Over the last month, beginning with his energetic and effective State of the Union address, Joe Biden has successfully launched his reelection campaign without anyone really noticing.
The president’s arduous, secret-mission trip to Kyiv did more to quiet concerns about an octogenarian president than any doctors’ letters from the entire Mayo Clinic ever could. Biden’s pilgrimage to Selma, Alabama, for the fifty-eighth anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” reminded Black voters, his most loyal supporters, that he had not forgotten them.
Like every president running for reelection (aside from Donald Trump), Biden has tacked to the center in an effort to limit his vulnerabilities for 2024. Worried about a soft-on-crime image, Biden abandoned home rule for the District of Columbia in advance of a Senate vote repudiating the city’s revision of its criminal code. To quiet Republican attacks on “open borders,” the administration appears poised to reinstate the Trump-era policy of holding migrant families in detention centers. And in introducing his air-castle, never-to-be-enacted budget Thursday, the once free-spending Biden stressed a proposed $2 trillion reduction in the deficit.
Biden has also silenced most doubts about his intention to run for a second term that, should he win, would carry him through his eighty-sixth birthday. It was Jill Biden who actually did most of the heavy lifting. In a late February interview with the Associated Press while in Kenya, she made clear that her husband was determined to run again in 2024: “He says he’s not done. He’s not finished what he started.” Asked about Biden’s age as a reason to bow out, the first lady responded with exasperation, “How many times does he have to say it for you to believe it?”
The expectation is that Biden will officially declare for a second term in April, at the same point on the political calendar as when Barack Obama in 2011 and Bill Clinton in 1995 announced for reelection.
But seriously, what’s the rush? In fact, there is a compelling political argument for Biden to wait until the summer—or even later—to declare for a second term.
Neither Clinton (who merely sent a letter to the Federal Election Commission) nor Obama (who released a video) gained any political points from the lackluster kickoffs of their reelection campaigns. There is no legal obligation to jump in so early: Ronald Reagan waited until late January 1984 to ask the voters in a five-minute Oval Office speech (paid for by his reelection campaign) for “your continued support and cooperation in completing what we began three years ago.”
It would be one thing if there were serious doubts about Biden’s intentions. Whatever the political wisdom of Biden pushing the boundaries of the appropriate age to be president, most Democrats accept it as an inevitability. A national Morning Consult poll of Democrats, released this week, found that Biden bests his only declared challenger, the ethereal spiritual adviser Marianne Williamson, by more than 70 percentage points. More relevant than the pro-guru vote, only 9 percent of Democrats opted for “someone else.”
The strongest argument for Biden’s reelection is his competence and comfort level in the White House. The longer that Biden delays making his 2024 plans official, the longer he can continue to serve as president without every event being seen only through the narrow prism of reelection. Being free of political demands also allows Biden to revel in foreign travel, which underscores both his energy and his resolute support of Ukraine.
The weakest strand of the president’s reelection campaign will, alas, be Biden as a partisan orator. Never that compelling a public speaker even during the 1980s, at this stage of his career Biden is unlikely to win many votes because of anything he says on the campaign trail. Biden insiders believe that the president actually benefited in 2020 from his limited campaign schedule because of the pandemic.
The best way to replicate the successful 2020 campaign would be for Biden to treat the presidency as his exclusive job for as long as possible. With Donald Trump trying to return from his Elba at Mar-a-Lago, and with Ron DeSantis fast becoming Florida’s version of Cotton Mather, the Democrats will not need an official, 19-month Biden campaign starting in April 2023 to arouse the party’s base in November 2024.
Biden has never been a strong fundraiser, which adds a cost-saving rationale for delaying setting up a formal campaign. A president running for reelection cannot start off with a four-person campaign staff working out of a Starbucks for the free Wi-Fi. Once Biden officially declares, there immediately will be a hefty bill for staff salaries and consultant fees that will only escalate in 2024. The campaign will also have to pick up some of Biden’s travel costs (Air Force One is not a budget airline), since more trips than usual will be considered political.
All these expenses will require Biden to schedule time for campaign fundraisers and the courting of major donors. These trips, whether to New York or California, will be charged to the campaign, thereby prompting the necessity for more fundraisers. Even with the frugality imposed by the pandemic, the 2020 Biden campaign raised and spent about $1 billion. Given the larger financial demands of the 2024 reelection race, the longer that Biden can delay the campaign kickoff, the more money the Democrats can direct toward the final months when swing voters will be making their decisions.
An April launch to the reelection race would invariably complicate the communications strategies of the Biden team. The precise division of responsibility between the White House press office and its counterparts in the campaign will have to be worked out as they go. But as a general rule, the more people who are speaking for the president, the more muddled the message.
A formal candidate announcement by Biden will not protect Democrats from what they fear most: a presidential health scare that scrambles the calculus for 2024. That will always be the risk that accompanies a Biden quest for a second term into his mid-eighties. And if somehow Biden, at the last minute, cannot run, we are still 11 months away from the February 3 South Carolina primary, which will serve as the officially sanctioned kickoff of the Democratic nomination calendar.
The danger is that the Biden team will plan an April campaign rollout for no reason other than that is what is expected of them. But yielding to inertia and journalistic impatience is a weak starting point for Biden: The Sequel. Especially when President Biden is so much more compelling a political figure than Candidate Biden.