Joe Biden has repeatedly said he intends to run for re-election when his first term is up in 2024 – but that doesn’t mean a second campaign is guaranteed.
To be clear, the president and his team have never equivocated about the chances he will try for a second term. In March, he was asked and gave a straightforward answer: “The answer is yes, my plan is to run for re-election. That’s my expectation.”
There was, he conceded, room for other scenarios: “I’m a great respecter of fate. I’ve never been able to plan three-and-a-half years ahead for certain.” But since then, his and the White House’s answer to the question has not changed, with Press Secretary Jen Psaki recently reassuring reporters that running in 2024 remains the president’s “intention”.
This she did after a run of stories positing that if things do not improve for him and his party soon, the president’s position may not be strong enough to justify another run – and that some Democrats are already doubting whether he will or should go through with it.
What are his chances?
Mr Biden’s national popularity has declined precipitously this year, in particular since the withdrawal from Afghanistan unfolded in the summer – but then again, there is still almost a year to go until the midterm elections, which will decide what legacy Mr Biden will be able to campaign on in the next presidential cycle.
The grim polling currently circulating not only assumes that Mr Trump will be the 2024 Republican nominee, but that Mr Biden’s standing will not change dramatically over the next three years. It remains a snapshot of how things stand today, not the dynamics that will be at play in November 2024.
Outside the question of Mr Biden’s standing in three years’ time, though, are problems of public perception more generally.
The president has faced repeated questions about his age ever since he began his 2020 campaign. With his 78th birthday falling on 20 November 2020, he was always going to be the oldest American president ever elected – topping Donald Trump. Should he run for and win another term, he would be inaugurated at the age of 82. (Then again, should Mr Trump retake the presidency in 2024, he will re-enter the Oval Office at the same age Mr Biden did in 2021.)
Mr Biden’s verbal stumbles, slow diction and and sometimes garbled speech have been exploited by the right to portray him as the borderline senile “sleepy Joe”, an aged embarrassment who may be unfit for office. However, it is unclear if any voters otherwise attracted to Mr Biden will be swayed by this caricature – and when stood on a debate stage next to Mr Trump, Mr Biden didn’t necessarily come across as the more cognitively challenged of the two.
What if he doesn’t run?
All specific questions about his age, fitness and popularity aside, the possibility of Mr Biden bowing out raises the question of who will replace him – and by extension, the question of Kamala Harris’s future. The vice president’s approval ratings are even lower than Mr Biden’s; reports of dysfunction among her team have dovetailed with tales of frustration at the difficult and nebulous portfolio she has been given.
If Ms Harris is not in a better political position by the end of Mr Biden’s term, she may struggle to reinforce her position as the natural heir. Recent speculation about a challenger has focused on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has had the enviable job of selling the investment contained in the widely popular Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. Mr Buttigieg has denied the reports of a rivalry between him and the vice president.