By Edward-Isaac Dovere, Kate Bennett, Manu Raju, Jeff Zeleny, Jeremy Diamond and Daniella Diaz, CNN
The mood has notably shifted among top Democrats in recent months. During the depths of Biden’s political struggles in March, some party leaders from all over the country huddled in the hallways of the Hilton a few blocks from the White House for the annual Democratic National Committee meeting, according to four people involved in the conversations. Over drinks, while looking around to make sure no one overheard, they winced and grimaced and whispered: What could they do to stop Biden from running for reelection again?
“There were people who were not certain he would be the right candidate,” said Jim Roosevelt, a top DNC member and the grandson of a president who ran for reelection more than any other.
When those same state party chairs and executive directors returned to the capital for their fall meeting two weeks ago, the disposition had whipped around. Biden’s summer of successes has started to permeate. Fears of a radical Donald Trump restoration remain high, mounting legal problems regardless. A potentially bruising open primary would loom if Biden decided against seeking another term.
“In New Mexico I’ve seen a radical shift after his speech in Philadelphia,” said the state’s Democratic Party chair Jessica Velasquez, referring to the President’s battle for the soul of democracy speech. “Part of that is he just keeps showing up.” A state party chair who asked not to be named added, “People were grumbling because nothing was passing. Now we’re getting the Biden we all voted for.”
Inside the White House — both in the West Wing and in first lady Dr. Jill Biden’s offices — the last six weeks have renewed confidence of the President’s chances in a reelection run. They’ve developed a chip-on-the-shoulder underdog mentality, saying people doubt Biden and claim they’re not excited by him before he pulls it all together and comes out on top. He did it after he was counted out during the 2020 primaries, they say, he did it in going up against Trump and he did it again when his presidency was assumed to have sputtered out in the spring.
Now they were ready to get on board — if he is.
“If he feels he can do it,” Roosevelt said, “people would want him to do it.”
Biden is already the oldest president ever and tends to keep a lighter public schedule than his predecessors, which has led to questions about how extensive a campaign he’d engage in. But even with those limited appearances recently, his poll numbers have been slowly moving upward.
Already at his rally in Washington on Friday, Biden delivered another in what has become a series of much more energetic speeches, ripping into Republicans while pacing the stage on a handheld mic, and then walking off the stage to the beat of Daft Punk’s “One More Time.”
But as much as most Democrats would love to be finished with the endless “Is he going to run?” discussion, Biden keeps stoking it.
“My intention, as I said to begin with, is that I would run again. But it’s just an intention. But is it a firm decision that I run again? That remains to be seen,” Biden said in his “60 Minutes” interview that aired last Sunday.
Advisers dismissed that answer as simply trying to listen to lawyers’ warnings of not preemptively triggering Federal Elections Commission laws around fundraising and activity. Many others are not convinced.
People in and around the President’s orbit would like him to make a decision by early 2023, after he comes back from his traditional Biden family Christmas, possibly by Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“He will decide when he decides,” a top Democrat who speaks to the President told CNN, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a highly sensitive subject. “And rarely has he ever decided anything a minute sooner than he has to.”
Even in-the-know supporters who say they’re completely gung-ho about Biden 2024 quickly add that of course he’ll have to talk with his family to see what’s right for him — and that more than anything, they know everything hinges on the first lady.
No incumbent president has faced these kinds of continued doubts about running for reelection, which stretch from Pennsylvania Avenue to Pennsylvania.
Dave Henderson, the executive director of AFSCME Council 13 in Pennsylvania — who as a union leader from Pittsburgh is about as core a Biden voter as exists — said he’d supported the President from the start of his 2020 campaign and remains enthusiastic, but paused when asked if he’d support Biden for reelection.
“Tough question, because I’m not sure he’s going to run for reelection,” Henderson said.
Told that Biden has said he intends to run, Henderson signed on immediately: “If he’s running, then I’ve got his back.”
Sen. Chris Coons, the Delaware Democrat who holds Biden’s old seat and has stayed a confidant, told CNN the President “is seriously considering running,” and dismissed any static from the “60 Minutes” interview or elsewhere.
“He beat Donald Trump before; he’ll beat Donald Trump again. If that’s the way this race plays out, I think Joe Biden is the best Democrat to beat Donald Trump in 2024,” Coons said.
Standing on the White House driveway earlier this month after attending the Inflation Reduction Act celebration, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet said that as one of the incumbent Democrats facing a strong GOP challenger in November, he’d be eager to have the President come campaign for him.
“People have connected that it’s Democrats delivering,” Bennet said, “But I’d say it’s something more important than that: It reflects a very different ethic than the chaos of the Trump White House.”
A family decision
Those who know the first lady’s thought process, and are familiar with the strength of the Biden clan’s input, tell CNN that the last few months have also made them feel more open to another campaign. At times, they’ve expressed a little excitement at the prospect.
Jill Biden “is still processing” the idea, says a person with knowledge of the first lady’s recent conversations on the topic. She was never sold on Biden’s running in 2016, when he ultimately didn’t. She was in favor of his running in 2020, when he did.
“She will want to know if he can win, first and foremost. She will not want him put in a position where he could be embarrassed,” said one person who has worked for Biden for a long time and has witnessed the first lady’s tenacity with assessing data. “She will want to see a strategy for a primary and for a general (election).”
With the exception of Hunter Biden’s toddler-aged son, the other five Biden grandchildren are old enough, and care enough, to have an opinion on whether their “Pop” should run again. The President himself has recently returned to recounting the input his grandchildren gave him about getting into the 2020 race.
“Jill would make sure this decision would be made as a family — Hunter, Ashley, Val (Biden’s sister) and the grandchildren,” says the person who has worked with Biden. “She would want to know how they individually feel.”
A senior Biden adviser insisted there’s no wavering.
“The President has consistently said he intends to run for reelection and that is something both Dr. Biden and the family fully supports,” the adviser said. “The first lady will be an active campaigner for Democrats this fall and will carry a message of optimism and hope, focusing on the accomplishments of her husband’s administration. ‘Joe is delivering results’ will be a frequent message from her on the stump, name checking his achievements, and calling on voters to imagine what more he could do with larger majorities in Congress.”
The questions over Biden’s age get a little quieter
Biden is now a couple of months older than he was when many Democrats were gingerly trying to nudge him off the stage in the spring, but suddenly they’re insisting age is just a number for a man who’d be an unprecedented 86 years old by the end of his second term.
“The age thing is a convenient place to go for people who had other reasons to say they didn’t want him to run,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Pennsylvania congressman who was rooting for Biden to run in 2016, attended the first fundraiser of his 2020 campaign and is eager to see him go again. “It will be unique to have someone that age running for president. It was two years ago. It was in 2016 with Trump.”
Standing in a hallway in the Capitol, Boyle motioned toward the House floor, where all three top members of the Democratic leadership are already in their 80s.
“I serve in Congress,” he said. “To me, Joe Biden is young.”
Biden has always been sensitive about being seen as or called old, but he and others now say that all the talk over the summer that he wasn’t up to the moment and shouldn’t run for reelection was just Democrats voicing their despair that he and his White House seemed unable to get anything done.
“First half of the administration, people were basically describing him as Johnny Carson in his retirement year,” said Quinton Lucas, the 38-year-old mayor of Kansas City. “What you are seeing now is someone who is very active, going on trips, engaging with different parts of the administration.”
Getting results on “issues that not only are important for all Americans but issues the base has been talking about for a long time — guns, climate — that quells that discussion,” Lucas said.
Sitting at a bar in the Pittsburgh suburbs, Summer Lee, the young outspoken progressive almost certainly headed to Congress to succeed a retiring Democrat, said she’s not ready to commit to Biden — but is ready to hear him out.
“You can have a man for the moment, but it doesn’t matter unless we have a movement for the moment,” she said. Whatever happens, Biden “deserves to be able to set up that vision.”
“The best thing that could set us up for whatever it’s going to be, whether it’s President Biden or…. somebody else….is if we do not get slaughtered in this midterm,” Lee said.
Hedging and planning
Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, an active supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2020 and frequent opponent of what she’s seen as Biden’s moderation, has been at the White House for several recent celebrations, including for the Inflation Reduction Act ceremony. She told CNN that Biden “should” run, and “we will support him.”
Others are not so clear. Sources tell CNN that many more elected officials on Capitol Hill than have said so publicly remain undecided on whether they want Biden to run again. However, they say there are also many more who are in favor of Biden running and are reluctant to say it publicly because they fear the perceived political consequences.
Multiple members of Congress ducked the question when asked by CNN, saying they didn’t want to be on record discussing the question at all, including one progressive member who was enthusiastic about Biden’s recent record and more open to a reelection campaign these days, but didn’t want to say so publicly.
Even boosters almost always include a little hedge — an “if,” a conditional tense, a “let’s wait and see.”
“If President Biden chooses to run for reelection, I look forward to supporting him,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, widely seen as Nancy Pelosi’s likely successor for leader of Democrats in the House, told CNN at a news conference last week — an answer that echoed many other lawmakers who spoke to CNN.
For now, Biden advisers and DNC officials are approaching the future with the assumption that it’s not an if. Still, his advisers rebuff questions about the planning underway for a potential reelection campaign.
“The President has consistently said he intends to run for reelection, and nothing has changed about that thinking or the timeline for making his decision,” one adviser told CNN.
Meanwhile, White House and DNC officials are laying the groundwork for a potential reelection campaign under the auspices of the party apparatus. DNC officials say it helps that states with major races for Senate and governor this year overlap with where infrastructure would be needed for a presidential campaign.
“He’s always said he intends to run, and we take him at his word,” former Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Biden adviser and senior DNC adviser, told CNN. “We’re laying the groundwork for ’24 while we continue to make historic investments in ’22.”
DNC officials and Biden advisers credited those investments to Biden’s decision to focus on building the party apparatus rather than creating a campaign-in-waiting of his own, as both Presidents Barack Obama and Trump did.
“From the minute he became the nominee for the party … there was no question that we wouldn’t run everything in coordination with the DNC,” a senior Biden adviser said.
The DNC has so far raised a record $271 million this midterms cycle, according to a DNC official, and has spent or committed more than $70 million toward races in that time, more than doubling the DNC’s total 2018 midterm spending.
If not him, who?
While aides insist the President is focused on the midterm elections and his legislative agenda, the topic of his own political future has come up during closed-door conversations with historians he invites into the White House, people familiar with the private talks told CNN.
Democratic supporters and longtime admirers who believe he should not run again make the argument that he could be a historic figure — rather than a lame duck — if he announced he would only serve one term. Some add, hopefully, that they believe his popularity would immediately skyrocket if he pulled out.
Biden did what he came to Washington to do, some around the President argue, but they also note that his top priority would be trying to ensure that Trump or another Republican wouldn’t follow him to undo all that.
Every one of these conversations is driven, at least in part, by a question that has so far gone unanswered: If not him, who?
Though Biden’s choice is one of the most consequential decisions facing the party, the topic is rarely addressed out loud to him. Even behind the closed doors of fundraisers the President attended this week in New York, attendees said, the 2024 campaign did not come up beyond what has become his regular warning about how much different the second half of his term could be if Republicans take majorities in Congress.
“This isn’t about 2024, this is about 2022,” he said at one.
Some Democratic voters are not as reticent.
“I like Biden, but to be totally honest, I think a lot of the old men — and old women — need to move on,” Marylou Blaisdell, a small business owner in Nashua, New Hampshire, said last week in an interview. “We need some turnover. We need some new blood. We need some new ideas.”
Yet if Biden does decide to run — and Trump is his challenger — Blaisdell said she would back him without reservation.
The people thinking through what a search for some youth would actually look like in a primary process — including potentially pitting multiple members of the Biden administration against each other and a replay of the 2020 campaign’s intense ideological fight between the progressive and moderate wings of the party — remain wary.
“I’m for holding off the s—show that will come after him for four more years,” one state party chair told CNN.
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CNN’s Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.