So, who’ll take the reins from ‘one term’ Joe Biden and is Kamala Harris really popular enough to follow him?

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 (Evening Standard composite)
(Evening Standard composite)

Joe Biden tested positive again for Covid in a rare “rebound” case on Saturday. Although not experiencing any new symptoms, the US president said he was “isolating for the safety of everyone”. Perfect, I thought! If only he could stay more or less permanently out of sight, he might stand a chance of winning a second term of office in 2024. Campaigning from his basement in 2020 was a great way to remind voters of his number one advantage: he was not Donald Trump. As it is, the Democrats have a looming succession problem.

Am I being unkind? All eyes were on Biden as he emerged on the White House balcony last night to announce the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri, 71, the Al Qaeda leader, in a drone strike. “Justice has been delivered,” he said.  It was a significant victory on the one-year anniversary of America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, proving the US could still fight terrorism without boots on the ground. Fox News presenter Bret Baier said approvingly, “This is a huge, huge win for the US.”

Biden needed a fillip. Only 39% of voters approve of his performance in office, according to RealClearPolitics’s latest polling average. The president is viewed as old and doddery — he will be nearly 82 if he stands again. His staff hover nervously at every public event lest he fumble the message.

There is a growing clamour for “one term Joe”. Is it time to thank him for his service and select another Democratic candidate in 2024? Biden stubbornly believes he stands the best chance of defeating the Republicans, especially if Trump is on the ballot. Having spent 40 years trying to become president, he does not want to pass the baton to a comparative whippersnapper.

His own side, however, is growing impatient. A CNN poll on July 28 found that 75 per cent of Democrat and Democrat-leaning voters would prefer another candidate. The young are the most disenchanted. A New York Times-Siena College poll in mid-July found 94 per cent of Democratic primary voters aged 18-29 said the party should nominate somebody else for president.

My son, who graduated this summer from an American university, says his friends turned out for Biden last time, but are not going to vote for somebody over 80. Who can blame them? They are fed up with the gerontocracy running the country, including Nancy Pelosi, 82, the speaker of the House, and Anthony Fauci, 81, the Covid tsar and president’s chief medical adviser.

President Joe Biden has been isolating with Covid (REUTERS)
President Joe Biden has been isolating with Covid (REUTERS)

Trump is no better, in their view; he will be 77 in 2024. Yet were the Republicans to come to their senses and send Trump packing (by no means guaranteed), they have an heir apparent. Love or loathe him, Ron DeSantis, 43, the Left-baiting Florida governor, is a formidable politician with youth on his side.

What about the Democrats? The fact is it is very difficult to get rid of a sitting president. Somebody, somewhere, would have to give Biden a shove. There is no shortage of ambitious Democratic politicians, but they are wary of wielding the knife — and a few things besides the Zahawiri strike have been working in Biden’s favour of late. Nothing wildly transformational, just enough snippets of good news to keep his spirits up and ambition churning.

Petrol prices have dipped to $4 a gallon, unemployment remains low despite rampant inflation and a break-through deal in Congress may be in the offing with the support of Joe Manchin, the stubborn West Virginia senator and thorn in the side of fellow Democrats. Manchin, who wields power in an evenly divided Senate, has just agreed to back a bill that would lower the cost of prescription medicine, boost clean energy technology and cut the deficit by making corporations pay higher taxes.

The bill may yet unravel but Democrats hope to have an achievement to boast about before the November mid-term elections. Former president Barack Obama tweeted: “Progress doesn’t happen all at once, but it does happen — and this is what it looks like.”

Anger at the supreme court’s decision to overthrow abortion rights may also motivate younger Democrats to vote this autumn. And some of the Republicans running for Congress are such ultra-Maga, Trump-worshipping loons that it is conceivable the mid-term elections will not be the bloodbath for the Democrats that everybody assumed. Anything short of disaster could intensify the party’s dilemma: should it ditch Biden while there is time to install a successor or stick with him like a clam as he grows older?

Wing woman: could Kamala Harris be Biden’s successor? (Getty Images)
Wing woman: could Kamala Harris be Biden’s successor? (Getty Images)

It is no use saying “Anybody but Biden” will do; there ought to be a dynamic successor in the wings. By rights, that person should be Kamala Harris, 57, who cut an inspirational figure during the January 2021 inauguration as the first woman, first black and first South Asian vice-president. After Biden promised in 2020 to be a transitional president, voters assumed the torch would pass to her. A year later, a wounding headline in the New York Times read: “Heir Apparent or Afterthought?”

It would be risky for the Democrats to brush aside such path-breaking women. Although her approval ratings are worse than Biden’s, she retains significant support among the black community. According to a Politico/Morning Consult poll in December 2021, 52 per cent of black voters would back Harris if Biden did not run. (Her rival Pete Buttigieg, the transport secretary, had three per cent support among the same group).

Biden did Harris no favours by putting her in charge of solving the intractable “root causes” of immigration — last year, nearly two million people crossed the US border with Mexico, while she barely bothered to engage with the issue. However, the cancellation of abortion rights in conservative-run states (some with no exceptions for rape and incest), has given her a better platform for her talents. Harris has been ramping up her appearances in swing states, such as Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia in a bid to raise her profile. “I plan on travelling around our country, talking to folks, listening to folks,” she said recently. “Women and men are upset, angry and terrified about the rights that are being taken.”

The vice-president has also been meeting wealthy friends, such as Vanessa Getty, part of the fabulously rich California family, and Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs, who came to her residence in Washington. They are part of her go-to circle of donors. But Harris has plenty of enemies inside the White House.

Friends in high places: Vanessa Getty (Alamy Stock Photo)
Friends in high places: Vanessa Getty (Alamy Stock Photo)

Last week, Michael Collins, her director of public engagement, was just the latest to leave her office after an exodus of top aides. With a shiver, Democratic insiders remember how her campaign for president imploded in 2020 amid staff recriminations. A University of New Hampshire poll of potential Democratic nominees on July 26 had dire news for Harris. She received just six per cent of the vote compared to Buttigieg, who topped the poll with 17 per cent (just one point above Biden on 16 per cent). New Hampshire matters because it is an all-important early primary state with an oversize influence on who wins the nomination.

Buttigieg, 40, is no longer the insurgent “mayor Pete” from the 2020 campaign, but a settled cabinet minister and father of twins with his husband Chasten. He still wins applause for his ability to joust with Fox News presenters but has lost the novelty factor.

Gavin Newsom, 54 the slick, ambitious California governor, is sensing a vacancy. He won 10 per cent in the New Hampshire poll after launching profile-boosting attack ads on DeSantis in Florida. “Freedom is under attack in your state,” he said in an advert paid for by his re-election campaign that did not air in his own home state. However, the wealthy governor was caught evading Covid lockdown rules at a fancy dinner with lobbyists in Napa Valley in 2020, not a good look.

Republicans also love to point out that people are leaving high-tax California in record numbers — there was a net population loss of 280,000 last year — while more deregulated Republican states with a lower cost of living such as Florida and Texas are growing. Bizarrely, Newsom used to be married to Kimberly Guilfoyle, now the Maga-loving girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr. What might she say about him?

Gavin Newsom is one of the top choices to replace Biden (AP)
Gavin Newsom is one of the top choices to replace Biden (AP)

Bernie Sanders has hinted he might run again, but the veteran Left-winger is 80 already. Conversely, the darling of the Left, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 32, will only just be eligible to run in 2024 (the minimum age on election day is 35). Other names touted, such as Beto O’Rourke, 49, and Stacy Abrams, 48, who this autumn are running for governor in Texas and Georgia respectively, have to win their own races first — by no means a certainty.

That leaves the Democrats in a high state of apprehension: worried about the present and worried about the future, with or without Biden. They are hoping like Mr Micawber that something will turn up. Let us hope that person is not called Trump.

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