If you were a particularly optimistic White House official, you might have latched onto a glimmer of good news that came amid a raft of terrible polling news that has engulfed the Biden administration in recent weeks. Sure, Biden is hemorrhaging support amid his own party, thanks to persistent inflationary conditions and his administration’s anemic response to a series of crises. Yes, 64 percent of respondents in the latest New York Times/Siena College poll said that they would prefer someone else run for president—a figure that rises to more than 90 percent among 18-to-29-year-olds. But there was hope! Voters would nevertheless turn out for Biden in a hypothetical matchup against Donald Trump, albeit without much enthusiasm: Biden would win a contest against his predecessor 44 percent to 41 percent.
Just because someone might prefer a hypothetical alternative to Biden doesn’t mean they have a candidate in mind—nor does it mean that a competitor, once revealed, will stir the passions as strongly as the ideal candidate they might have imagined. Were Biden to compete against the same set of primary foes he faced in 2020, it could very well produce the same outcome, with voters recognizing that an 81-year-old Biden is still their party’s best standard-bearer. In that sense, Democrats may want an alternative to Biden in the same way that I would like to dunk a basketball—it’s a nice idea in theory but highly unlikely in practice.
In the short term, this is a silver lining for Democrats. But it still points to a looming problem down the road: not just the lack of enthusiasm among the Democratic base for their current standard-bearer but the lack of compelling options for president outside of Biden. Kamala Harris is probably the closest thing to an anointed heir, but her fortune is very closely tied to the Biden administration’s success. And she needs Biden to succeed: Her own primary campaign fizzled out too fast to leave many lasting memories, and her recent forays into public communication have only been memorable for the way they ended in Sarah Palin–esque servings of word salad. (There has also been persistent patter in Washington suggesting that she’s not won the affection of Democratic elites, though this says more about the character of those who whisper about her behind closed doors than it does about her.)
Right now, the two closest runners-up from the 2020 Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, share what is arguably Biden’s biggest flaw: They’re old. Sanders is a year older than the president; Warren will be 76—younger, to be fair, than Biden was when he was sworn in—in 2024. Pete Buttigieg has shown aptitude as the administration’s ambassador to Fox News, but there’s little evidence that voters are clamoring for him to be the new face of the party. Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar failed to resonate two years ago, and there’s little reason to believe they would now. Julián Castro seems to have been frozen out of the party’s upper echelon. Kirsten Gillibrand, who’s now way, way into cryptocurrency, probably should be frozen out. Michael Bloomberg got murked.
Those outside of the 2020 candidates don’t fare much better. The main prospects are either largely unknown (North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, Colorado Governor J.B. Polis) or little known (Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer), or they are known for recent electoral struggles (New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy). Gavin Newsom has a larger profile but is also Gavin Newsom. None seem to have the transformational aura that helped propel Barack Obama to the party’s nomination in 2008; the profiles of Whitmer and Pritzker, in particular, are rising, but they’ve a ways to go before they can garner more enthusiasm than Biden is now. As I argued back in June, there’s little reason at this point to believe that replacing Biden at the top of the ticket is plausible, even if it might be theoretically appealing.
But even if Democrats don’t want to do something as drastic as replace Biden as their nominee, they need to start planning for a future and identifying the next generation of key figures. The party’s leadership is ancient: By 2024, both Biden and Nancy Pelosi will be in their 80s (Pelosi is currently 82). Democrats’ support among young voters is crumbling amid a lack of action on climate change and student loan debt. The party’s bench, particularly in red and purple states, has been decimated by electoral wipeouts in 2010 and 2014; the party’s most dynamic candidates, particularly Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, would be anathema to its current leadership and haven’t built the sort of national profile that wins you a presidential nomination. Few other contenders exist at the moment.
There are ways to rectify this, and most of them involve getting back out into the hinterlands to reconnect with voters and discover those Democrats who’ve earned their trust. A revival of the “50-state strategy” that was so vital toward winning back Congress in 2006 seems like a great place to start. Democrats can afford to spend more time connecting with voters outside of the urban professional class—the party really should have more to offer rural voters than it does right now. It should also be mindful that a big part of the Obama-era electoral wipeout happened way, way down the ballot: Democrats lost more than 950 state legislative seats during that time. It’s no wonder their bench isn’t as deep as it could be, nor is it surprising that there is a huge absence of fresh faces nearer to the spotlight. Right now, the party is also dominated by stars who are either old or have already served in office: Biden, Pelosi, Sanders, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton—the list goes on.
Democrats are left with problems that compound each other. They are stuck with Joe Biden who, at least right now, no one seems to be particularly thrilled about. And they’re also stuck with Joe Biden because the gerontocratic elites that have dominated the party for decades haven’t made it a priority to identify the next wave of leaders. Democratic voters say they’d still back Biden in 2024, but it’s abundantly clear that they desperately want just to be excited again. Maybe if they started bringing the future into view alongside Biden, the party could do more than merely slouch into an uncertain 2024.