As former President Trump announced his third bid for the White House last month, President Biden was on the other side of the world, convening an emergency meeting of world leaders following reports of explosions on Poland’s border with Ukraine.
Trump, twice impeached and now facing several civil and criminal investigations, used an hourlong speech to offer a familiar refrain of attacks on his challengers and grievances about his electoral defeat. Biden, meanwhile, huddled with foreign leaders on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, to figure out how to prevent the Ukraine conflict from escalating.
White House aides and Democratic operatives are hoping for more of these split-screen moments ahead of a presidential campaign that could be a rematch of the 2020 contest. Trump’s decision to jump into the race two years before election day sets up one of the longest election cycles in U.S. history, a timetable that forces Biden to be more strategic on when to engage directly with the former president and when to tune him out.
Biden, who has said he would “not be disappointed” to face Trump again, has yet to launch an official bid but said he intends to run and is expected to announce a decision after the holidays. At 80, he is the oldest person to serve as president, and already older than Ronald Reagan was when Reagan left office after two terms. He will be just shy of 82 on Election Day 2024.
Biden’s party, though, is acting as if he is running. It has already begun hiring media operatives in key states.
Although other Republican hopefuls like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and former Vice President Mike Pence are eyeing a White House run, Biden officials and Democrats are determined to make Trump the face of the GOP — a tactic that helped the party in an unexpectedly strong midterm election and one they will hope will be successful in a 2024 match-up.
Biden began his presidency selectively mentioning his predecessor, referring to him only as “the former guy.” But ahead of last month’s election, he assailed Republicans who supported Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement and worked to associate the party with an extremist agenda that he said was focused on rolling back abortion rights and amplifying Trump’s falsehoods about the 2020 election.
Critics argued the president ignored pocketbook issues like inflation and the economy, but abortion and threats to democracy turned out to be motivating issues that helped Democrats outperform historical trends. The 2022 election marked the first time since 1934 that Democrats gained both Senate seats and governorships in a midterm while controlling the White House.
West Wing officials feel vindicated, Biden aides and advisers say. They plan to stick with the same formula in 2024: paint Republicans as extremists who are beholden to Trump while the president hits the road to highlight the impact of his legislative wins on infrastructure, tackling climate change and boosting semiconductor manufacturing in the U.S. The White House plans to use the same playbook to draw a contrast with congressional Republicans, who have vowed to investigate the Biden administration when they take control of the House of Representatives in January.
Many people “will define the Republican party and the Republican nominee heading into 2024. It’s not just the nominee.” said Ben LaBolt, a former Obama spokesman who remains close to the White House. “It’ll depend on whether House Republicans will focus on issues that matter to the American people or a bunch of investigations into the administration that the American people have made clear they don’t care about.”
Fewer than 3 in 10 Americans said they want Congress to focus on a presidential impeachment investigations or on the business dealings of the president’s son, Hunter Biden, according to a Morning Consult poll released in November.
Inside the White House, officials have spent months preparing for a potential Biden-Trump rematch. White House deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, who ran Biden’s 2020 campaign, and senior advisor Anita Dunn are managing political messaging while other longtime hands including chief of staff Ron Klain, Steve Ricchetti and Mike Donilon are involved in campaign strategy. Such efforts include launching a new webpage touting the administration’s legislative record hours before Trump announced his run at his Mar-a-Lago estate. During the former president’s speech, Biden’s Twitter account posted a video entitled “Donald Trump failed America,” with flickering scenes from Trump’s four years in office.
In the weeks since Trump announced his campaign, he’s made headlines for dining with white nationalist Nick Fuentes and Kanye West, who’s been widely condemned for making antisemitic comments. He also raised eyebrows when he called for the suspension of the Constitution in the wake of a report on Twitter’s moderation decisions during the 2020 election.
“Imagine four more years of the last guy coming up,” Biden told a small group of donors at a Boston fundraiser last week.
The White Housecondemned Trump’s comments about the Constitution and called on Republicans to reject them, seizing on an opportunity to underscore an explicit threat to democracy, aides say.
The Democratic National Committee, meanwhile, has sought to tie the field of potential Republican primary contenders to Trump and his extreme comments.
The DNC has already started preparing for the next election, hiring communications staff in four early voting states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — as well as Florida, which is home to both Trump and DeSantis. The hires mark the earliest the party has put communications staff on the ground in a presidential election cycle, according to a Democratic official. Since the spring of 2021, about 40 DNC researchers have been tracking media coverage featuring Trump and other potential GOP candidates.
In the wake of the GOP’s lackluster midterm results and Trump’s comments about the Constitution, some Republicans have suggested the party should abandon its standard-bearer. But Republicans pondered a similar question following the Jan. 6, 2021, attacks.
“I don’t think we should underestimate the stickiness of of his base,” LaBolt said. “He has the opportunity to drive a more effective and sustained message but he certainly hasn’t yet.”
Trump’s decision to run has drawn historical comparisons to former President Grover Cleveland, who lost his reelection bid in 1888 to Benjamin Harrison, only to oust Harrison four years later. But even in his defeat, Cleveland won the popular vote. Trump has lost the popular vote twice.
Cleveland may be the exception compared to other presidential candidates who have been re-nominated after losing their elections. Democrat William Jennings Bryan was nominated twice after losing to former President William McKinley in 1896 and performed worse each time. Adlai Stevenson ran against former Republican President Dwight Eisenhower twice and earned fewer votes the second time around. Aside from Cleveland, Richard Nixon is the only losing presidential candidate to win on a second attempt.
“It’s that old saying about the definition of insanity and doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” said University of Chicago political scientist John Mark Hansen.
Although the White House remains confident about its strategy, political winds shift quickly, Republican strategist Doug Heye said, noting that a year ago Democrats were resigned to the idea that they might lose control of Congress amid party infighting over legislative priorities and following the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“In a year and a half, I don’t think Republicans are going to be pointing fingers at Donald Trump because Dan Cox and Doug Mastriano and Herschel Walker were terrible candidates,” Heye said, referring to Trump-endorsed candidates who lost in November. “If Democrats are going to tell you that Republicans are relitigating the primary system from the midterms a year and a half from now … it’s very wishful thinking.”
Investigations into both Biden and Trump may also have a hand in shaping the 2024 campaign. Republicans’ thin control of the House gives right-wing members more political leverage as they look to damage Biden’s credibility through oversight probes on the COVID-19 pandemic, border security, China and the House committee investigation into the Jan. 6 attacks.
Trump is also facing a string of civil and criminal investigations including a federal probe of his potential mishandling of classified documents and state and federal inquiries into his efforts to overturn the 2020 election result.
“It’s obviously very difficult to judge where legally, much less politically, where we’re going to be in a year in a half,” Heye said.
Though the results of the midterm election have allowed Biden to take an extended victory lap, they haven’t shifted public sentiment on his performance. A new Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found 43% of adults approve of the way Biden’s handling his job, compared with 55% who disapproved — virtually unmoved from his approval rating in October.
Those stubbornly low approval ratings haven’t kept Biden home. He spent the weeks since the election touting legislative victories in key battleground states, including Michigan and Arizona.
Asked last month what he would do differently in the next two years to address voter concerns about the direction of the country, the president responded: “Nothing.”
“They’re just finding out what we’re doing,” Biden said. “The more they know about what we’re doing, the more support there is.”
The biggest challenge for both Biden and Trump, however, may be to convince the rest of the country that either of them should run again, according to a CNBC All-America Economic Survey released Friday.
The poll found that 61% of the public think Trump should not run for office again. A full 70% said Biden should not seek another term.