlamgne even apologizes to his followers for supporting Biden and Harris in 2020, flatly declaring: “It was a “mistake.”

There may be a way out of this jam – but it means Democrats and Biden need to turn a looming crisis into a potential opportunity.  Harris is a liability as VP – no question.  But replacing her doesn’t necessarily mean simply casting her aside – or “dumping” her – a move that could demoralize those in the party – and even outside the party – that envision a bright new future for Black women in national politics.  Were Haris to be scapegoated for the problems facing Biden’s re-election, it might further undermine the party’s prospects against Trump – or another potential GOP contender – in 2024.

What’s the alternative?  A “switcheroo.”  Have Harris leave the VP slot and be appointed to another top cabinet position – for example, Attorney General, for the remainder of Biden’s first term, and presumably his next also, should he win.  Merrick Garland, the current AG, has done an amazing job on a Biden-inspired “revenge tour” against Trump, spearheading a succession of legal cases that have resulted in 91 separate indictments against the former president.  But his mission is largely complete. He’s also still in line to become a Supreme Court Justice should one of the current members of the court – possibly Clarence Thomas – retire in the coming years.   Garland should willingly step aside and allow Harris to assume his position while awaiting a future appointment.

If Garland resigns, it could earn him considerable acclaim, and even kudos from disaffected Harris supporters.  It would also remove the chief lightning rod for criticism from Trump and other conservatives who view Garland — rightly so, perhaps – as the quiet mastermind behind the campaign to have the former president prosecuted and jailed for crimes committed before, during and immediately after his tenure as president.  Garland, unlike Harris, doesn’t need to be active in the 2024 campaign, and his resignation wouldn’t hurt the legal cases against Trump in the slightest.  But his absence from the scene might actually take some of the pressure off of the administration.  In fact, it might well leave conservatives flustered.  Without one of their favorite campaign targets – he’s still slated for a GOP impeachment push –  it could confuse and upend their own propaganda efforts.

On the other hand, naming Harris as Biden’s AG would actually elevate her stature by finally giving her a substantive role for which she is eminently qualified. Harris formerly served for six years as California’s attorney general, before being elected in 2017 as the state’s junior senator.  As AG, Harris could prove to be the perfect messenger for the president as he seeks to reposition the party closer to the political center on issues like crime and criminal justice reform.  Right now the president is trapped between his own moderate instincts – and past record supporting harsh police crackdowns on crime – and the demands from Black Lives Matter and other liberal advocacy groups to “defund the police” and eliminate or reduce harsh jail sentences for violent offenders, primarily African-Americans.

Harris is in a much better position to broker these constituencies – she’s done it in the past – not without criticism from the left, but with support from moderates and conservatives, the groups that currently seem to hold her in the greatest contempt. Biden is getting killed on crime politically, including among inner-city African Americans, and he needs to address the issue more forthrightly before the election.

It’s worth noting that many vocal Harris critics, including Charlamagne tha God, don’t completely blame the VP for her seeming effectiveness – they actually blame Biden and his team, for trying to use Harris as a campaign prop then thrusting her into high profile roles for which she was evidently unprepared.  Some have even accused Biden of either wanting Harris to fail or simply using her to deflect criticism from himself on contentious issues – especially immigration – for which his own policies are to blame.  A new role for Harris could win back key Black influencers whose support is badly needed in the trenches in Georgia and elsewhere, where the threat of a weak Black voter turnout – more than defection to Trump perhaps – could seriously damage Biden’s prospects in 2024.

What’s the final piece of this puzzle?  The new VP.  There are at least two Democratic officeholders that might be viewed as credible Harris successors.  The best, I think, is Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Whitmer has a serious executive track record and is popular with moderate voters as well as Democrats in her home state, which just so happens to be one of the key swing states in play in November.   And beyond Michigan, she may have special appeal to White working class voters, especially women, who have been tilting toward Trump throughout the Rust Belt, and nationally. Unlike Harris, Whitmer’s presence on the ticket could reassure voters of continuity in governing competence regardless of Biden’s own fortunes.  The “succession” issue might not disappear – but it would be muted and made far less damaging than it is currently with Harris.

It should be noted that Whitmer flirted with the idea of a 2024 presidential run before Biden announced formally he would seek re-election; in fact, she was widely considered – by Democrats and Republicans alike – as a leading contender.  Her performance in the 2022 midterms, where Democrats crushed Republicans en route to Whitmer winning a second term as governor, have allowed her star to rise.  Her approval rating – which exceeds 50% – is far higher than that of Gavin Newsom in California, who has seen his fortunes slide in recent months.

A Biden-Whitmer 2024 ticket might be just what Democrats need to preserve a sense of continuity, rather than trying to replace Biden, seemingly at the last minute during a contentious summer convention, with an alternate candidate that voters barely know.  Biden said in 2020 that he might serve as the placeholder for the party until a successor was ready.  Democrats need to admit that Harris, for all her flash, and really through no fault of her own, isn’t ready – but someone like Whitmer – a popular governor in a swing state, with serious chops – may well be.

Sounds far-fetched?  Hardly.  Many presidents have considered switching out their VPs with cabinet department holders – precisely to shore up their reelection bids. FDR in 1944 worried that Henry Wallace, with his left-wing leanings, would be viewed as too radical by moderate voters – and promptly replaced him.  JFK strongly considered dumping Lyndon Johnson before his reelection bid in 1964.  (Some conspiracy theorists think that’s one reason LBJ conspired to have JFK killed).  More recently, in 2011, Barack Obama, facing reelection, seriously considered asking Biden to step down in favor of Hillary Clinton, then his Secretary of State.  The two would have switched places – Biden would have gone to State – but in the end, Obama decided against the idea.

This is not a time for panic or bed-wetting – but it’s not a time for complacency, either.  Biden’s in deep trouble – and not the usual kind of trouble a first-term president faces, and then frequently overcomes.  No Democrat has faced disaffection – and indeed, the threat of mass defection – from key voter groups on this scale before.  Biden’s current trajectory is dangerous and could easily become, as it did for Jimmy Carter in 1980, a doom loop, in which pessimism feeds upon pessimism, and the downward disapproval trend keeps descending and at some point becomes – if it hasn’t already – almost irreversible.

Democrats need to inspire base voters to mobilize in 2024, which is already difficult with the current president so frequently sidelined, detached and unfocused – and seemingly unmoved by the plight of everyday Americans.  There’s a decided enthusiasm gap between Trump and Biden that strongly favors the former president.  A fresh face and voice – with a fresh appeal to disaffected voters – is needed. It must be someone who can speak to the current crisis from the trenches, with a semblance of emotional authenticity and gravitas. someone with the vision to inspire Democrats to show up and vote but also to convince a broader swath of the electorate that she can govern effectively in Biden’s absence.

Harris has charisma, no doubt.  But Democrats need to accept reality:  She is not prepared – in the short term, in the eyes of most voters – to assume the presidency.  And, like it or not, her continued presence in the VP slot is damaging Biden’s re-election prospects.  Would a switcheroo help?  It could, but it’s not a dump Harris maneuver – and certainly shouldn’t be billed that way.  It’s actually a bit of a feminist “two-for,” with Harris newly empowered and Whitmer giving the ticket – and the administration – extra heft.   Whitmer, unlike Harris, can serve as more than a mere campaign surrogate.  She can give the party a much stronger governing profile with voters looking for a good reason to defect from Trump – but wary of the possible consequences of a second Biden term, given his age and infirmity.

Voters in Michigan have weighed in previously on a head-to-head comparison of Trump and Whitmer’s governing competence – on handling the COVID crisis  back in 2020 – and Whitmer came out on top.  While she earned her share of criticism for instituting a tough mandatory lockdown, the Wolverine State emerged from the crisis in relatively good shape.  She’s also led the charge on climate issues but is viewed as more of a pragmatist than firebrand.  Her “Fix the Damn Roads” campaign successfully courted the state’s Republican voters.  She’s put together winning bipartisan coalitions on other issues that most Democrats can only dream of replicating in other rural states across the country. In fact, there was even a “Republicans for Whitmer” group helping her re-election campaign – which she won by a whopping ten points against a Trump-endorsed MAGA candidate.

In addition to her policy chops, and crossover appeal, Whitmer may also draw broad-based sympathy and support for another reason.  She has the distinction of having survived the threat of a right-wing militia group’s kidnap/assassination plot in June 2020.  The FBI foiled the plot – part of a pattern of violent right-wing attacks on female politicians – and the incident thrust Whitmer into the public limelight.  It’s a poignant reminder of just what the stakes are, and might be, if Trump and his minions take power again in 2024. Whitmer’s become a prime Trump political target but she’s potentially a heroine to anti-Trumpers everywhere.

Democrats need to shake off their lethargy and their complacency. Trump’s resurgence – which will likely continue if, as expected, SCOTUS blesses his candidacy for president – is dooming the party in 2024.  It’s not too late to change course – not radically, but enough to rally the troops, assuage legitimate voter concerns about succession, embrace the disaffected working class, which is critical in the swing states, and point the party and the country forward toward a brighter future.

In politics fortune favors the brave.  Simply soldiering on under current conditions – which clearly point to defeat – is cowardice, not courage.  Make no mistake:  a Trump/Haley GOP ticket, which seems increasingly likely, will be extremely formidable.  Biden/Whitmer could be the Democrats’ answer to the challenge.  Biden/Harris is a likely ticket to defeat.

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