Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 24 books, including, “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Should President Joe Biden run for reelection? It’s a question that is now circulating in the media, with ongoing stories about Democrats who are considering whether another candidate might be better positioned to win in 2024.
Given Biden’s low approval ratings and a host of problems from inflation to gun violence that plague the country, Democrats are increasingly worried about the President’s ability to win a second time. And with former President Donald Trump contemplating whether to announce his candidacy for 2024 in the coming months, the stakes couldn’t be any higher. The findings of the House select committee on January 6, which highlight the grave danger Trump posed to our democracy, only amplify these concerns.
“Imagining an alternative is far from just a D.C. parlor game. Only three in ten Americans think Biden will seek a second term, according to a recent Wall Street Journal poll,” wrote Gabriel Debenedetti in New York magazine. Biden would be 82 by inauguration in 2025, if he were to run again and win reelection, while Trump would be 78.
While the speculation is certainly real, it is far too premature for Democrats to be seriously considering other options. In fact, these kinds of debates only weaken Biden’s standing, diminishing his political capital in Washington and making it more difficult for him to act as a strong leader in the coming years.
Barring any major bombshells or revelations, the notion that Biden should relegate himself to one term doesn’t make much sense on paper. Although his opponents like to paint him as a total failure, Biden’s legislative accomplishments stack up well compared to other presidents at this stage in their first terms.
The American Rescue Plan and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act are two major initiatives that passed despite intense polarization and the Democrats’ narrow majorities in Congress. And both pieces of legislation have been integral to the nation’s recovery from the pandemic. The Biden administration also oversaw the swift rollout of the Covid-19 vaccines, which have been key to protecting the country against the damage caused by new variants.
On foreign policy, Biden has enjoyed considerable success strengthening NATO and ratcheting up economic sanctions against Russia while providing critical aid to Ukraine. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about his off-the-record lunch with the President, “What I felt afterward was this: For all you knuckleheads on Fox who say that Biden can’t put two sentences together, here’s a news flash: He just put NATO together, Europe together and the whole Western alliance together—stretching from Canada up to Finland and all the way to Japan—to help Ukraine protect its fledgling democracy from Vladimir Putin’s fascist assault.”
None of this erases the significant challenge global inflation has on American families. To be sure, the President has taken steps to address this by shoring up key ports to alleviate supply chain problems. The Federal Reserve has just instituted the largest rate hike since 1994 to curb inflation and the administration has committed itself to focusing on this problem without undermining the strong jobs numbers that the country has enjoyed.
Even with all these problems, however, numerous presidents have suffered difficult second years and poor first midterms only to go on to win reelection – a point I have made in previous columns. We’ve seen this a few times in recent decades: President Ronald Reagan went on to win reelection after the 1982 recession while President Bill Clinton won a second term after Democrats suffered major losses in the 1994 midterms – as did President Barack Obama after his party suffered a big midterm defeat in 2010. The notion that the rough waters of this moment somehow dooms the incumbent to failure doesn’t match the historical record.
Nor is it clear that there is another Democrat who would be in a better position come 2024. None of the major Democratic candidates in 2020 proved capable of mounting an appealing and formidable campaign. And some of those candidates, including Vice President Kamala Harris, are now weighed down by new questions about their viability and do not appear to be strong candidates against Trump in the current economic and political environment.
Biden’s flaws and shortcomings were well known in the 2020 election, and for all the concerns about his age and stamina, he went on to win a decisive election against Trump. Of course, one of the President’s biggest challenges going into 2024 will be the economy, and if the Fed can’t manage a soft landing and the country slips into a recession, Democrats are going to face much bleaker prospects.
Regardless, if Biden decided to make a dramatic announcement that he would not seek a second term, it would weaken his party and offer Republicans more fodder to go on the offensive. When Presidents Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson announced they would not run for reelection in 1952 and 1968, their decisions only amplified the perception that the Democratic Party was not capable of handling the challenges of the times. The Democratic candidates who were trying to replace them were ultimately burdened by the problems that plagued Truman and Johnson and Republicans went on to win in both cases.
Democrats are understandably skittish about how things are going to shake out. Yet they should not be so quick to throw Biden overboard. The jitters suggest panic—never a good look for a political party—rather than a reasoned and sober assessment of where things stand. Should the economy start to rebound in 2023, and the contrast with Trump (or another Republican candidate) undercuts the national appeal of the GOP, Democrats might just find that it’s morning again in America going into 2024.