President Joe Biden says he intends to run for reelection in 2024. But not all Democrats believe him. Nor are they convinced his No. 2 would be the clear heir if he did choose to opt out.
As Vice President Kamala Harris grapples with a portfolio of seemingly intractable issues and responsibilities that have drawn her away from the national spotlight — she Zoomed into the infrastructure Cabinet meeting from Paris on Friday — other Democrats have raised their own national profiles.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is the point person on implementing much of the popular bipartisan infrastructure deal. This fall, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) boosted the mayor of Manchester, N.H., during her recent reelection campaign and is keeping in touch with allies in the critical primary state, according to people familiar with the calls. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is on a book tour and campaigned in Virginia for Terry McAuliffe. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) endorsed left-wing and progressive candidates outside of Massachusetts this past year.
The spokespeople for that quartet either declined to comment or stressed that the moves were unrelated to future electoral ambitions. But the context in which these moves took place has given them a dose of intrigue unusual for when an incumbent president is still in his first year in office. Biden has said publicly and privately that he wants to run, and allies expect that will be only more likely if former President Donald Trump decides to challenge him in 2024 since Biden is skeptical of other Democrats’ prospects.
A person familiar with Biden’s conversation about his 2024 plans says "he has told people he is running and that ‘we will be prepared.’"
But there has been persistent chatter in Democratic circles that he could decide not to. And talk of successorship has spilled into open view in recent days, with even a close Biden ally, former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, speculating about Harris’ positioning in a potential 2024 primary.
All of it adds a new level of electoral uncertainty that the Democratic Party and Harris in particular face as they remain dependent on Biden’s success and unclear about his future.
“Folks are definitely playing chess right now. They’re playing the long game and seeing how things develop and shift,” said Nina Smith, who has worked for Buttigieg and Stacey Abrams.
Though the expectation remains that Biden will mount a reelection bid, Democratic operatives are preparing for the possibility that it won’t materialize, noting Biden’s grim 2022 midterm prospects and his age — he’d be 86 years old at the end of any second term. Biden has also said he wants to be a bridge to the next generation, which has fed routine speculation that he could bow out to make way for a younger Democratic candidate.
Typically, the person at the other side of that bridge would be the vice president. But less than a year into her time in the executive branch, more than a dozen Democratic officials — some affiliated with potential candidates — say that Harris is currently not scaring any prospective opponents.
“She’s definitely not going to clear the f—ing field,” said one veteran New Hampshire operative.
Harris’ office is keenly aware of these sentiments and the landscape ahead of her. They continue to insist that she is only focused on being “Joe Biden’s Joe Biden” — a strategy that could endear her to both Biden and his political network and potentially pay off with a Biden endorsement, should the time come.
The vice president’s office declined to comment for this story. But, underscoring concerns about her future, her allies outside of the administration have argued she’s been set up for failure by the portfolio she’s been handed.
Harris’ two main agenda items are voting rights and migration stemming from the Northern Triangle countries in Central America. Both are thorny topics with few easy solutions. And because of the absence of clear progress on both, Harris has become the subject of criticism from both the right and the left. Indeed, there are other potential candidates who have been making national splashes on both those fronts.
Abrams, who has been deliberate in maintaining her relationships with national Democrats and their donors, is directly associated with voting rights as an issue. If she runs and wins the Governor’s Mansion in Georgia next year, Democratic operatives expect her to at least consider a White House bid. Other Democrats across the country have also recruited her to send out emails given her draw among the party’s base and her potency as an online fundraiser.
Meanwhile, Harris’ “do not come” warning to migrants earlier this year, while the official stance of the administration, has earned the ire of some Latino circles. Famed journalist Jorge Ramos penned a furious column after her remarks, with the question: “What would have happened if a U.S. politician had told Harris’ Indian mother or her Jamaican father not to come to the United States to study?”
At the same time, former presidential candidate Julián Castro has frequently appeared on television to critique the administration on its immigration platform and stake out a more humane border enforcement policy.
Other Democratic officials note that some other new faces could be in the mix, like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer if she wins reelection in 2022 and enjoys a good relationship with Biden.
Charles Burson, who served as Vice President Al Gore’s White House chief of staff during his presidential run, says Harris still has time to take on a big portfolio item that isn’t “impossible” and could allow her to “[elevate her] profile where the party and the nation looks to you as the leader.”
For now, Harris is operating in a media environment where “there’s this assumption that a vice president’s going to clear the field,” said Joel K. Goldstein, author of “The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden." Goldstein added that the ability to use the vice presidency as a springboard to the nomination and eventually the White House is an advantage almost every potential candidate would take over being a senator or even Cabinet secretary.
“The trade-off is you get the chance to sit in the situation room and to be the last person in the room and to go off to France and meet with [Emmanuel] Macron,” Goldstein said. But on the other hand, vice presidents inherit the popularity or unpopularity of the administration, and arguably the biggest challenge is “emerging from the president’s shadow [and] preserving the idea that you’re a leader and not just a follower,” he says.
While others can operate on their own — or in Buttigieg’s case, end up leading one of the administration’s most popular bipartisan laws — Harris’ vice presidency is more of a senior adviser role. It has given her proximity to the president but also placed her political future in the backseat as she toes the administration line. Allies note that voters don’t see Harris in many of her roles or hear the advice she provides to Biden in the Oval Office — putting her at the whims of public perception and media coverage of the role she’s playing. And with a 50-50 Senate, Harris has been forced to stay near D.C. to potentially cast tie-breaking votes on Biden nominees. That’s limited her capacity to do public outreach although she has traveled to New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada in her first year — critical early states in a presidential primary.
Those in Harris’ larger orbit point to the dozens of meetings she’s had with different important Democratic constituencies as an advantage for any future campaign. The meetings can serve two purposes: strengthening relationships with groups now while silently building a political network in waiting.
Smith says a solution for Harris is to take those meetings on the road.
“That could be a very good place for her to be. Since 2020 and the primary, I think everybody’s kind of found their place, and it feels like she’s still looking for that place,” Smith said. “I feel like she needs to come home, meaning you need to be talking to Black folks. She needs to be talking to the base as much as possible and not just meetings that’s at the residence or in the White House. But I’m talking community.”
Zach Montellaro contributed to this report.