Opinion | Biden Is No Sure Thing for 2024. What About Buttigieg? Harris? Even Whitmer?

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By Frank Bruni

Mr. Bruni is a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, the author of “The Beauty of Dusk” and a contributing Opinion writer.

The midterms were very good to President Biden.

His party avoided the shellacking that it suffered halfway through President Obama’s first term and the drubbing that Republicans experienced after two years of President Trump. After two years of Biden, voters gave Democrats a gentle slap on the wrist. That makes him look like a miracle worker and may well muffle chatter about whether he should run for a second term.

But the noise won’t go away entirely. There’s the matter of Biden’s age, and there’s the matter of Biden’s energy.

He was already the oldest president in American history when he took office at 78. He’d be just shy of 82 on Election Day in 2024. It shows. He doesn’t project anything like the ebullience he once did. His flubs transcend malapropisms. Last month, he erroneously claimed that student loan forgiveness — which he decreed by executive action — passed Congress by a few votes. That was the most glaring misstatement of his own record but hardly the only one.

When Robert Costa of CBS News interviewed Representative Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat, just before the midterm results came in and asked him whether Biden should seek re-election, Clyburn declined to answer. He said that the Democrats’ decisions going forward should take into account “who has what capacity to do what,” according to a tweet of Costa’s on Tuesday night.

Does Biden have the grip and glow to make certain that Donald Trump or some other Republican doesn’t win the presidency in two years? Before the midterms, polling showed that a significant majority of Democrats craved the chance to pick somebody else. I’m not sure that this week’s results will change that sentiment much. It’s how I feel.

But which somebody? Here’s an assessment (and rough ranking) of various Democrats who would be possible contenders in 2024 or who are poised to emerge as party leaders on the far side of Biden, whenever that is.

Pay the closest attention to …

Kamala Harris

Pete Buttigieg

Gretchen Whitmer

Many Democrats cringe at the thought of Kamala Harris as the party’s 2024 nominee. They regard that as party suicide, pointing to her persistently low approval ratings and her miserable 2020 presidential campaign, which ended before the Iowa caucuses began.

But Biden chose her as a running mate because she has credentials and appeal, and her current perch would make her the ipso facto front-runner. “I think she’s one of the reasons Biden won, and she never got credit for that,” Doug Sosnik, a veteran Democratic strategist, told me. “She energized the base. She was good on the stump, and she handled herself well in the debate.”

She also made history — she’s the first woman and first Black woman in the vice presidency — and she’d be those same firsts in the presidency, an exhilarating prospect that could dissuade some would-be competitors.

Harris would be in an especially strong position if Biden dallied before deciding against another presidential run; a compressed time frame could squash candidacies by politicians who still need to build name recognition, political networks and donor lists. “There are only two or three people who can add water and go,” said Bakari Sellers, a former Democratic lawmaker in South Carolina, which has a pivotal Democratic primary. He named Harris, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. He left out Bernie Sanders, later saying that Sanders, 81, is “probably too old.”

Buttigieg, 40, would be the second-youngest American president on Inauguration Day 2025, only a month and a half older than Theodore Roosevelt. He represents stark generational change. And most of the Democratic insiders I spoke with predicted that he’d be a formidable candidate, based on his breakout success in 2020 — he essentially came in third, behind Biden and Sanders, in the Democratic primaries — and his experience as transportation secretary. A gay man with a husband and two children, he, like Harris, represents progress toward equality. And he has proved to be one of the party’s gamest and nimblest messengers, his appearances on Fox News and MSNBC yielding snippets shared widely on social media.

“You have to give credit to a guy who went from being a mediocre mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city to getting the most delegates in Iowa,” said Ari Rabin-Havt, who was Sanders’s deputy campaign manager in 2020, referring to Buttigieg’s time in South Bend. “I think he’s the most potent wine-track candidate who exists.”

Rabin-Havt likes to categorize Democratic candidates as “wine track” (Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats favored by voters with more education and money) or “beer track” (politicians, like Sanders, who are most ardently backed by a less affluent group). Biden won the nomination because he was acceptable to both contingents.

Can Buttigieg clear that bar? “He was an intellectual force in the Democratic primaries,” said Joel Benenson, who was Barack Obama’s chief pollster in 2008 and 2012 and whose firm did polling for Buttigieg in 2020. “He may have been a little too intellectual.” And he didn’t generate excitement among Black voters, who are critical to Democrats’ fortunes. “Serious candidates and strategists know that you must show up early and consistently with Black voters because they rightly see showing up late as checking a box rather than a serious commitment,” Benenson told me.

Additionally, Buttigieg wouldn’t be the “new kid on the block” in the 2024 cycle, one longtime Democratic strategist said. “He’d be treated differently.”

Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who just won re-election by an impressive margin in the key presidential battleground of Michigan, is Pabst Blue Ribbon with just the right measure of merlot. She “thinks like a general, looks like a ’40s film star and talks like she’s ice fishing for muskie,” Sarah Vowell wrote in The Times in August 2020. Vowell grouped Whitmer with Biden and several other nationally prominent politicians who, unlike every president since Jimmy Carter, graduated from public universities (in Whitmer’s case, Michigan State, both college and law school). She’s also the subject of an adoring song by the Detroit rapper GmacCash, “Big Gretch.” The nickname took, and it’s gold.

Many prominent Democrats urged Biden to run with Whitmer in 2020 — that’s how potent they felt her pull could be. There’s no reason to think that it has weakened with more experience. And it’s arguably the right kind of experience. Governors have an easier time separating themselves from Washington — and from voters’ cynicism about it — than politicians who’ve been working in the capital for many years. There will no doubt be some governor in any post-Biden mix. I don’t spot another with more potential than Whitmer. “Big Gretch is going to be very formidable,” Sellers said.

Nicole Hemmer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University and the author of the recently published book “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1900s,” noted that Whitmer “has been targeted by the far right, so it fits into the narrative of dangers to democracy.” “On paper,” Hemmer continued, “it makes a lot of sense. I just don’t know if she has that punch to break through in terms of national media.”

Indeed, Whitmer, 51, hasn’t spent much time in the national spotlight, so it’s unclear how commanding she’d be on a larger stage. In a recent debate against her Republican opponent for governor, Tudor Dixon, she was solid but unspectacular.

Keep an eye on …

Amy Klobuchar

Elizabeth Warren

Roy Cooper

Sherrod Brown

J.B. Pritzker

Ro Khanna

Amy Klobuchar lasted much longer in the 2020 primaries than Harris did, and with each passing week, the Minnesota senator, now 62, honed her message and voice. She could build from there. And at least in Minnesota, she has shown the ability to win support among Democratic progressives and moderates alike.

But she’s certainly no progressive darling, and just as a 2024 Democratic field would almost certainly have a governor in the foreground, it would have a progressive there, too. If Sanders doesn’t run, does Elizabeth Warren — who, at 73, is eight years his junior — become their standard-bearer? She has undoubtedly learned from her 2020 campaign, which trailed off after an early surge but revealed her to be not only thoroughly prepared but also dynamic in debates and on the stump.

I mentioned governors. Roy Cooper, the Democrat at the helm of North Carolina, has twice been elected in years (2016, 2020) when Trump won North Carolina and when North Carolina Republicans prevailed in fiercely contested Senate races, too.

That amounts to at least some promise of crossover appeal in rigidly and toxically partisan times. Cooper, 65, could be a tonic — affable, sensible, with no whiff of ideologue in him. I may be biased; he’s my governor, and I think he has done an admirable, balanced job of alternately stymying and working with the Republicans who control both chambers of the state legislature. He praises and models the qualities of competence and pragmatism. Additionally, his current stint as chair of the Democratic Governors Association means that he has made or strengthened connections beyond his state, collecting I.O.U.s. “There’s a charisma issue,” one Democratic insider, echoing others, confided in me. But, she added, “I do think his name will be floated, and he’d be an interesting candidate.”

Although Tim Ryan’s loss to J.D. Vance in the Senate race in Ohio made that state look redder than ever, its voters just four years ago awarded Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, a third term — and they did so by a margin of almost seven percentage points. That’s a testament to the breadth of his appeal. “If you ask me who in the Democratic Party has the trust of the progressive community and the pulse of working-class Americans, that’s Sherrod Brown,” Sosnik told me. “He bridges the wings of the party.” But Brown, 70, passed on the 2020 presidential race despite considerable interest in him. Several Democratic insiders told me that he’s simply too equivocal about his intentions and ambition to mount a winning presidential campaign.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois has won fans for his fiery moments of refreshing bluntness. “There’s a kind of strange internet sparkle around Governor Pritzker,” Hemmer said. The mix of urban and rural areas in Illinois provides an instructive lesson for a national campaign. And several Democratic strategists pointed out that if Biden leaves his would-be successors with little time to raise the money they need, Pritzker, 57, could fund his own campaign. One strategist quipped that he’d be an especially fascinating adversary for Trump, “a real billionaire against a fake billionaire.” But is a billionaire the right Democratic fit?

The leap from House member to presidential nominee is a big and unlikely one — just ask Tim Ryan and Eric Swalwell, who failed to make it in 2020 — but that might not prevent Representative Ro Khanna, a California Democrat, from trying. A strong communicator who represents Silicon Valley but talks with passion about the concerns of workers at a lower economic altitude, Khanna is well regarded by progressives, especially those interested in a changing of the guard.

“I think there is getting to be a certain wariness among the Democratic base with having the entire leadership of their party being people with a 1990s mentality about politics,” Rabin-Havt said, adding that Khanna, a 46-year-old Indian American, departs from that mentality. Hemmer concurred that he’s not part of the Democratic establishment and, if he played his cards right, could wring that for extra excitement, a particular buzz, “introducing himself to the American people as a candidate who has not been defined by others and has a little more breathing room.”

I’m just not feeling it …

Bernie Sanders

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Gavin Newsom

Mitch Landrieu

Michelle Obama

There’s inevitable curiosity about Bernie Sanders. He has been the Democratic runner-up twice in a row, and he’s still in the mix, still in the Senate, still revered by many progressives. But if Biden essentially ages out, can he be succeeded by someone older who had a heart attack in 2019? I don’t see it.

What, then, about a young progressive like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Her name gets bandied about. But there’s young and then there’s 33 years old. She’d reach the minimum age for the presidency, 35, less than a month before Election Day 2024. And she’d bring just six years of experience in the House to the job. These are wild days in which old rules fly out the window, but probably not this fast and far.

The eagerness with which Gavin Newsom, 55, has stepped forward as a voluble defender of liberal values and pugilistic critic of Ron DeSantis has predictably fed speculation about a presidential candidacy. And he has the precious credential of big-state governor. But that state is California, once a harbinger and now more a partisan Rorschach test. And there’s a preening quality and slickness to Newsom that give many observers pause and make others — including the writer Josh Barro, who used his Very Serious newsletter for a savage delineation of the easy case against Newsom — cringe.

And both specifically and metaphorically, can a Newsom candidacy survive the widely circulated photo of him and his former wife, Kimberly Guilfoyle, who is now engaged to Donald Trump Jr., stretched out on an ostentatious rug in a gilded room? One way to think about Newsom’s shortcomings versus those of other Democratic presidential prospects: When he arguably violated his own Covid counsel against large gatherings in California, it was for a sumptuous feast at the fabled French Laundry in the Napa Valley. When Whitmer violated hers in Michigan, it was for dinner at a bar and grill with mozzarella sticks and chili cheese fries on the menu.

Many Democrats still gush about the 2017 speech that Mitch Landrieu, then the mayor of New Orleans, gave about Confederate monuments and racial reconciliation. It was sublime. And his current role as a senior adviser and infrastructure coordinator for the Biden administration has him crisscrossing the country in advantageous ways. But a Landrieu candidacy elicits the most discussion and excitement from Democratic intelligentsia. That’s as much curse as blessing.

The next supposedly sentient acquaintance of mine who suggests that Michelle Obama would or should run for president is getting deleted from my contacts. She’s a profoundly admirable person who … has never signaled a scintilla of amenability to this idea and whose favorability ratings would plummet the minute she was in the fray rather than above it.

I’m intrigued …

Mark Kelly

Raphael Warnock

Jared Polis

Jon Tester

Andy Beshear

Arizona is a purple state with a penchant for political madness and yet Senator Mark Kelly, a 58-year-old Democrat who’s the epitome of even-keeled, could be on the cusp of re-election there. That could prompt speculation about his appeal as a presidential candidate, especially given his biography (former astronaut; former Navy pilot; married to Gabby Giffords, a former House member who became one of the country’s most prominent advocates for gun safety after she was nearly killed in a mass shooting).

“He has a brand that transcends party,” one strategist observed. Hemmer said: “He has that ability to hit some of those notes that really worked for the Biden campaign: ‘I’m somebody who knows and understands suffering. I’m somebody who has turned challenges into public service.’”

If Senator Raphael Warnock, 53, beats his Republican opponent, Herschel Walker, in a December runoff, he will have won a purple state twice in two years. He connects with Black voters and “also doesn’t offend white people,” Sellers said, adding: “He can be a generational transition from Biden.” Additionally, Warnock, an ordained Baptist minister, could challenge Republican candidates’ shopworn claims to greater religiousness. “Many Republicans think G.O.P. means God’s Only Party,” Sellers said. “Raphael snatches that from them.”

Gov. Jared Polis, 47, just cruised to re-election in light blue Colorado, where he has done an excellent job by most accounts and, in the admiring words of the conservative Washington Post columnist George Will, shown a “knack for leavening his high-octane progressivism with departures from that church’s strict catechism.” The headline on that column of Will’s, published two months ago: “Why Colorado Gov. Jared Polis could answer Democrats’ 2024 prayers.” He’s the first openly gay man to be elected a governor in America, making him the kind of trailblazer that Democrats often like to embrace, and he’s wealthy from internet start-ups that go back to his days as a Princeton student. But he’s no geyser of charisma, barely a font. Could his awkwardness be endearing in an age of lacquered social media?

The early exit of Steve Bullock, the former Montana governor, from the 2020 presidential primary took some shine off the notion that a Democrat who’d found success and elicited affection from Republicans in a red and largely rural state might be presidential gold. But that hasn’t stopped some people, including yours truly, from wondering about someone like Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, 44, or Montana Senator Jon Tester, 66, a farmer in his third term in the chamber. Tester is beloved by many Democrats in Washington, but might have enough trouble winning a fourth Senate term in 2024 to make a run at the presidency an attractive, nothing-to-lose adventure.

But the most intriguing potential candidate is, almost by definition, one whose name has not yet come up. And the metabolism of the media these days harbors the possibility of vaulting from relative anonymity to saturation exposure in a few hot weeks. That kind of phenom could lunge for the presidency even if Biden does run. Incumbent presidents have been challenged that way before.

Frank Bruni (@FrankBruni) is a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, the author of “The Beauty of Dusk” and a contributing Opinion writer. He writes a weekly email newsletter and can be found on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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