WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden exudes confidence as the next race for the White House approaches.
During last month's State of the Union address, he lured unruly Republicans into agreeing with him that federal entitlements should be protected. He's intensified travel outside Washington, trumpeting job-creation in Wisconsin and steep federal health care spending to Florida seniors while touting a trillion-dollar public works package that he says can do everything from revitalize Baltimore's port to easing train tunnel congestion under the Hudson River.
And he used spy-thriller tactics to sweep into war-scarred Ukraine.
For most presidents, these are powerful elements to include as the centerpiece of a reelection campaign — pledging to protect people and the economy at home and democracy in the heart of Europe. But, with the famously fickle 80-year-old Biden stopping short of officially declaring his 2024 candidacy, he's leaving just enough room to back out of a race and focus instead on using such moves to cement his legacy.
“I look at Biden from the outside, as a historian, and say, ‘Boy, if he stepped away now, his place in history is secure and extraordinarily positive,’” said Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “That’s how a normal person thinks about these things. That’s not how a president thinks about these things.”
Those close to Biden insist he's not legacy shopping and that he will announce a campaign, likely after the first quarter campaign fundraising period ends this month. The party has cleared a path for Biden's renomination with rivals from his left, including Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, pledging to support the president's reelection.
Bestselling self-help author Marianne Williamson is formally launching a primary challenge to Biden on Saturday that's largely being shrugged off by the party.
The Democratic National Committee has unanimously expressed “our full and complete support” for Biden's reelection. Party leaders aren't planning primary debates, arguing there's no longer enough time to even build out a debate schedule that would pit Biden against Williamson or anyone else.
In an interview last week with The Associated Press, first lady Jill Biden said there was “pretty much” nothing left for the president to do but pick a time and place to announce his reelection bid.
“How many times does he have to say it for you to believe it?” she asked.
Still, there are signals that even if the prevailing assumption among most Democrats is that Biden will seek another term, the decision isn't yet final. Even Jill Biden was more muted in subsequent interviews when assessing her husband's political future.
“It’s Joe’s decision,” she told CNN, noting that she's personally “all for it.”
“If he’s in, we’re there," she added. "If he wants to do something else, we’re there too.”
After the AP interview, the president joked to ABC that he needed to call his wife “to find out” if he was running again.
His intention “has been from the beginning to run," the president told the network. "But there’s too many other things we have to finish in the near term before I start a campaign.”
While Biden's standing among Democratic officials is solid, actual voters seem more wary. A recent poll from the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found just 37% of Democrats want Biden to seek a second term, down from 52% in the weeks before last year’s midterm elections.
Biden's age has been a leading concern since the early days of his first campaign. Already the oldest president in U.S. history, he'd be 86 by the end of a second term, should he win one.
If Biden were to eschew a run, the biggest question is whether the party could quickly coalesce around someone else. Much of the initial focus would shift to Vice President Kamala Harris, who has already said that she expects to remain on a Biden ticket in 2024. But she was notably in South Carolina this week, promoting the administration's efforts to expand broadband access.
The state is politically significant, however, after Democrats moved South Carolina's primary to the front of their primary calendar at Biden's behest.
Other Democrats outside Washington have worked to gingerly build national profiles without offending Biden. They include California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has positioned himself as a foil to Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, seen as a leading alternative to former President Donald Trump in the 2024 GOP presidential primary.
While Biden's plans are under intense scrutiny, the Republican presidential field has also been slow to form. So far, there are just four official entrants — Trump, former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and Michigan businessman Perry Johnson. Others, including former Vice President Mike Pence, ex-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, may join in the coming months. Some, such as DeSantis, could wait until late summer to officially announce their campaigns.
For his part, Biden has a history of dithering. He agonized over whether to seek the presidency in 2004 and 2016 before ultimately deciding to sit out those races. Both times, he noted that he essentially spent so long deciding that he'd run out of time to be successful in a campaign, rather than really saying he didn't want to run.
“He's notoriously slow on campaign decisions,” said Andrew Feldman, a Democratic strategist who interned on Biden’s 2008 presidential campaign and worked as part of an advance staffer team during his vice presidency. “None of this should be a surprise.”
Feldman said Biden is “always thinking about his legacy” but also "thinking about getting results for the American people.”
“I think legacy and results and reelection are very much intertwined," he said.
As far as legacy goes, Biden aides concede that future governing will likely never be as easy as when Democrats controlled Congress during the administration's first two years. The president's now continually low approval ratings may also never climb back to where they were when he first took office, they admit.
But the president's advisers counter that there is no real Democratic alternative capable of defeating Trump or another top Republican like DeSantis. That's not to say Biden doesn't think about his place in history. In 2021, the president took careful notes during an Oval Office meeting with historians that stretched more than two hours — though those discussions focused more on threats to American democracy than Biden's personal legacy.
“This is a guy who essentially grew up in politics, has been involved at high levels of politics as senator, vice president and then president for many decades," said Allan Lichtman, a distinguished professor of history at American University in Washington. “He’s someone who is especially concerned with his legacy.”