The Memo: Democratic divisions rise amid grim Biden polls

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The Memo: Democratic divisions rise amid grim Biden polls

Democratic divisions over President Biden are bursting out into the open amid rising panic about his reelection chances.

The most recent catalyst for anxiety was a series of battleground state polls from The New York Times and Siena College, published Sunday to mark one year before Election Day. 

The polls showed Biden losing five of the six states polled — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania — in a hypothetical rematch with former President Trump. Biden prevailed in only Wisconsin, and by just 2 percentage points.

The president won all six states in 2020.

A CBS News/YouGov poll released on the same day showed Biden losing nationwide to Trump by 3 percentage points.

At this point, bad polls for the president are no surprise. His approval rating hovers around 40 percent in most surveys.

James Carville, the Democratic strategist who was a pivotal figure in President Clinton’s 1992 win, had a straightforward explanation. 

“People think he’s too old. It’s pretty clear. There’s not a mystery here,” Carville told this column.

On Sunday, David Axelrod, who guided President Obama’s rise to the White House, ignited an instant furor by suggesting that Biden should stand aside.

“It’s very late to change horses … [but] this will send tremors of doubt thru the party,” Axelrod wrote on social media, referring to the New York Times poll.

Axelrod added that, while Biden will be the Democratic nominee if he wants to be, “what he needs to decide is whether that is wise; whether it’s in HIS best interest or the country’s.”

A respected, mainstream voice calling for an incumbent president to cede the stage was inherently big news.

It also drew pushback from Biden loyalists, including former White House chief of staff Ron Klain who posted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that Axelrod had referred to Biden as “Mr. Magoo” during the 2020 primary cycle and was “still at it.”

Symone Sanders, who worked as a senior adviser to Biden in 2020, described Axelrod as a “detractor of the 2020 Biden campaign” and said he was being “disingenuous” during an appearance on NBC News Now’s “Meet the Press Now” on Monday.

The back-and-forth is more evidence of the tensions that have long simmered between the Biden and Obama camps.

In 2008, then-candidate Obama chose Biden as his running mate more as a reassuring figure than an inspiring one, and his aides would roll their eyes when Biden’s verbosity caused campaign trail kerfuffles.

Later, Obama and his aides were widely reported to have pressed Biden not to run for the presidency in 2016, clearing the way for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Even in the early days of the 2020 primary campaign, Obama associates were not exactly climbing eagerly onto the Biden bandwagon.

Biden’s loyalists, in turn, continue to bristle at what they deem to be a lack of the respect toward their boss. 

The pushback on Axelrod’s remarks from the Biden campaign noted that Obama’s poll ratings were poor at the equivalent point of his first term, yet he won reelection handily.

Beyond all the squabbling, however, there are hard facts staring Democrats in the face.

Biden scores poorly on a range of issues, from inflation to immigration. Efforts to turn around public perception of his economic record have not been successful so far. And, above all, there is the age issue.

Biden will turn 81 later this month. He is the oldest president in history.

The New York Times poll found 71 percent of registered voters in the battleground states believe Biden is “just too old” to be an effective president. This included 74 percent of independents, 51 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of people who said they voted for Biden in 2020.

As Carville among others noted, those findings are in line with several other polls.

Asked what he thought of Axelrod’s suggestion that Biden should consider standing aside, Carville responded, “David’s observation is like, ‘water is wet.’”

Carville said he himself was “as worried as you can be” about next year’s election given the possibility of Trump returning to power.

“Right now, the chances are decent that we return a criminal and a buffoon to the Oval Office,” he said.

Trump is facing four separate criminal indictments encompassing 91 charges but protests his innocence in all of them.

Andrew Yang, the businessman who ran a long-shot campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2020 but later left the party, wrote on social media Sunday evening that Biden would be seen as an “accomplished statesman” if he stepped aside. But, Yang added, a quest for reelection “may go down as one of the great overreaches of all time that delivers us to a disastrous Trump second term.”

Biden can take comfort, of a kind, from the fact that barely any elected officials — with the exception of Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who recently launched a quixotic primary challenge against him — are calling for the president to retire after one term.

“So if the nominee isn’t Joe Biden, who’s it going to be?” Dick Harpootlian, a Democratic South Carolina state senator, shot back when Axelrod’s comments were put to him.

“Politics is the art of reality,” added Harpootlian, who sits on the finance committee for Biden’s reelection campaign. “Joe Biden will be the Democratic nominee because he is an incumbent president with no serious opposition.”

Harpootlian acknowledged that Biden has “some pluses and some minuses” but contended that the president will, in the end, “do exactly what he did in 2020. It may not be a landslide but he will win because: Trump? People just want him to go away.”

To be sure, the former president has political burdens in addition to his legal woes. 

The stench from the Capitol riot of Jan. 6, 2021, still lingers on him. He lost the popular vote in both 2016 and 2020, and he was widely blamed for a disappointing GOP performance in last year’s midterms. His favorability ratings are roughly as bad as Biden’s.

The New York Times poll indicated 56 percent of registered voters in the battleground states view Trump unfavorably compared with 42 precent who view him favorably. 

And yet, none of it seems to be disqualifying.

In the CBS News poll, when respondents were asked whether a second term for Biden or Trump would make them personally better off, Trump scored vastly better. Forty-five percent of respondents said a second Trump term would make them better off, while only 18 percent said the same about Biden.

That’s one reason why some Democrats are so worried — and so unconvinced by colleagues who take heart from their belief Trump is unelectable.

“Every ‘smart’ person says it is going to be Biden and Trump, and at the end of the day voters will say, ‘You can’t go back to Trump.’” Carville said.

“I’m glad people are so certain,” he added drily. “But I don’t share that certainty.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.