Progressives skeptical of Biden but unsure of alternative
Progressives who are uncertain whether President Biden can retain the White House in 2024 have yet to find a viable alternative to coalesce around.
The dissatisfaction with the White House is not unique to the left. Both factions of the Democratic Party are upset following months of congressional stalemates and abysmal polls for the president, who’s battling twin domestic and international crises, a pandemic in its third year and a Republican Party intent on taking him down.
But it’s progressives who have been most vocal about a potential Biden alternative entering the orbit.
“If it looks like it’s going to be a free-for-all, then I think it’s going to be back to the 24-person primary,” said Corbin Trent, a former senior aide to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) who runs a political action committee called No Excuses.
The sentiment is out there. But Trent, like other Democrats on the left, already sense a problem emerging in all the chatter and resentment: “I don’t think you’re going to get a hardcore progressive leftie that’s going to beat him in the primary,” he said.
Biden’s inability to climb out of his embattled presidency has worried Democrats who are fearful that the party will lose its edge in the fall. Recent survey aggregates place him at just over 41 percent job approval, with 53 percent saying they don’t agree with how he is conducting his first term. Some battleground polls portray an even worse outlook.
A New Hampshire poll taken this month by Saint Anselm College showed that neither Biden nor his number two, Vice President Harris, “are guaranteed” most of the Democratic support in 2024. The survey found that as much as 30 percent of those voters would support a newer candidate for president.
“If he runs, he will be challenged,” said Michael Starr Hopkins, a Democratic operative who enthusiastically backed Biden’s election against former President Trump and is now calling for a primary challenge to the party’s president.
“People went into his first term thinking it would be the left that would be the ones that would cause trouble and make his life more difficult, but instead it’s the moderates, the people he’s supposed to know the best,” Starr Hopkins said.
“Progressives have really carried the water for him and have really been an ally in a way that I think most people wouldn’t have expected,” he added. “He owes a lot of his political victories to the left.”
Biden and administration officials insist the 79-year-old president will run for reelection in 2024. Reached on Tuesday, the White House referred The Hill to its previous comments saying that the president indeed intends to seek a second term.
As the midterms near, however, problems are mounting, and discomfort is growing among those who want a backup plan.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has dominated the administration’s attention, placing Biden in a tricky spot. The foreign war routinely ranks lower than issues closer to home like inflation and high gas prices, neither of which officials have been able to reverse in action or public perception.
But for all the grumbles about who could step up as a viable successor, progressives are scratching their heads about who could realistically replace him.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), an influential part of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) world during his last presidential bid, has emerged in conversations on the left. He’s a recognized figure among Washington lawmakers, recently linking ending the U.S.’s involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen to the abuses happening in Ukraine.
But even admirers acknowledge he’s not a household name.
“Rep. Khanna is not going to run in a primary where he isn’t one of the more well-known candidates,” Trent said. “It’s just not going to happen.”
Few progressives expect higher profile members of Congress, including Sanders, who is widely considered too old and uninterested in running again, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has kept to the legislative lane after her first stab at the White House, to launch new bids, at least at this point.
Nor are House members of “the Squad,” who have focused on growing their manpower in the lower chamber through intraparty primaries leading up to the midterms in November.
Ocasio-Cortez, the most prominent and outspoken progressive in the House, has not taken the covert preliminary steps that normally indicate an interest in running, keeping speculation at bay.
Other lesser-known figures, including former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, who also co-chaired Sanders’s campaign and is running again for Congress against Rep. Shontel Brown (D-Ohio), are mentioned with various degrees of interest. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who previously ran in 2020 but failed to break off sizable support, and California-based entrepreneur Joe Sanberg, are also talked about.
Some are even mentioning former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, a pragmatic progressive who could potentially appeal to both the Sanders-Warren wing and Black voters in the deep South who helped hand Biden the presidency.
“The public pays attention to competitive party politics,” said Michael Ceraso, a progressive strategist and former aide on Sanders’s 2016 campaign. “It doesn’t need to be vitriolic, but it needs to be something different than 2020. He needs to be idealistic, optimistic, and hopeful, but not patronizing and condescending to the issues that millions of Americans are facing today.”
“The Democratic Party is at its best when it’s dynamic and invites personalities in that can energize the base and lift the spirits of the public,” Ceraso said.
Mounting a serious primary challenge to a sitting president would not be unheard of, but would be highly unusual. Pat Buchanan challenged George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) mounted a competitive challenge in 1980 against former President Carter, though both ended up falling short.
While there’s interest among strategists and activists on the outside, progressive lawmakers who regularly engage with Biden are not ready to throw in the towel. They want to give him more time to turn things around and are pleading with him to take the actions he can while in office to help boost his prospects with voters.
Most recently, that included holding a meeting with leadership from the Congressional Progressive Caucus to discuss a range of executive orders. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chairwoman, urged Biden to fulfill a campaign pledge to cancel federal student loan debt before the midterms. Shortly after, the president extended a moratorium to freeze payments several more months, a move first reported by The Hill.
While that temporarily made some progressives happy, others are focused on other issues that have fallen to the back burner in Congress.
After the failure of the Senate to pass voting rights legislation last year, Biden and Harris traveled to critical electoral states and spoke about why it was important for lawmakers to get a bill to the White House before voters head to the ballot box.
When those efforts fell flat, voters and activists became despondent over the direction of the presidency and questioned his ability to get his own agenda passed while his party controlled both chambers on Capitol Hill.
Former Georgia Senate Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who is running for governor of the state again after losing to GOP Gov. Brian Kemp, has made voting rights central to her pitch to be elevated to executive office.
Abrams was publicly considered during Biden’s vice president search and was a favorite among some members of his closest inner circle. She received recognition for effectively telling the media that she wanted the role when other potential nominees were more muted in their interest, which led to speculation about her desire to reach higher office.
For Democrats like Abrams and others who have made their prior desires more overt, that past interest is being thought of now in fresh terms.
“If they can find a better leader that’s able to rally support and has an idea around how to rebuild the party’s brand, I think we’d be in better shape,” Trent said, referencing Biden. “If he goes to the midterms, loses in the midterms, it sets him up to take a beating in ’24 for sure.”
“If it was me, I would rather put my money on somebody else,” he said.
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