Shae Potter | USA Fellow
First portrait of Joe Biden as President of the United States. Sourced via Wikimedia Commons.
On 20 November 2023, US President Joe Biden took his seat at an expansive walnut table and was presented with a chocolate birthday cake aflame with eighty-one candles. As he closed his eyes to make a wish, he set the record as the oldest sitting President in US history.
President Biden has spent over half a century in public administration, first sworn into office in January 1973 as the Union’s seventh-youngest Senator. His leadership has shaped the contours of American life and has reckoned with scandal, terror, hope, and the mundane. His final political campaign is now underway as the presumptive Democrat candidate for the 2024 election.
A second Biden term did not feel inevitable for Democrats on his inauguration day in 2021. At the time, Biden positioned himself as an ‘elder statesman’ who could leverage his experience to course-correct the trajectories set by President Trump. Following Trump’s recent criminal indictments, Biden has reframed the 2024 race as a ‘battle for the soul of the nation’ and pursued renomination, despite criticisms that his age is a liability.
A mid-September Ipsos poll commissioned by Reuters found that 77 per cent of voters, including 65 per cent of Democrats, think that Biden is too old for another four years and would prefer an alternative candidate. So, what factors explain his persistence? Rather than advancing a new candidate with a new playbook, Democrat party strategists are deferring to traditions, relying on established voting behaviours, and riding anti-conservative groundswell movements.
Incumbent re-election trends
The campaign will look towards historical election trends for reassurance. US voters often support incumbents seeking re-election, with only ten former Presidents in the history of the Union failing to win a second term: most recently with Trump in 2020, and when President Clinton defeated President George H.W Bush in 1992.
On election day, Democrats will hope that history favours them again. In pragmatic terms, Biden campaign strategists have run and won a Presidential bid before. Organisers, donors, and volunteers are familiar with the brief, and speechwriters know how to sell his backstory.
Issues driving voter turnout
The Biden campaign may be aided by recent adjustments in state and federal judiciary interpretation. The new conservative supermajority of the Supreme Court and their recent rulings, such as the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, has galvanised turnout by voters keen to maintain state government rights. This was observed in the 2022 midterm results, where Democrats retained more seats than expected and the predicted Republican ‘red wave’ failed to materialise.
One theory suggests that in battleground states such as Pennsylvania, the strong turnout of Democrat voters was a response to the Republican candidate's anti-abortion stance. In contrast, Democrats' showing in states like New York, where abortion access appeared secure, aligned with typical midterm trends, where the incumbent party’s support tends to soften. This theory is reinforced by the result of the constitutional amendment election in Ohio in November 2023, where reproductive healthcare access was affirmed by voters.
President Biden has a history of enacting progressive federal policies during his tenure in the White House, such as the Inflation Reduction Act which included spending on climate initiatives and emission reduction technologies. For better or worse, people know who he is. A new candidate would have less baggage, but also fewer successes. The New Hampshire primary contest was an early indicator that voters want Biden on the ballot. A grassroots ‘write in’ campaign saw him win, despite opting out of the race following the Democratic National Committee's decision to make South Carolina the first nominating contest of the year. If voters think Biden’s social policies are meeting the moment, then the New Hampshire momentum may continue through to November.
Passing the torch
Biden's potential renomination may also be attributed to the limited public recognition of individual Democrats beyond the Fox News firing range.
The next four years will be a maturing period for the next generation of Democrat aspirants, such as Gretchen Whitmer (Governor of Michigan), Pete Buttigieg (Secretary of Transportation), and Gavin Newsom (Governor of California), who will use the time to improve their visibility outside their home states. Vice President Kamala Harris is an unlikelier heir still, with her approval rating sitting below Biden’s at 37.5 per cent, according to polling aggregator FiveThirtyEight (as of 19 January 2024). Crucially, Harris oversees the immigration portfolio, a policy area seen as the Democrat’s weak point, and one of the Republican’s strongest.
Sidelining policy disagreements
Opening a nomination process to a field of new contenders risks resurfacing unresolved policy disagreements. Candidate debates are a feature of the selection process, and on the debate stage, Democrat against Democrat, policy disagreements on issues such as southern border immigration and support for Israel would reveal messy ideological conflicts. For now, the threat of a second Trump presidency has sidelined intra-party disputes between liberal and moderate factions as they seek to project unity and stability at the party level.
The Democrats are treading water rather than turning the tide with Biden’s unopposed renomination. A second term would function as a holding pattern while new party leaders emerge, but it is yet to be seen whether Trump’s influence will wane with age and a second general election defeat. The substantive work of governance and policy track record is a single factor influencing Biden’s presumptive renomination. Rather, historical voting trends, traditional strategies, current circumstances, and anti-conservative sentiments will play an outsized role. Will the status quo appeal on election day?
A birthday wish
As he blew out the candles on the cake and handed slices around to his advisors, President Biden might have felt a mix of emotions about this milestone - the warmth of celebration and personal accomplishment, alongside the keen awareness of his age’s long shadow across the campaign trail.
Shae Potter is the USA Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She is versed in global business strategy and leadership through her current pursuit of a part-time Master of Business Administration at the University of Sydney, with her international relations expertise underpinned by a Bachelor of Political, Economic and Social Sciences.
Shae has a deep personal interest in US domestic and foreign policy and frequently attends events hosted by the US Consul General and the Unites States Studies Centre.