Economy

Another surprising reason Joe Biden should now step aside

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Joe Biden is running out of excuses. While many Democrats have urged him to end his re-election bid, including friendly columnists like the New York Times’ Ezra Klein and Washington Post’s David Ignatius, it has been the conventional wisdom that Biden could not do so, fearful that an even less popular Kamala Harris would replace him as the 2024 Democratic candidate for president.

That is changing. Vice President Harris has been out on the stump, performing the kind of all-out energetic campaigning that the president cannot manage. She meets almost daily with women’s groups talking about abortion and Black groups talking about racial justice. 

She travels incessantly to swing states to hand out money and programs, crediting the Biden-Harris White House – emphasis on Harris – with passing the enormous spending bills at the heart of the administration’s campaign. 

She also frequently entertains important Democrats at her home in Washington, getting to know the important power brokers. Quietly, off the radar, even as she is being virtually ignored by Republican analysts and commentators, Harris’ efforts are paying off. 

Harris’ overall approval ratings of 38% (net 11% disapproving) on average today are slightly better than those of her boss (net 17% disapproving), and they have improved since the beginning of the year, when her net disapproval was above 17%. Biden’s have not. Importantly, recent surveys show she is more popular with Black voters – where Biden has suffered a serious swoon – than the president.

Harris can make a solid case that she can carry on the Obama/Biden agenda and that she is healthy and fit to serve four more years. If a large portion of Biden’s unpopularity is due to his age, Harris would be a significant upgrade.

Harris’ improved posture comes at a pivotal time in the campaign and for the president. Scheduling the first of two presidential debates on June 27, way earlier than usual in the election calendar, has triggered renewed speculation about Democrats dumping Biden at the convention. Some think that the timing of the face-off with Donald Trump, many weeks ahead of the Aug. 19 gathering in Chicago, is intended to give Democrats some optionality. If the debate is a complete disaster, it is thought, the party will have enough time to regroup and consider an alternative before their convention.

If a large portion of Biden’s unpopularity is due to his age, Harris would be a significant upgrade.

Recent polls showing former President Trump leading in critical swing states promise disaster in November, not only for Biden but possibly for down-ballot candidates as well. Vulnerable Senate candidates in toss-up states like Pennsylvania and Nevada are reportedly distancing themselves from the president, fearful of being dragged down by the top of the ticket. 

But what about all those primaries? Is it even possible to ditch Biden? The answer is yes; during the Democratic convention, the party could technically decide to pick another candidate if Biden withdrew from the race or if the majority of delegates was persuaded that the president was not up to the task.

 There are some 4,000 delegates who will elect the party’s nominee, and roughly 700 so-called Super Delegates who step in only if there is no apparent winner on the first round of voting. There is no legal obligation for any of those delegates to back Biden. In the event of some calamity – a health problem, for instance, or a humiliating defeat in the debate – the majority could choose someone to replace the president.

Or, the party could finally persuade Biden to step aside. Some political analysts have expected him to do so for months, considering his age, infirmity and declining popularity. 

Despite considerable pressure, Joe has hung on, perhaps knowing he can best protect his son Hunter from the Oval Office, because his wife Jill has encouraged him to run again or maybe because of Harris’ weak standing. 

For the first three years of his presidency, Biden outshone Harris, who repeatedly got tangled up in hilarious word salads but more importantly, was tagged with accomplishing little and, especially, doing nothing about the open border.

Though Harris’ approval ratings are still poor, she is arguably more capable than Joe. If Democrat bosses decide to open up the convention to other candidates, in order to keep the party from splitting wide open, Vice President Harris is likely to prevail. That is what happened in 1968.

When Lyndon Johnson announced he was withdrawing from the presidential race on March 31, 1968, his approval rating was about 36%, according to Gallup, only slightly worse than Biden’s today. LBJ knew his chances were dim, given anger about the Vietnam War, and took himself out of contention. At the Democratic convention that year, delegates picked Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, to succeed him as the 1968 candidate, despite many within the party seeking an anti-war candidate. 

Humphrey was not popular – only 34% of the country supported him on the eve of the convention, compared to 40% backing Richard Nixon and 17% leaning toward the segregationist (former Democrat) George Wallace, who ran as an independent. But, nominating Humphrey was the least contentious of possible outcomes; in the end, Democrat power brokers opted for harmony. The decision did not go well; Humphrey lost that year to Richard Nixon in a tight election.

The reality for Democrats is that if they open up the convention to considering other candidates, Kamala Harris will likely emerge the nominee. She will not leave the game without a fight; and, like Humphrey, the vice president would be the least contentious of alternatives. 

For sure, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and others might throw their hats in the ring, but neither has done the coast-to-coast politicking so necessary to build their case. And, Black leaders, who put Joe Biden in the Oval Office, would almost certainly prefer Harris.

Humphrey lost, but he went from basement-level approval ratings to nearly winning. It’s possible that Harris could do the same. Democrats may have no other choice.

 

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