Correction: The date of the 2020 presidential election has been corrected in several places. We regret the error.
Democrats are fretting about President Biden’s low approval ratings, exacerbated by widespread concerns about his age.
Those factors seem to be getting worse rather than better. A CNN/SSRS poll released this week showed just 39 percent of adults approving of Biden’s job performance, his lowest number in more than a year.
Almost three-quarters of the population, according to the poll, believes Biden lacks the stamina and sharpness to serve effectively as president.
Even among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, 67 percent asserted the party should choose someone else as its standard-bearer in the 2024 election.
Despite all that, most Democrats believe Biden, 80, will indeed be the party’s nominee in the next election.
It is extremely difficult to defeat an incumbent president in a primary, and the president’s two declared opponents, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Marianne Williamson, are going nowhere fast.
Even so, plenty of Democrats are at least daydreaming of alternatives, just in case Biden would decide to step aside or circumstances would change unexpectedly.
Here are five possible alternatives to Biden in 2024 or beyond.
Vice President Harris
Harris is the obvious heir apparent to Biden as an incumbent vice president more than two decades his junior.
The vice president can stir controversy with even the most innocuous of remarks on a possible succession, as happened this week when she stated in two interviews — one with The Associated Press and another with CBS News — that she was ready to be president. Both times, she emphasized this was hypothetical since Biden “is going to be fine.”
The only scenario for Harris right now is one in which Biden abandons his run for reelection.
But even under those circumstances, there are plenty of Democrats who aren’t thrilled about the concept of a Harris White House bid.
For a start, her poll ratings are often worse than those of her boss.
In an Economist/YouGov poll this week, Harris and Biden had an identical unfavorable rating — 55 percent. Slightly more people, 41 percent, had a favorable view of Biden than the 36 percent positively disposed toward Harris.
The skeptics fear Harris would struggle even more than Biden in some of the Midwestern states that are vital in the Electoral College. Memories of her disappointing campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2020 are also still fresh.
It’s certainly possible Harris would become the Democratic nominee if Biden left the field, but it would not be an automatic coronation by any means.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom
At one point last year, Newsom seemed as if he could be edging toward a primary challenge to Biden — much to the chagrin of the White House.
It wasn’t just that Newsom was upping his profile with headline-grabbing moves like buying TV time on the other side of the country to attack Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
He was also criticizing his party — and, some felt, criticizing Biden by implication.
“We’re getting crushed on narrative,” Newsom told CBS News in early November 2022. “We’re going to have to do better in terms of getting on the offense and stop being on the damn defense.”
Newsom has not been so critical of his party of late, and any speculation of a 2024 primary challenge has dried up.
But the California governor is staking his claim to be part of the national scene, including by continuing his feud with DeSantis. The two men have agreed to debate each other later this year, though that clash could still be derailed over details.
Could Newsom win if he were the Democratic nominee?
He is an energetic advocate for the progressive cause. But his detractors wonder how he would fare in battleground states given his image as an archetypal California liberal.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg
Buttigieg, like Harris, was one of Biden’s rivals for the 2020 nomination. Unlike her, he surpassed expectations — though he never became a serious contender to win.
Buttigieg’s key strengths are his intelligence and his communication skills, especially on television.
The Transportation Secretary is firmly located in the mainstream of the Democratic Party. In 2020, he withdrew from the presidential race at least in part to help Biden vanquish the progressive threat posed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
But Buttigieg has become a frequent target of Republicans and their media allies. His touch has sometimes deserted him, as when it took him almost three weeks to visit East Palestine, Ohio, in the wake of a disastrous train derailment.
Buttigieg is a likely presidential candidate at some point in the future, but it’s yet to be determined how many Democrats are truly passionate about him. His poor performance with Black voters in 2020 is another source of concern.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
It’s easy to make the case for why Whitmer could go national.
As the female governor of a state won by former President Trump in 2016, she has built broad appeal, foregrounding practical problem-solving rather than dogma. “Fix the damn roads” was one of her signature battle cries in her first gubernatorial campaign in 2018.
At the same time, Whitmer has other political assets that would draw approval from the Democratic activist base.
She has made the defense of abortion rights a central issue, particularly since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade.
Republicans at one point thought Whitmer would be vulnerable in her reelection bid last year. Instead — given a tailwind by an abortion-related ballot measure on the same day — she trounced Republican challenger Tudor Dixon by more than 10 points.
Meanwhile, the fact Whitmer was the target of a kidnapping plot in 2020 makes her an even more sympathetic figure.
Speculation about an eventual White House bid by Whitmer has been building steadily. “Why Not Whitmer?” was the headline of an Atlantic story on the topic in June.
Perhaps Whitmer has vulnerabilities that have yet to be exposed but, in a Biden-free field, she would be an extremely serious contender.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.)
Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Biden in July, though hardly with extravagant enthusiasm.
“I think he’s done quite well, given the limitations that we have,” Ocasio-Cortez told the “Pod Save America” podcast. Biden’s opponents, Kennedy and Williamson, were mentioned before the New York congresswoman was asked if she would support Biden. “Given that field, yes,” she replied.
An AOC White House quest, if Biden stepped back, would be electrifying to fans and detractors alike.
Her supporters thrill to her forceful advocacy for progressive positions, her capacity to connect with the new generation of voters and her charisma.
Her detractors on the right blast her as a left-wing extremist, while more centrist members of the Democratic Party argue she is unelectable in a national election.
There are clear challenges, for sure.
An Economist/YouGov poll in February asked respondents if they had a favorable or unfavorable view of the congresswoman. Forty-three percent viewed her unfavorably, while just 32 percent viewed her favorably.
Still, her net negative margin of 11 points was not vastly different from Biden’s 7-point net negative rating in the same poll, nor from Harris, who was 10 points underwater.
In the event Biden does not run in 2024, Ocasio-Cortez is old enough to be president— just about.
She will turn 35, the minimum age for the nation’s highest office, roughly three weeks before the 2024 election.
Updated at 10:46 am.