Biden, under pressure from own party, fires back as 2024 questions persist

A new poll, his age, the economy and abortion rights have him on the defensive.

July 15, 2022, 5:08 AM

As a slew of historic challenges pile up on Joe Biden's presidency, he faces increasing dissatisfaction from within his own party and questions about his electability just months before crucial midterm elections.

Historic, global inflation and high gas prices have driven his popularity to lows that could threaten Democrats' chances of retaining control of Congress this fall.

Amid calls from activists for Biden to show more urgency on issues such as abortion and gun reform, the White House has fired back, calling those who want more action on abortion "out of step."

But a wide majority of Democrats in a New York Times/Siena College poll published this week – 64% – said that they want someone other than Biden to represent them in the 2024 presidential election.

Among those Democrats, the top reason they wanted another standard-bearer was because of Biden's age (33%), followed by his job performance (32%). Further down the list, 4% cited his ability to win, and 3% pointed to his mental acuity.

President Joe Biden listens during a meeting with Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, July 12, 2022.
Susan Walsh/AP

Questions of age

At 79, Biden is the oldest president in U.S. history, and his age has drawn concerns from not just within his own party but from across the aisle -- with nonstop negative coverage in conservative media of his perceived gaffes and constant questions about his mental fitness.

Fox News hosts constantly portray the president as a feeble, elderly man as they play short video clips they say show him looking confused at events, mixing up words and relying on notecards with basic instructions, like, "You take your seat." (Former President Donald Trump used similar notes.)

While those attacks are amplified through Fox News' partisan lens, Biden clearly lacks the energy he had as a younger vice president and senator before that, often walking in a halting manner and frequently tripping over his words.

In 2018, before he launched his most recent campaign for president, Biden said it was "totally legitimate" for voters to consider a candidate's age and "what kind of shape you're in," CNN reported at the time.

"I think it's totally appropriate for people to look at me and say if I were to run for office again, 'Well, God darn, you're old,'" he said, according to CNN. "Well, chronologically I am old."

A White House official said aides “far younger” than Biden “have to fight to keep up” with the president, who works late into the night and “never takes a day off, wherever he is.”

“We see him throw himself into the hardest parts of the job,” the official said, noting Biden recently spent “hours comforting families” of victims of mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas.

President Joe Biden poses for selfies during the Congressional Picnic on the South Lawn of the White House on July 12, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Fired-up Biden tells ABC: 'They want me to run'

In an impassioned exchange with ABC News this week, Biden defended his popularity among Democrats, noting that the same New York Times/Siena College poll showed that if he ended up facing off against former President Donald Trump in 2024, 92% of Democrats said they'd vote for Biden.

And among all voters, the poll found, Biden would best Trump by 44% to 41%.

When asked by this reporter what his message was to Democrats who do not want him to run again, Biden replied, "They want me to run."

"Read the polls," he responded, fired up and changing direction. "Read the polls, Jack. You guys are all the same. That poll showed that 92% of Democrats, if I ran, would vote for me."

This reporter pointed out that most Democrats surveyed did, in fact, say they wanted someone else to run.

"But 92% said if I did, they'd vote for me," Biden shot back, before walking away.

The president told ABC News in December he plans to run for reelection. "If I'm in the health I'm in now -- from a good health, and, in fact, I would run again," he said then.

Vice President Kamala Harris, too, has made clear she would run with him.

President Joe Biden speaks ABC News' Ben Gittleson as he departs the Congressional Picnic on the South Lawn of the White House, July 12, 2022, in Washington.
Patrick Semansky/AP

Biden's message: Vote

In the wake of Supreme Court setbacks for abortion rights, gun restrictions and climate change, progressive activists -- and many of their allies in Congress -- have vocally called on Biden to take more drastic measures to protects Americans' rights.

His message? Vote for Democrats in the November midterms.

"This fall, Roe is on the ballot," he said the day the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last month. "Personal freedoms are on the ballot. The right to privacy, liberty, equality, they're all on the ballot."

While Biden has used his bully pulpit to speak out forcefully on these topics, he and his advisers insist they are hamstrung by legal limitations on what they can do -- especially when it comes to protecting access to abortion.

His outgoing communications director, Kate Bedingfield, blasted activists who have been critical of Biden's response to the Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which found women do not have a constitutional right to an abortion.

"Joe Biden's goal in responding to Dobbs is not to satisfy some activists who have been consistently out of step with the mainstream of the Democratic Party," she said in a statement to The Washington Post earlier this week that ignited blowback from progressives. "It's to deliver help to women who are in danger and assemble a broad-based coalition to defend a woman's right to choose now, just as he assembled such a coalition to win during the 2020 campaign."

At a news conference in Madrid last month, a reporter asked Biden if he was the best messenger to fight for abortion rights when his own views on abortion had evolved over the years. Many progressives want him to do more, the reporter noted.

"I'm the only president they got," Biden replied, "and I feel extremely strongly that I'm going to do everything in my power which I legally can do in terms of executive orders, as well as push the Congress and the public."

But he also said "the bottom line" is that people should "show up and vote."

"Vote in the off-year and vote, vote, vote," Biden said. "That's how we'll change it."

Gov. Gavin Newsom talks to Sen. Debbie Stabenow at the U.S. Capitol, July 14, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Young Democratic candidates speak of disconnect with party

But the New York Times/Siena College poll showed younger Democrats, in particular, want a nominee other than Biden in 2024, with 94% of Democrats under 30 years old expressing that sentiment.

One millennial Democrat running to represent the Nashville, Tennessee, area in Congress, Odessa Kelly, told ABC News she traced those young Democrats' apprehensiveness to a more deeply rooted disappointment that began before Biden assumed office.

As the founder of the nonprofit Stand Up Nashville, Kelly recounted distributing more than 300 food boxes per day to people "who still had their work uniforms on because they were coming in between work shifts to survive another day." Among them, she said, were elementary school staff, including younger teachers who requested food supplies for their families and classrooms.

"The Democratic Party always talks about helping the next generation, but I noticed that the caretakers of children are all struggling paycheck to paycheck," Kelly said.

She said economic pressures became especially acute in Nashville during the coronavirus pandemic.

"The people of Nashville are at their breaking points," she said. "I understand when people say it feels like we haven't elected people who come from these shared experiences we got."

Another millennial Democrat running for Congress in Texas, Greg Casar, told ABC News he thought the disconnect younger voters are feeling stems from a generational difference on how to tackle salient political issues, such as climate change.

"So many Gen Z voters don't want to just wait for things to somehow get better," Casar, who was an Austin City Council member from 2015 until this year, said. "Younger voters want action. That is the kind of energy that is so often lacking in our politics."

Both candidates back Biden – Kelly said she'd "vote for Biden any day over Trump" – with some reservations. Casar urged Biden to move faster to protect abortion access.

"Texans can't just sit and wait for another election while their healthcare is being denied," he said. "The president can speak urgently, but he needs to act more with that same urgency to help voters of color."

Governors push for action -- and spark 2024 speculation

Amid the Democratic discontent with Biden, other Democrats have stirred chatter of potential 2024 runs.

Biden says he'll run again, but that hasn't stopped speculation California Gov. Gavin Newsom may have ambitions for higher office, although on Wednesday he emphatically said would back a Biden bid in 2024.

Newsom, though, has criticized Democratic leaders for not confronting Republicans more aggressively. And this week, he visited Washington, where he delivered a speech where he spoke about national issues.

And Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who traveled to New Hampshire last month to campaign for Democrats and pitch Chicago as a 2024 presidential nominating convention site -- and plans to fundraise for Florida Democrats this weekend -- has fueled chatter he has higher aspirations. (He has insisted that he's focused on his re-election as governor.)

After a shooting on the Fourth of July left seven dead in Highland Park, Illinois, Pritzker's intense, confrontational response garnered widespread praise.

"If you're angry today, I'm here to tell you be angry," he said that day. "I'm furious. I'm furious that yet more innocent lives were taken by gun violence. I'm furious that their loved ones are forever broken by what took place today."

Biden's first public comments on the shooting were brief and did not mention Highland Park by name.

"You all heard what happened today," he told an Independence Day gathering outside the White House. "But each day, we're reminded there's nothing guaranteed about our democracy, nothing guaranteed about our way of life. We have to fight for it, defend it, and earn it by voting to refine, evolve, and extend the calling of America to move forward boldly and unafraid."

Two hours later, he decided to speak again, mentioning the city's name, noting he had spoken with Pritzker and the mayor, and calling for a moment of silence. "We've got a lot more work to do," he said. "We've got to get this under control."

Pritzker met with Biden at the White House earlier this week when he was in town for an event marking the recent passage of gun safety legislation. He told reporters they did not discuss politics.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens as President Joe Biden speaks during an event to celebrate the passage of the "Bipartisan Safer Communities Act," a law meant to reduce gun violence, on the South Lawn of the White House, July 11, 2022, in Washington.
Evan Vucci/AP

On Capitol Hill, a defense of Biden -- while others block his agenda

Few Democrats on Capitol Hill are willing to publicly question whether Biden should run again in 2024, although progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, often call on him to act with greater urgency.

Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat from California who has criticized Biden in the past, said recently that, as president and leader of the Democratic Party, Biden is "owed a degree of respect."

"There's a tone in which to challenge the administration and offer new ideas," Khanna tweeted last week, "and that tone ought to be one of good faith to help the president, not throwing darts to weaken him when he's the leader of our party."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, has forcefully defended the president throughout his time in office.

"I wouldn't waste my time on figuring out how enthusiastic this White House is about a woman's right to choose," she said Thursday. "They're there."

In the fact of setbacks, the president has responded with a call not just to elect more Democrats -- but for Congress to take action.

Even though his party controls both chambers of Congress, Democrats' majority in the House is narrow, and their 50-50 split with Republicans in the Senate has meant Biden has failed to achieve the 60 votes necessary to further most of his legislative priorities.

Senate Democrats could change the rules to require just a simple majority to move legislation forward, but Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema have blocked that effort.

Manchin has also stood in the way of Biden's attempts to force his major "Build Back Better" package – that would make massive investments in health care, education, fighting climate change and other Democratic domestic goals.

Biden has frequently lamented the tough spot he's in.

"When you're in the United States Senate, and you're president of the United States, and you have 50 Democrats," he joked during a CNN town hall last year, "every one is a president."

ABC News' Alina Kim and Mariam Khan contributed to this report.

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