If Biden Bows Out, How About Michelle Obama?

From a Wall Street Journal commentary by Douglas Schoen and Andrew Stein headlined “If Biden Bows Out, How About Michelle Obama?”

Donald Trump’s spirited performance in last week’s CNN town hall, combined with recent polls, has some Democrats realizing he could be elected president again in 2024. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll finds President Joe Biden with a 36% approval rating and trailing Mr. Trump by 6 points in a race for the White House. We aren’t the only Democrats considering alternatives and wondering: If not Mr. Biden, who should be the nominee?

To be sure, Mr. Biden will remain a candidate as long as he is both physically able and politically viable. But if his poll numbers drop further, or if his health markedly deteriorates, it is possible that Democratic leaders in Congress will encourage him not to seek re-election. Unfortunately for the president, the majority of the country—including many Democratic voters—are already on board with making that case.

Nearly two-thirds of American adults believe Mr. Biden lacks either the mental sharpness (63%) or the physical health (62%) to serve effectively as president, as per the ABC News/Washington Post poll. While Democratic voters are less likely to express doubts about Mr. Biden’s mental and physical fitness, 58% want their party to nominate someone other than Mr. Biden in 2024, according to an earlier ABC News/Washington Post poll.

Such sentiments will only increase in coming months as the U.S. economy teeters on the brink of a recession, or if Mr. Biden’s personal challenges, such as his son Hunter Biden’s legal issues, become more apparent and potentially disabling.

If Mr. Biden can’t run for re-election, his natural successor is Vice President Kamala Harris. But Ms. Harris is even less popular than the president: Only 35% of registered voters have a favorable opinion of her compared with 41% for Mr. Biden, according to a recent Wall Street Journal poll. Ms. Harris’s approval rating in November 2021 hit a historic low for any modern vice president, and she is viewed much less favorably than her four predecessors at the same point in their respective tenures.

Furthermore, Mr. Trump trounces Ms. Harris in a general election match-up. According to a Harvard CAPS-Harris poll released this year, Mr. Trump leads Ms. Harris by 10 points, 49% to 39%.

Who, then, could run—and win—for Democrats?

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg comes to mind, as he sought the nomination in 2020. But Mr. Buttigieg’s reputation has been tarnished by his department’s mishandling of the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and by the Federal Aviation Administration’s computer-system failure in January, which grounded thousands of flights across the country.

Moreover, aside from Ms. Harris, no one in the Biden administration is a realistic option for the top of the ticket. If Mr. Biden were to decide against running, it would likely be late in the process, making it almost impossible for him to deny Ms. Harris the nomination while putting his political weight behind another administration official.

Should Mr. Biden decide late this year or early next not to run, it would be difficult for the most visible Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom of California, to mount a viable and well-financed campaign quickly. Similar hurdles exist for lower-profile, but successful, Democratic governors such as Laura Kelly of Kansas and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan.

The only Democrats with a reasonable shot of winning the presidency are those with immediate fundraising potential and national name recognition.

Hillary Clinton might want to run again and could be one of Democrats’ best options. Mrs. Clinton’s political machine is formidable, and few—if any—other Democrats could quickly raise the money and assemble an organization to mount a national campaign.

That being said, should Mr. Trump become the nominee, a repeat of the 2016 campaign would be even less palatable to the country than a 2020 rematch. Mrs. Clinton, at 75, also isn’t much younger than the president she would be vying to succeed.

Mrs. Clinton has always struggled with her popularity, which fell even lower after she lost the presidency. Her favorability rating hit a record low years after the 2016 election and was recorded in 2018 by Gallup at 36%, no better than Mr. Biden or Ms. Harris now. Gallup noted that Mrs. Clinton’s favorability among Democrats had dropped 10 points since November 2016.

A Zogby Analytics poll released last year found that if Mr. Biden were to bow out in 2024, Mrs. Clinton would be a distant third choice for Democratic primary voters, behind Ms. Harris in second place. The favorite is the only Democrat with broad national appeal: Michelle Obama.

Mrs. Obama is popular within the Democratic Party. She left the White House with a 68% favorability rating nationally and was one of the most admired women in the U.S. from 2018 through 2020, according to Gallup polls. With a broad network of supporters and the ability to resurrect Barack Obama’s political organization, she would be the strongest candidate by far.

While Mrs. Obama has expressed no desire to seek national office, she may be persuaded to jump in if Mr. Biden can’t run and Mr. Trump appears close to returning to the White House.

The most likely 2024 scenario is that Mr. Biden will see his re-election bid through to the end, win or lose. Even so, we’ll be doing ourselves a disservice if we don’t consider a backup plan.

Douglas Schoen was a senior adviser to Bill Clinton’s 1996 campaign, a White House adviser (1994-2000) and an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2000 U.S. Senate campaign. Andrew Stein, a Democrat, served as New York City Council president, 1986-94.

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