Cracks are beginning to form in President Biden’s support among Senate Democrats, who are becoming less bullish about him running for reelection in 2024 after recent polling shows that most Democratic voters want a different nominee in two years.
Senate Democrats say Biden’s unpopularity is one of their biggest challenges heading into the midterm elections and are worried about data showing that young Democratic voters, whom they need to turn out in large numbers to win, are especially unenthusiastic about the 79-year-old president.
The relatively cautious and pragmatic members of the Senate Democratic Caucus represent the top ranks of the party establishment. They have been careful not to criticize Biden during months of a disappointing stalemate over his signature legislative agenda, the Build Back Better framework focused on climate change and social spending.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has urged his colleagues to stay unified and positive throughout the negotiations and to avoid criticizing either Biden or centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who on Thursday again delivered a blow to the measure.
But the growing disaffection among Democratic voters with the president and the direction of the country are becoming impossible to ignore.
A growing number of senators aren’t promising to back Biden in 2024 no matter what — though they don’t want to speak on the matter publicly.
One Democratic senator who requested anonymity pointed to a recent New York Times-Siena College poll showing that 94 percent of Democrats under the age of 30 would prefer another Democrat as the party’s standard-bearer in 2024.
“It shows there’s a strong reservoir of sentiment to bring in a change of administrations,” said the lawmaker, who said the midterm election results will be impacted by Biden’s low approval rating.
The senator said “I think we have a shot” to keep the Senate majority, an optimistic view shared by many Senate Democrats, but warned Biden will weigh on Democratic candidates and predicted that younger rising stars will begin to jockey for the party’s nomination starting in 2023.
“I think following the midterms we’re going to see a number of younger folks saying we want to be in that conversation, and I don’t think you’ll see a complete domination of the primary in the way you might normally see for an incumbent who’s in a strong position,” the senator said.
One of those younger rising stars is California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who made the rounds with Democratic senators on Capitol Hill Thursday, further fueling speculation about his presidential ambitions.
Newsom, 54, was careful not to criticize Biden’s age or his inability to get things done in Washington, but he identified what he sees an inability of Democratic leaders in the White House and Congress to get their message out effectively.
He said political leadership is shifting to states such as California that aren’t hampered by the Senate’s filibuster rule, which requires 60 votes to pass major legislation.
Newsom said he’s proud of the work Biden has done but added “that one of our challenges” is communicating effectively with younger voters.
“We are unable to even communicate the basics in an effective way,” he said. “There are so many things that are being done, have been done. No one believes it, no one knows it, and that’s a frustration I have fundamentally.”
“That’s one of my critiques of the Democratic Party, broadly, is our incapacity to communicate a positive alternative agenda, to set the tone and tenor of the agenda [instead] of being constantly on the defensive,” he said.
Newsom said he doesn’t think Biden’s age is the problem, despite polling data showing that 33 percent of Democratic primary voters who want a new nominee in 2024 think that Biden is too old to run for a second term.
“I’m with Bobby Kennedy. What the world needs is the qualities of youth, not a time of life,” he said. “I think we get so fixated on your date of manufacture as opposed to your quality of imagination.”
Senate Democrats have complained for months about their ineffectiveness in letting voters know about their accomplishments in the 117th Congress.
Of course, it’s not lost on them that Biden has the bully pulpit and as president is his party’s communicator in chief.
Senate Democrats don’t want to publicly question Biden’s viability as a candidate in 2024, but privately they’re holding back on endorsing another White House term until they see how the midterms play out.
“You got to ask me after 2022,” said another senator.
The senator said Biden’s numbers and high inflation are “tough” for Democratic candidates this year but argued that Republicans failed to recruit top-tier candidates in New Hampshire, Missouri and Arizona, giving Democrats a better chance of winning races in those states.
The senator said the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which struck down the right to an abortion, “has injected a completely different dynamic into this” by revving up Democratic voters ahead of November.
A third Democratic senator didn’t want to even touch the subject of Biden’s politically viability, telling The Hill, “I’m not going to do the politics.”
A fourth Democratic senator said Biden’s strongest attribute heading into 2024 is his track record of beating Trump in a head-to-head election. Polls showing him leading the former president in another hypothetical match-up.
The New York Times-Siena College poll that showed 64 percent of Democratic voters want someone other than Biden to be the nominee in 2024 also showed him beating Trump 44 percent to 41 percent.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), whose name has been floated as a potential presidential candidate, said that if Democrats can pass prescription drug reform through the budget reconciliation process as well as legislation to improve U.S. competitiveness with China, Biden’s numbers will likely tick up.
He said “people are unhappy.”
“They don’t like Trump, they don’t like Biden, they don’t like politicians generally right now. People are in a sour mood because of a lot of things that are beyond the president’s control. Inflation is mostly about the pandemic and corporate CEOs taking advantage of it,” he said.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said younger Democratic voters, whom polls show are disaffected with Biden, are understandably frustrated by the Washington’s inability to address climate change.
“I think young voters have every reason to be impatient with Congress generally and I think we have a lot more work we need to do on climate, and that includes taking a much more aggressive stance against the climate denial operation that the fossil fuel industry continues to fund and maintain,” he said.
Asked if Biden needs to show more leadership in fighting climate change denial, Whitehouse said: “I’m not going to be a critic on that right now.”