Biden launches re-election
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: When I ran for president four years ago, I said we're in a battle for the soul of America, and we still are.
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
The thing we all knew was going to happen finally happened.
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BIDEN: This is not a time to be complacent. That's why I'm running for reelection.
MCCAMMON: On Tuesday, in the video announcing his reelection bid, President Joe Biden didn't mention Donald Trump by name - Trump is still considered the GOP front-runner - but he took aim at MAGA extremists and how their actions threaten American freedoms.
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BIDEN: Dictating what health care decisions women can make, banning books and telling people who they can love all while making it more difficult for you to be able to vote.
MCCAMMON: Another thing he didn't mention - his age. At 80, Biden is already the oldest president in U.S. history. If he wins reelection, he will be 86 at the end of his second term, nearly nine years older than Ronald Reagan was when he left the White House. It's an issue of concern to a big chunk of the voting public and one we looked at closely this weekend on the podcast Consider This.
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DAVID AXELROD: When you look at polling, when you watch focus groups, it's the thing that people bring up first.
MCCAMMON: Political commentator David Axelrod spoke with NPR this week. He said Biden will have to face the age discussion head on, and it will be a delicate balance.
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AXELROD: He's going to have to talk about it, and he's going to have to talk about the obvious risks involved with that, but also the upside of it and that - the upside are wisdom. The upside is experience. The upside is perspective.
MCCAMMON: Some Democrats had hoped a younger candidate might emerge, and maybe that person would be vice President Kamala Harris. But Harris has faced doubts from within her own party. On the NPR Politics Podcast, correspondent Mara Liasson raised a pivotal question with host Susan Davis.
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MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The question, for me, about Kamala Harris, which is so interesting, is - you know, he's the oldest incumbent ever to run for reelection. He's 80 years old. And the question I have is, would he have run again if he was confident Harris could win?
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: It's a great question.
LIASSON: No Democrat I've talked to is confident that she could win on her own this year. And Biden believes strongly that he's the only person who can beat Donald Trump because he's done it before. And it shows that he's not sure if Harris is quite ready to be his heir-apparent.
MCCAMMON: Biden has announced his bid for a second term at a time when his approval rating hovers somewhere in the low 40s. A recent survey from NBC News had 70% of Americans saying he should not seek a second term. Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: A lot of Biden's presidency was based on this bet that he could get Americans to pay attention to government again. He could get Americans to feel like government is working for them again.
MCCAMMON: I asked him how Biden is hoping to sell another four years to American voters.
DETROW: It's interesting. Almost all of his focus this year, the third year of his presidency, is trying to bring attention to things that he passed in the first year or so of his presidency, over and over again, day in, day out. He is doing campaign events focused on the enormous infrastructure act that passed at the end of his first year in office. He talks a lot about other measures that will bring more manufacturing back to the U.S. These are big deals. They rightly are things that he should be focused on. But it's interesting to me that right now his intention isn't about passing more pieces of legislation, expanding his record, but trying to get voters to realize and pay attention to the things that he has already passed.
MCCAMMON: Right. And two years ago - I mean, people have short memories. A lot has happened since then. How big of a challenge is it for him to get those ideas front and center with voters now?
DETROW: It's an enormous challenge. So he has passed these monumental pieces of legislation that I think really will, over the next 20 or 30 years, reshape big chunks of the country. There's going to be a big shift to electric vehicles. There is going to be an increase in manufacturing, broadband internet. I sound like a Joe Biden campaign commercial right there. But here's the part that wouldn't be in the commercial - this is going to take a lot of time to do. It's going to be complicated. It's going to be relatively slow-moving. And these are big, complicated ideas that just don't stick in voters' minds. They're hard to get down to a 30-second TV commercial, let alone whatever length of time that the ads that we'll see on social media are.
MCCAMMON: You just mentioned some things with a 20-, 30-year timeline.
MCCAMMON: What policies, if any, have made an impact in the short term? Are there things he can point to that he can say to American voters, this is helping you right now?
DETROW: Yeah, I think one thing that you hear him talk a lot about is the caps that they put on insulin medication for people on Medicaid. And now you've seen that private companies are kind of willingly going along with this and lowering insulin prices as well. That's something that has enormous impact to millions and millions of people. That's something that he's going to be talking about a lot. But it's interesting. You go back to that initially recovery act, the first bill that he signed into law, and some of the immediate payouts to Americans and big tax breaks to Americans at the height of the pandemic. Those were all but forgotten. Poll after poll showed that most Americans didn't even realize they got them. If they did, they didn't credit Joe Biden. You know, and if you can't get people to feel like the government is helping them when the government is literally giving them money, I think that that gets to the broader question of breaking through in this partisan moment.
MCCAMMON: Beyond this bigger messaging challenge. Where do you think Biden has fallen flat? I mean, where do you see him struggling to make a change? Are there issues that are particularly hard for him to connect with voters on right now?
DETROW: Yeah, I think inflation has been a problem for a long time, right? Inflation is slowing down right now, but it's - prices are starting to stabilize at the increased price that they went up to. It's not like prices are going back to where they were a few years ago. So things cost more for more Americans. Inflation has been a really big problem for a couple years now, and the White House was really slow to recognize that. I sat in so many briefings where they really dismissed it, saying this isn't that big of a deal. This is a short-term problem. This is all about the supply chain at the end of the pandemic.
Turns out it was a big problem, and the White House was not at the forefront of trying to change it. I mean, I think you could argue that even if the president had been super aggressive from the first moment, that would have been hard for the White House to contain because there are so many other forces at play. But for good or for bad, we blame the presidents for the problems that happen when they're in office. And I think that's going to continue to be a challenge for him.
MCCAMMON: Now, Scott, it's no surprise that Republican voters are critical of Biden's record. But a recent Associated Press poll also found that less than half of Democrats want him to run. Why is he struggling with his own party?
DETROW: I think there's a couple things going on. One is that, you know, he's gotten a compromise gun bill signed into law. That hadn't happened in decades. That is something that's worth pointing out. But it did nowhere near what the - what so many Democrats want to see happen on gun control. This has become a prominent issue for the party's base. And just kind of working along the sidelines, getting something Republicans could agree on - which, again, is very hard to do, and he did it - that didn't satisfy the Democratic base on a lot of fronts. Same things with climate. Joe Biden signed into law the biggest piece of climate legislation in the history of the country. But it's still nowhere near enough for so many of the activists who have outside voices of the party. So that's part of it.
But I think the other thing - and polls show this - is that a lot of voters, even voters who voted for him and like him, are worried about his age. I think that's going to be a - one of the biggest challenges for him in 2024, is the simple fact that he's already the oldest president in U.S. history. He's 80 years old. He got a recent physical that shows he is a very healthy 80-year-old, but he's 80 years old nevertheless. And he'll be 86 at the end of a second term. And I think that's just something a lot of voters have a hard time getting their heads around.
MCCAMMON: Yeah, and we know those discussions are going to continue. They often make people ask the next question, which is, who's the person backing him up?
MCCAMMON: And that is Vice President Kamala Harris. You know, she gets less airtime. What role might Harris play in this reelection campaign, and is she seen as an asset or a liability?
DETROW: That's a great question that I think the White House is still sorting through. I think there's been no question that a lot of Democrats have felt frustrated with how Vice President Harris has handled herself the first few years as vice president. It's a hard job to feel like you're doing it well because of the basic definitions of the job, right?
DETROW: I don't think there are many vice presidents in American history who are like, that person is a standout vice president - right? - because by definition, you are No. 2. You are in the background. You are taking a side seat to the president, even if you're in the meetings with them.
MCCAMMON: Your job is to get out of the way and let the president function.
DETROW: Absolutely. Absolutely. But I think people - you know, people who have watched Vice President Harris' career have noticed - and, you know, I was covering her back in California; I covered her presidential campaign. I think there's been a lot of times where she's seemed like she's having a hard time figuring out what the exact lane is, what the issue she wants to talk about is, how she wants to talk about that issue, speaking in a way that she wants to but also making sure, at the same time, she's in line with what Biden wants to say and not getting ahead of him.
Sarah, you cover reproductive rights. This is an area where Harris really has taken the lead in the administration's response. And that, more than anything else, is something that she's gone back to and talked about again and again. And I think especially given the way that it's polling, we can expect her to do a lot of that over the next year and a half.
MCCAMMON: Many of Harris' supporters have pointed out that as a woman of color, she faces a level of scrutiny that other vice presidents who don't share those characteristics haven't faced.
MCCAMMON: How does that factor in and how does the White House talk about that?
DETROW: That's something that they lean in to and point out. And it's true, right? If you want to argue that Kamala Harris has been viewed differently than every other vice president, has been treated more critically than every other vice president, well, there are a few things about her that are absolutely different from every other vice president. She is the very first woman to hold this job. She's the first woman of color to hold this job. Those are groundbreaking achievements. But at the same time, they certainly lead to a lot more criticism of her.
But I think I would also say this at the same time. When Biden first picked her as his running mate in 2020, Biden was dropping a lot of hints at that time, along the lines of a speech that he gave with her by her side - his side saying, I view myself as a bridge to the next generation of leaders. And there was a lot of thought - does Joe Biden just want to serve one term as president, rid the country of Donald Trump and then retire and pass things over to his hand-picked successor, Kamala Harris? And I do not think the last few years have played out in a way where Kamala Harris has been widely seen as the emerging next Democratic candidate, this unstoppable force in Democratic politics, right?
She has had a hard time - and I think she has admitted this; her staff has certainly admitted this in conversations - had a hard time finding the exact message, finding the exact tone she wants to take as vice president. And I think - I don't think that was a determining reason as to why Joe Biden ran for another term, but I think it was certainly one of the many, many, many dynamics he was considering.
MCCAMMON: That was my colleague White House correspondent Scott Detrow, who also co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Now, the dynamic around Kamala Harris and her role in the administration and the reelection campaign is something we want to take a closer look at.
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JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) Being vice president is like being declawed, defanged, neutered, ballgagged and sealed in an abandoned coal mine under two miles of human [expletive]. It is a fate worse than death.
MCCAMMON: That rant is from Selina Meyer, the fictional vice president in HBO's "Veep" played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. But Renee Graham, a columnist at The Boston Globe, agrees with that sentiment.
RENEE GRAHAM: I think that being vice president is an absolutely thankless job. You know, your job, always really, is to be behind the president.
MCCAMMON: And she says being a first in the role just makes things more difficult for Kamala Harris.
GRAHAM: She's the first woman. She's the first Black person. She's the first Asian American. I mean, there's all these sorts of things. And - so you have to deal with, you know, the constraints of the job, but also these really lofty expectations. And I think that there's a way that you can get a little wobbly under all of that. You start trying to figure out who you should be and what it is you should be doing. And there's a lot of concern about, you know, what it will mean to have an 82-year-old president and someone who would be 86 - if he wins in 2024 - at the end of that term. Like, is she ready to step into that job? No one knows if they're ready for that job until they have to step into the job.
MCCAMMON: Graham says Harris should get more recognition for the role she played rallying voters across the country on abortion rights during the midterm election, which will be a key component of the reelection campaign.
GRAHAM: They didn't really give her the credit I thought she deserved, and she was going to college campuses. And in doing that, she was ramping up younger voters, especially young women, and getting them on board and saying, this is huge. If we, you know, lose Congress, then this is only going to continue to get worse. There's going to be that strength of constantly pushing back to what is not just, you know, the threat beyond Roe v. Wade - what's going to be happening with the abortion pill that - you know, what's going to happen with contraception, what's going to happen with all of these issues around reproductive rights, around health care and how that also kind of fans out and deals with all the other issues of rights being under threat from the Republicans. Whether you're talking about what's happening with trans rights, whether you're talking about book banning, there's a lot that she can work with.
MCCAMMON: And for those who insist on criticizing Kamala Harris, Graham suggests they take a look at the record of former Vice President Mike Pence.
GRAHAM: Like, what was it Mike Pence was doing for those four years? I don't remember a lot of people saying, well, is he ready and is he doing and what's Mike Pence up to? And to my recollection, you know, Mike Pence did two things as vice president. He stood behind Donald Trump and agreed with every bad decision that Donald Trump made, and he managed to not get himself hanged on January 6 during the insurrection. Like, that was what Mike Pence did.
MCCAMMON: That was Renee Graham. She's an associate editor and columnist for The Boston Globe. Starting in May, we will be releasing the weekend Consider This podcast on Sunday instead of Saturday, so look for us in your feed on Sundays, and listen wherever you get your podcasts or at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.