Biden will need Pa. Dems to win reelection

Julia Terruso
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — As President Joe Biden announces his run for reelection, he finds himself in a familiar space: well-enough liked by many, beloved by few.

Democrats in Pennsylvania heralded Biden’s early Tuesday announcement that he and Vice President Kamala Harris would run again, while acknowledging the challenges ahead. The president has wide but shallow support from the party’s rank and file — half of voters who backed him in 2020 say he shouldn’t run again and about 42% of voters approve of the job he’s doing. He’ll need to connect with younger, progressive voters while maintaining a base reluctantly behind him, given few viable Democratic alternatives. And he’ll need to convince voters in Pennsylvania and elsewhere that his significant policy accomplishments have earned him a second term and that, at age 80, he’s prepared to embark on one.

“People in Pennsylvania are happy to rally around the president from Scranton, with a wife from Philadelphia,” the state’s Democratic chair, Sen. Sharif Street, said recently. “It cuts different here.”

Street said he thinks Biden’s legislative accomplishments will bring back the coalition assembled in 2020.

“People said Democrats can’t appeal to working-class people, Black people, Latinos and working-class white folks. Joe Biden has done that,” he said. “People said you can’t advance a progressive agenda and create jobs. Joe Biden has done that. So I think history will reflect on this administration as one of the most successful in history.”

Biden’s widely expected announcement, made in a video released online, followed mounting pressure from Democrats for him to end the speculation and fully jump into the race. His aides have said he’ll base his campaign nearby in Wilmington, Delaware.

“When I ran for president four years ago, I said we were in a battle for the soul of America and we still are,” Biden said in his announcement. “The question we’re facing is whether in the years ahead we have more freedoms or less freedom. More rights or fewer. I know what I want the answer to be and I think you do too. This is not a time to be complacent. That’s why I’m running for reelection.”

It came four years to the date from when he launched his bid in 2019, when he started out trailing a pack of Democratic hopefuls only to coalesce support as the favorite to take on President Donald Trump.

And like in 2020, the presidential campaign will run squarely through Pennsylvania.

“I continue to say Pennsylvania is the single biggest battleground state in the nation,” said U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Philadelphia. “No single president has been to Pennsylvania as much while in office. … This will help him come next year. People here know that he doesn’t just show up at election time.”

Apprehensive support in Pennsylvania

Democrats polled are tepid on a Biden reelection bid but when asked who they’d like to see run instead, few list an alternative. The same is true for Trump: Half of those who voted for him in 2020 said they don’t think he should run again.

Opinions on whether someone should run doesn’t necessarily predict the support the candidate will receive. In Pennsylvania, Biden has traditionally had a slightly higher favorability rating than elsewhere, a nod to his ties to the region. Biden’s campaign was headquartered in Philadelphia in 2020, though the pandemic resulted in a lot of virtual campaigning. He makes regular visits to the state as president, delivering his budget address from a union hall here in March and visiting with his family in April. Biden attended the DNC winter meeting in Philadelphia in February and gave a speech that sounded a lot like a stump speech as Democrats there shouted “four more years!”

Mobilizing younger voters will likely be key. Voters under 35 overwhelmingly tend to vote Democratic but motivating them to turn out will be the challenge for Biden and Democrats.

“The group was highly motivated to vote in 2020,” Boyle said. “I believe it will be similarly motivated in ’24, especially if Trump is the nominee.”

Kris Johnson, a 30-year-old Democrat who lives in South Philadelphia, said he’d reluctantly back Biden in a rematch. “But I’d like it if there was another Democratic candidate, really anyone to mix it up a little bit instead of two extremely old guys again.”

Gabriela Femenia, a 51-year-old law librarian who lives in Mount Airy, liked that Biden “lowered the political temperature.” But she’s been disappointed by his border policy and sluggish approach to immigration reform. Taken together, her reaction to a second run is a bit of a sigh.

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“My expectation is it will be a Trump-Biden re-run, and my vote would be the same,” Femenia said. “I don’t currently see a viable challenger to Biden. I don’t think the conditions have changed that much.”

For some progressive voters like Soneyet Muhammad, that sigh is more of a groan. Muhammad, a Democrat in South Philadelphia who works for an anti-poverty nonprofit, said she “begrudgingly” backed Biden in 2020. Looking toward 2024, she doesn’t see a candidate on the ballot for her.

“He’s the current head of the party, and no one wants to rock the boat,” Muhammad said. “But he’s entirely too old for this role. And I don’t mean ability, I mean the challenges that have faced his generation are materially different than the ones we face now.”

Laura White, a real estate agent and Democratic school board member in Perkiomen Valley, thinks as the campaign unfolds Biden should highlight some of the people he’s appointed in his administration, particularly younger, diverse staff in positions of power.

“When you put someone on a pedestal and say, ‘This one person is the answer,’ you set yourself up for failure,” White said. “When he acknowledges his age, his experience, which he does do, and that he’s humble enough to have smart people around him, I think that makes him more likeable, especially to young people.”

Biden named Julie Chavez Rodriguez, a senior White House official and granddaughter of the famed labor leader Cesar Chavez, as his campaign manager, and Quentin Fulks, who ran Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock’s successful 2022 race, as his deputy campaign manager.

Connecting the dots for voters

Biden has already signaled that he will run a campaign on his legislative accomplishments like investments in infrastructure and manufacturing, lowering health care and drug costs, fighting climate change, and help for working families. He’s also reupped a refrain from his last campaign, casting himself as a defender of democracy against GOP extremists.

“A lot has been accomplished over the past three years,” said Rogette Harris, who chairs the Democratic Party in Dauphin County. “The party hasn’t done a good job with messaging that out to the people.”

While the unemployment rate might be low, people working two jobs doesn’t feel the strength of the economy, she said.

“Just spouting off statistics isn’t what people want to hear,” Harris said. “What they care about is what’s in their own personal pocket books.”

Matt Munsey, a Democratic chair in Northampton, thinks some of the Biden hesitation in polls will fade.

“People have to be reminded what has actually been done,” Munsey said.

Jason Salus, Democratic chair in Montgomery County agreed: “He may not be the flashiest president but I think he’s the ‘get things done’ president. Ultimately, that’s what will matter.”

Biden has a year and a half to try to drive home his record, but he’ll simultaneously face attacks on it from the GOP, particularly over substantial increases in government spending. A Republican National Committee ad out Tuesday calls Biden “the weakest president we’ve ever had” and depicts a dystopian future if he is reelected.

Danny Bauder, president of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, called Biden the most pro-union president in 100 years but acknowledged some members don’t equate his administration with policies that have helped labor.

“Some folks don’t see the connection. We have a duty to make sure they understand where some of those benefits they are receiving are coming from.”

GOP strength in Pa.

The GOP primary will likely be the main focus in 2024, with Trump, who has maintained a strong following in Pennsylvania, running for a 2020 rematch in a field that includes former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former Vice President Mike Pence have signaled they may run.

Biden so far has two announced primary opponents — former candidate and author Marianne Williamson and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., though neither is expected to mount a serious challenge. The DNC has already announced it won’t hold debates in the Democratic contest.

In early head-to-head polling, DeSantis does better than Trump when matched against Biden. While DeSantis’ presumptive campaign is off to a rocky start, he’s currently seen as the most likely alternative to Trump for GOP voters whose support for the former president softened after a 2022 midterm election in which the GOP suffered some big losses. DeSantis made a swing through Pennsylvania, testing out the political waters earlier this month.

Glen Beiler, a Republican committeeman in Lancaster, doesn’t know who he’ll back in the GOP primary but appreciates the bench his party has compared with Democrats.

“Who else is there?” Beiler said. “Incumbency carries a lot of weight and … love him or not, it’s kind of where they’re at.”

Kathy Bozinski, the Democratic chair in Luzerne County, thinks Biden can still attract moderate Democrats and some Republicans in the state.

“I think the biggest question I’m hearing is, ‘Hey, what took him so long?,’” she said. “We wish he would have just announced sooner, because we’re ready to roll.”