Joe Biden returned to the campaign trail on Saturday for a rally with union members in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the first major political event for the US president since he announced his re-election bid in April.
Biden, who grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, received a warm welcome from the crowd. But there are fears among Democrats that there is a lack of enthusiasm for the 80-year-old president’s bid for a second term.
Biden faces no serious challengers for his party’s nomination in 2024. The only two Democrats to launch primary campaigns against him so far are environmental lawyer and vaccine sceptic Robert F Kennedy Jr and self-help author Marianne Williamson, who election experts say have no real path to the party’s nomination.
Yet national opinion polls show that combined, the two candidates command the support of more than 20 per cent of the Democratic electorate, while Biden battles persistently low approval ratings. According to the FiveThirtyEight website’s average of national opinion polls, 40.6 per cent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing, while 54.9 per cent disapprove.
“There is weakness there for Biden, no doubt,” said Kyle Kondik of the non-partisan University of Virginia Center for Politics, who pointed to several recent surveys showing a majority of Democratic voters would prefer someone other than Biden as the party’s nominee in 2024.
“There is risk to the party in there being a competitive primary,” Kondik added. “But there is also a risk if Biden just coasts to the nomination, and is still in a weak political position in the fall of the election year.”
Biden allies argue that having defeated Donald Trump once already, he is best positioned to take on his predecessor in 2024. However, several recent opinion polls — including one out this week from the Economist and YouGov — show Biden and Trump in a statistical tie in a hypothetical head-to-head contest.
Wayne Lesperance, a political-science professor and president of New England College in New Hampshire, a key early voting state in the Democratic primary race, said there was “real nervousness” among local party activists about Biden being the presumptive nominee.
Many warn that Biden could face an embarrassing, if largely symbolic, loss to Kennedy in both New Hampshire and Iowa if those states press ahead with their early nominating contests, despite the Democratic National Committee’s efforts to change the calendar to have South Carolina go first. Biden’s team has suggested he will not be on the ballot in Iowa and New Hampshire if they defy the calendar changes.
Kennedy — the son of the late Senator Robert F Kennedy — has espoused conspiracy theories that are largely rejected by mainstream Democrats, including members of his own family. Analysts say his relatively high polling numbers — he has the backing of 16 per cent of grassroots Democrats, according to the latest Real Clear Politics average — are in part thanks to his famous family name, coupled with positive coverage from conservative media outlets.
But they also acknowledge that at least some element of his support is a reflection of Democratic voters looking for an alternative to Biden.
“I don’t know if it goes so far as to say buyer’s remorse, but there is certainly concern that by sticking with Joe Biden, are Democrats putting themselves in jeopardy of not winning the White House again?” Lesperance said. “There is always a reference back to age and ability . . . every time there is a video of him tripping or falling, it just feeds into that.”
Biden earlier this month tripped on a sandbag and fell to his knees on stage at a graduation ceremony at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado. The stumble fuelled public attacks from Republicans and private hand-wringing among Democrats already nervous about Biden running for another term that would finish in 2028, when he will be 86 years old.
“We hope and wish Joe Biden a swift recovery from any injuries he may have sustained, but we also wish the United States of America a swift recovery from the injuries it has sustained because of Joe Biden and his policies,” Ron DeSantis, the 44-year-old Republican governor of Florida, said in a campaign speech in New Hampshire after the fall.
DeSantis is polling in a distant second place behind Trump, 77, in an increasingly crowded field of Republicans vying to be their party’s nominee in 2024.
On Thursday, DeSantis goaded Gavin Newsom, the Democratic governor of California, to enter the race and challenge Biden.
“Stop pussyfooting around. Are you going to throw your hat in the ring and challenge Joe? Are you going to get in and do it?” DeSantis said to a laughing crowd, referring to Newsom. “Or are you just going to sit on the sidelines and chirp?”
Newsom, 55, is in his second term as governor of California, and often cited as a future Democratic presidential hopeful. After he easily won re-election in last November’s midterms, he set up a new fundraising vehicle using leftover money from his 2022 campaign.
Newsom has repeatedly said that he is not running for president, and endorsed Biden’s bid for another term. This week, he appeared on Fox News for an interview with Trump ally Sean Hannity and praised Biden’s record in office.
But Newsom also said he would be willing to participate in a public debate against DeSantis, and slightly hesitated when pressed by Hannity about “how many times” his phone “ping[s] a day” with people calling for him to enter the 2024 race.
“I’m not answering,” Newsom replied.
Newsom is not the only Democratic governor whose name is floated as a potential presidential candidate. Gretchen Whitmer, who was re-elected in 2022 by an 11-point margin in the swing state of Michigan, is also seen as a rising star in the party.
But Whitmer is an official co-chair of Biden’s re-election campaign. While she set up her own fundraising vehicle — the “Fight Like Hell Pac” — this week, her advisers insist that the money raised by the political action committee can only be spent to support Biden and other Democratic candidates, and not on a hypothetical Whitmer campaign.
Analysts say Democrats’ continued unity behind Biden is explained in part by the party’s better than expected performance in last year’s midterms.
“He has done a lot to not only clean up after Donald Trump, but also keep his campaign promises,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston-based Democratic operative. “I think that we will see a shift in the polls the more that Joe Biden, the White House and surrogates get out there and start telling that story more and more.”