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Progressives cool on finding an alternative to Biden

Progressives have cooled on the idea of finding a new leader to seek the party’s presidential nomination in 2024, marveling at the successes of the midterms and crediting President Biden for once again surpassing expectations. 

The outcome is not perfect. Democrats will soon be in the House minority and will struggle to advance some of their legislative goals with the GOP in control.

But the strong performance in the Senate — where liberals gained an ally in Sen.-elect John Fetterman (D-Pa.) and kept their majority — and slim losses in the lower chamber have also restored their confidence in Biden’s durability while quieting talk about a replacement. 

“I think what the midterms did accomplish is they silenced that,” said Cooper Teboe, a progressive Democratic strategist and adviser to a pro-Biden political action committee. “Even if Biden was running for reelection, I think we could have seen a few people run against him. But now, I think he’s got a clear field.” 

Fears of a November wipeout had left progressives talking privately about who might replace Biden. Some had talked about a desire for a younger candidate than Biden, who is 80. 

Prominent progressives, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), along with newer national possibilities like California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D), were often discussed enthusiastically among those desiring a more liberal choice at the top of the ticket.

But after averting a red wave, some of the same figures who were previously antsy have lavished praise on Biden. 

“I don’t know how he and his team have managed to do it, but during two years of the stress of the presidency, he actually seems more on it than he did during the campaign,” Teboe said. “He seems way more put together now.”

Newsom explicitly has said he won’t run for president in 2024, and Khanna, who has made useful connections in several early primary states, has given the president fresh credit for his achievements. 

Sen. Ed Markey (Mass.), one of the most progressive Democratic senators, last week told WCVB5, a Boston-based ABC affiliate, that “if Joe Biden wants to run, I think we should all rally behind him.”

In the House, the leadership in the Congressional Progressive Caucus seems less willing to offer an alternative slate or even engage in speculation that Biden won’t seek reelection. 

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the caucus’s leader, admitted to being skeptical of Biden early on — even going as far as to say he wasn’t her “first or second choice” during the 2020 Democratic primary. She’s now pledged to support his reelection campaign if he formally launches one, telling Politico: “I believe he should run for another term and finish this agenda we laid out.”

The statement was a clear indication of the mood change on the left, where leading up to Nov. 8, progressives were growing frustrated over the party’s divided message focus. Now talk has shifted.

“What you saw particularly from the Biden administration and the rest of the Democratic Party is that there was a great deal of enthusiasm to support progressive policies leading up to the midterm elections,” said John Paul Mejia, national spokesman for the grassroots-led Sunrise Movement.

“Regardless of whether Biden is the nominee in 2024 or not, he has a responsibility as the leader of this country, who recognizes that democracy is tanking and crippling right now, to be able to buy in social trust from young people who will be the protagonists of saving it,” he said. “And I think the way he’s able to do that is by waging progressive policies.”

The White House has taken a victory lap over what it views as ample accomplishments. Nearly every major legislative push from the Biden administration has had an economic component, aides and allies point out, which ultimately helped voters swing blue in many critical areas. 

“Despite the narrowest congressional majorities ever, President Biden and congressional Democrats have delivered the biggest climate change package in history, empowered Medicare to negotiate lower drug costs with Big Pharma, stopped multinational corporations from gaming the federal tax code to pay no income taxes, and brought manufacturing jobs back to America, and given economic opportunity to student borrowers,” Andrew Bates, a White House spokesperson, told The Hill on Monday. 

“The American people affirmed that agenda when they voted this month, including through record youth turnout,” Bates added. 

Indeed, young voters helped Democrats win in a variety of close races, further bolstering the president’s credentials as a unifier of different constituencies. That pitch helped fuel Biden’s first presidential bid and got cautious progressives on board. 

“Progressivism is coded in youth,” said Mejia. “The ability for Biden to mobilize young people was on those progressive impulses that he really acted upon in the weeks leading up to the midterms.”

“Who has the best ability to mobilize young people? Who will continue doing this? Who has shown a capability of doing this? That’s how I’m reading some of the simmering noise.”

Moderates who had embraced Biden more fully from the onset have expressed delight that the early chatter about progressive alternatives has subsided, at least for now.

“Those calls died down because Bidenism proved to be a winning strategy during the midterms and he was the most successful president, legislatively, of our generation,” said Jonathan Kott, who served as an adviser to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). 

“I don’t think those calls pick up again, because President Biden is the only Democrat who can win in 2024,” he said.

Should he run again, Biden’s message may sound strikingly similar to his first one. That is particularly likely now that former President Trump has announced a new presidential bid, a scenario that many in the party have publicly and privately hoped would materialize.

“He beat Trump once and can do it again as affirmed by [the] 2022 election,” said Larry Cohen, an activist leader and close ally of top congressional progressives, including Jayapal and Sanders. 

Progressives, like other Democrats, are now watching the clock. If Biden announces, those who have entertained exploratory phases are likely to continue their work, but with a different focus. They could shift their efforts to aid his reelection bid or to build a longer-term foundation for future runs themselves. 

“I think they continue doing it,” Teboe, the progressive Democratic strategist, said, referencing some of the early legwork. “I think they just push their time horizon from ’24 to ’28.” 

The rosier-than-expected outcome has afforded Biden time, some in the party believe. He’s unlikely to announce a reelection campaign before the Georgia runoff election on Dec. 6, when Democrats could pick up another crucial Senate seat, further cementing their control of the upper chamber and allowing even more negotiating room on contentious legislation. 

An additional Senate seat also would give Democrats a bigger boost in a swing state that Biden worked to flip blue in 2020, providing a case for the longevity of his personal brand and political strategy.  

“I don’t think he’s in any rush to announce,” Kott said. “It turns out good governance is a winning message.”

Tags 2022 midterms 2024 presidential race Gavin Newsom Joe Biden Joe Biden Pramila Jayapal Ro Khanna
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