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Biden may think he can beat Trump in 2024. But what if the GOP chooses someone else?

NBC News logo NBC News 7/5/2022 Arick Wierson and Bradley Honan
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Following the various setbacks and missteps by the Biden administration, talk among Democrats that President Joe Biden should step aside to let a younger, more nimble politician lead the party into the 2024 election cycle is increasingly out in the open.

Pouring a bit of gasoline on this simmering debate within the party is Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who said Wednesday that it is “certainly possible” that Biden will face a Democratic primary challenge ahead of 2024. Then came some eyebrow-raising comments on the very same day by Vice President Kamala Harris. During a flight aboard Air Force Two, the vice president said that “the president intends to run and if he does, I will be his ticket-mate” — the “if” in her remark fueling fresh speculation that a second Biden bid might not be such a sure thing.

But it’s not just elected officials who are questioning whether Biden should or will throw his hat in the ring for a repeat — recent polling by YouGov suggests that as few as 4 in 10 Democrats are convinced he should run again in 2024. Biden, for his part, has apparently become increasingly irritated by fellow members of his party who regularly bring up the matter of him stepping aside while at the same time working overtime to sell his viability for a Round #2 to party leaders

So, will he or won’t he run again 2024? That depends on three crucial issues and one “X-Factor” — all of which will pretty much play themselves out in the coming months.

First, there is Biden’s approval rating. Right now it sits below 40%. For a president in the modern era, that’s pretty much rock bottom, and reflects a widespread view that Biden has not been leading the country in the right direction.

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To be fair, he has accomplished several important things since taking office, such as building an international coalition to fight Vladimir Putin in Ukraine while keeping China on the sidelines. His aggressive push to get more people in the U.S. vaccinated has also been a huge success —  67% of the population are now fully vaccinated, and 78% have received at least one dose. Another major win was his signing into law the first major gun safety measure in more than 30 years. And finally, perhaps most importantly, Biden has returned a sense of normalcy to the presidency after the tumultuous Trump era. 

However, in other key areas, the president has failed to meet the moment by not adequately addressing important kitchen table issues across the country. His anemic response to concerns about rising gas prices has been a point of contention that cuts across party lines, as have his plans for combating inflation, of which now nearly 3 in 4 Americans disapprove, according to an ABC News poll. 

His milquetoast response to the overturning of Roe vs. Wade (Let’s elect more Democrats!) falls short of some of the more aggressive tactics championed by Democratic New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives, such as expanding the Supreme Court or moving abortion clinics to federal lands.

On the other hand, his inability to reign in his party’s progressive wing is turning off critical swing voting blocs, including Latinos.  

With all these negative factors at play, it’s easy to see why, according to a new Associated Press poll, most Americans say the country is on the wrong track — including 8 in 10 Democrats — and why Biden’s approval rating is lower than any of his recent predecessors at the same point in their presidencies.

If Biden continues to sport an approval rating well below 50%, as the 2024 election season gets into gear we can expect calls for a new candidate for 2024 to persist. It would almost ensure that he will face a serious primary challenge if he doesn’t step aside on his own.

A second way to evaluate the likelihood of a 2024 Biden bid is through the lens of this fall’s midterm elections. Until rather recently, with fears of a recession looming large, it was looking to be a bloodbath for Democrats, who many were expecting to lose control of both chambers of Congress. But a spate of unpopular rulings by the Supreme Court coupled with a constant flow of damning revelations for Republicans coming out of the House committee investigating Jan. 6 have finally given Democrats a leg to run on. 

Still, it won’t be easy. In many contested areas, ultra-progressive candidates are beating moderate Democrats in primaries, almost ensuring victories for Republicans. Paired with redistricting that has created an uphill climb for Democrats in many House races, it is clear that the GOP will likely take back the House and has a chance to regain the Senate. If Democrats can keep the bleeding in the House to a minimum and retain control of the Senate, it will be a boon to Biden’s leadership within the party. But if an Armageddon scenario plays out with deep cuts in the House and a loss of the Senate, expect more pressure to be exerted on Biden to step aside ahead of 2024. 

A Donald Trump redux is the third issue at hand. Right now, things are not looking good for the former president; the details emerging from the Jan. 6 hearings have some speculating that he may be too weak to run in 2024. Former top Trump White House aide Mick Mulvaney said that Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony has hobbled Trump politically. And he’s not alone in his thinking.  

But make no mistake about it — Trump has been down and out before. His 1997 memoir “Trump: The Art of the Comeback” tells his own account of how he came back from bankruptcy in the 1990s. Who Republicans put up in 2024 is an important factor in weighing the pros and cons of a Biden bid. The president firmly believes that he is the only Democrat who can beat Trump in a rematch. But what happens if Trump isn’t on the ballot in the next presidential election? Is Biden best suited to take on younger and less polarizing candidates like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley? Probably not

Lastly, there is the X-factor. The elephant in the room, of course, is the one thing completely out of Biden’s control: his age. Too many Americans feel that Biden, who would be 82 by the time he is sworn in a second time, is simply too old to continue to perform at a high level in the most important — and taxing — job in the world. That’s why incidents like the spill Biden took during a recent bike ride (albeit something that happens to many people) continue to raise plenty of questions about his mental and physical fitness. 

Even if all the stars were to align with his approval rating, the ‘22 midterms and with Trump wanting a rematch, if Biden were to start showing more instances of cognitive or physical decline, he might have no choice but to pass the party baton to the next generation.

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