Talking Points

Biden is old and Harris unpopular. What are Democrats to do?

The week ahead of President Biden's 79th birthday — Saturday, Nov. 20 — there was a considerable amount of drama involving Vice President Kamala Harris. The two are not unrelated.

Biden is the oldest person to ever serve as president. He will turn 80 shortly after next year's midterm elections. That by itself increases scrutiny of the official who is, as the cliche goes, a heartbeat away. But Biden's age and performance in office has many Democrats speculating he won't run again in 2024 at the same time they are starting to worry Harris wouldn't be an upgrade. 

If that speculation is correct, it means Harris doesn't have nearly seven years to show she can grow into the job and see her popularity rebound. She has a little over two years at most. Biden is unlikely to announce his intentions until relatively late in the cycle, unless a health problem forces his hand, because he will not want to automatically become a lame duck — giving Harris even less time to publicly prepare.

Biden's poll numbers are bad, and Harris' appear to be even worse, with job approval ratings as low as 28 percent. This has led to finger-pointing within the White House. While it's hard to see what Harris has done that is worse than the performance of unpopular vice presidents past, such as Dan Quayle or Dick Cheney, if Biden doesn't run, the normal solution to this problem — fantasizing about the veep being dropped from the ticket for the re-election campaign — is unavailable.

Democrats have seen much of this movie before. They may detect a whiff of sexism in the likeability questions that have plagued presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, and now Harris. But they also watched Clinton lose to former President Donald Trump, and neither Harris nor Warren gain much traction in the 2020 Democratic primaries. Party leaders won't want to see anything like that happen again.

This has added to the sense of urgency among Democrats about Harris' political problems, now approaching panic. That impulse is understandable. But do liberals really want to see an ascendant woman of color taken down by political conditions that are ultimately the fault of an old white man?