Opinion | Biden is running for re-election. It's not going to be easy.

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He’s running. In a three-minute video announcement published Tuesday, President Joe Biden made his re-election bid official. “The question we are facing,” he declared, “is whether in the years ahead we have more freedom or less freedom. More rights or fewer. I know what I want the answer to be and I think you do too.”

The road to re-election is set to be tough but not impossible to navigate. The biggest question is whether he can convince an electorate that has never been enthusiastic about his presidency that he’s a better choice than whoever the Republican nominee is to move the country forward.

Biden does have the advantage of incumbency. We can look back at his recent predecessors for a hint to how the next year and a half might play out. But there is no perfect historical parallel for what Biden is trying to achieve.

Donald Trump’s 2020 loss to Biden is the most recent reminder that incumbency doesn’t guarantee victory.

When George W. Bush launched his re-election campaign, he was riding high on what was still a feeling of victory in the war on terror, even as the Iraq War was beginning to unravel. Bush managed to win against Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., in 2004, in a race that was closer than some may remember, with a single state deciding the election.  

Barack Obama, the first Black president, had come into office with a wave of so called post-racial support that four years of tea party protests and a midterm shellacking had chipped away. And yet, Obama still routed Republican challenger Mitt Romney in 2012 after he framed the Republican businessman as out of touch with average Americans.

Donald Trump’s 2020 loss to Biden is the most recent reminder that incumbency doesn’t guarantee victory. But Trump is running again, and no president since Republican William Howard Taft in 1912 has had the challenge of running against a former occupant of the Oval Office, in his case Theodore Roosevelt. Even then, Roosevelt ran as a third-party candidate, a decision that allowed Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win. It’s unlikely Trump will even have to consider employing Roosevelt’s strategy. He is dominating early polling among GOP candidates, setting up a potential head-to-head rematch with Biden.

That prospect is weighing heavily on people’s minds — and not in a positive way. “Substantial majorities of Americans don’t want Trump or President Joe Biden to run for president in 2024,” according to a recent NBC News poll. “And half of those who don’t want Biden, 80, to run say the president’s age is a ‘major’ reason why.”

At 76, Trump’s no spring chicken, either; he and Biden could have attended high school together. But the concerns over Biden’s age reflect the perception of a broader lack of enthusiasm that has bedeviled him since he first announced his candidacy in 2019. Yes, he eventually won the 2020 Democratic primaries and the general election, and we can expect him to tout his victory over Trump then as a reason to support him in 2024. He remains, after all, more popular than Trump. But an enthusiasm gap among the parties’ respective bases would be a major hurdle for Biden.

Broadly speaking, people who voted for him last time are happy with how he has governed.

Until Tuesday, it had been something of a guessing game whether Biden, already the oldest serving president, would even run for a second term. Luckily for him, unlike in the lead-up to the 1980 election, there’s no signs of any real attempt to replace him on the ticket. That year President Jimmy Carter went through a bruising Democratic primary season against Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts that left him vulnerable against former California Gov. Ronald Reagan and his sunny vision for America. Biden’s opting not to run would have opened the door to a potentially messy scramble to replace him at a time when the GOP is (somehow) still consolidated firmly around Trump.

Meanwhile, there’s good news for Biden to be found in a recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll. Broadly speaking, people who voted for him last time are happy with how he has governed:

Seventy percent of Biden voters say his positions and policies as president have been ‘about right.’ That includes 73% of self-identified liberals, 78% of moderates and 65% of conservatives. One in five, 21%, say he hasn’t been progressive enough, many of them among those who call themselves ‘very liberal.’ Six percent say he’s been too progressive.

— USA today/suffolk university

I remain worried that Biden might swing too far to the center, in emulation of Bill Clinton ahead of the 1996 campaign. Since White House chief of staff Jeff Zients took the wheel this year there have already been hints of Clinton’s “triangulation” strategy.

On the one hand, going from the big, progressive swings we saw from the early Biden to smaller bites appealing to the middle might make sense in dealing with the reality of a split government. But will it get the Democratic base out to the polls next year? And can Biden really count on the people voting against Trump to put him over the edge again?

This is the tightrope Biden will have to walk between now and November 2024 if he wants to remain in office. And, of course, countless factors could change the landscape. Trump’s indictment in Manhattan and the potential for more criminal charges could finally bring another Republican candidate to the forefront. The U.S. economy, which has shown strong recovery from the pandemic but has been battered by inflation, could worsen again. And given their ages, both men’s health could, in fact, falter.

These are uncharted paths Biden is choosing to walk. It will be easy to second-guess his choice depending on whose hand is resting on the Bible the chief justice is holding Jan. 20, 2025.

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