It became known as the “basement strategy”. As the coronavirus pandemic raged outside, presidential candidate Joe Biden addressed the nation from a makeshift studio under his Delaware home, avoiding off-the-cuff gaffes and allowing rival Donald Trump to self-destruct.
But three years on, with lockdowns lifted and America mostly back to a new version of normal, Biden knows that speeches on glitchy Zoom calls or in empty auditoriums will not be enough. The president, who at 80 is the oldest in American history, is facing the final, most gruelling campaign of his life.
On Saturday he kicks it off in earnest with the first rally of his 2024 re-election bid in Philadelphia, in the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania. Biden will address supporters in the trade union movement, a vital part of his coalition, and tout economic achievements, including a manufacturing revival and record jobs numbers.
Speaking in the birthplace of American democracy, he can also make the case that he has been a human bulwark against the extremism of Trump’s Make America Great Again (Maga) movement while finding ways to do business with Republicans in Congress. But after the sheltered existence he enjoyed in the pandemic campaign of 2020, he will have to prove his fitness for office all over again.
“The principal stumbling block to a second term for Joe Biden is the widespread perception that he is simply too old to serve effectively for a second term,” said Bill Galston, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton. “He has to run a vigorous campaign, and there’s no time like the present to be out and about, and to begin pushing back against the perception that he’s going to run another basement campaign because he doesn’t have the energy to do anything else.”
Biden will have plenty of opportunity, and obligation, to meet voters on the campaign trail this time, generating spontaneous moments that can be both a blessing and a curse given his history of verbal blunders. In December 2019, when a man in Iowa suggested that he was too old and raised questions about his son’s overseas business dealings, Biden called him a “damned liar” and suggested a pushup contest.
Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington, added: “That goes with the territory and, all things considered, it’s a risk that the campaign has to take. Because if they keep him as guarded as they have up to now then he has no chance of rebutting the presumption that he’s too old. And that could prove fatal.”
Biden was also at his weakest during in-person campaigning early in 2020. Despite joining the race as the perceived frontrunner, he lost the first three Democratic primary contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada and only clinched his party’s nomination after the pandemic took hold.
During the presidential election against Trump, Biden did resume in-person campaigning via physically distanced circles, drive-in rallies and other small events in battleground states. But he almost always returned each night to sleep at home in Delaware.
As president, he has travelled far and wide, delivered countless speeches and answered doubters with a pugnacious State of the Union address in which he verbally sparred with Republicans and came out on top. But he has given no national newspaper interviews and far fewer solo press conferences than his predecessors – fuelling a perception that his inner circle is trying to shield him from exposure.
Saturday’s public rally will start to address one confounding disconnect. Biden has presided over the strongest post-pandemic recovery of any major economy, including the creation of 13m jobs – more than any president has created in an entire four-year term – and the lowest unemployment for half a century.
Yet an Associated Press-Norc Center for Public Affairs Research poll last month found that just 33% of American adults say they approve of his handling of the economy and only 24% say national economic conditions are in good shape. One explanation might be stubbornly high inflation driving rising prices for consumers. Another is that people are not yet feeling the benefits in their daily lives.
Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist, said: “The poll numbers may not reflect the work that’s being done because we’ve done the legislation, now we have to move to education and implementation. Part of politics these days are about emotions and, while we’ve accomplished a lot, some of the things that we’ve accomplished Americans may not necessarily feel just yet and that’ll take some time.
“Part of that is telling them when it’s coming, how it’s coming, but also highlighting the alternative and what’s on the other side and how in one election all the things that have been accomplished can be taken away.”
Biden’s re-election campaign, led by Julie Chávez Rodríguez, granddaughter of the Latino labour activist Cesar Chavez, is convinced that it has a good story to tell. He has spent his presidency combating Covid, rallying western allies against Russia and pushing through major bills such as a bipartisan infrastructure package and legislation to promote hi-tech manufacturing and climate measures. When he formally announced his re-election campaign in an April video, he asked voters for time to “finish this job”.
He is also fond of telling critics, “Don’t judge me against the Almighty, judge me against the alternative” – which looks set to be a far-right Republican such as Trump or the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis. Biden proved an effective campaigner for Democrats in last year’s midterm elections by picking his venues carefully and highlighting Maga extremism along with abortion rights.
Chris Whipple, author of The Fight of His Life: Inside Joe Biden’s White House, said of the 2024 campaign: “He’ll probably take a page from the playbook of the 2022 midterms. At the time, Biden wanted to go everywhere and talk about everything. He wanted to brag about all of his accomplishments from the first two years and he had plenty to brag about.
“But [then chief of staff] Ron Klain and some of his advisers sat him down and said, Mr President, look, you’re going to go to the places where we think you can make a positive difference and you’re going to talk about women’s reproductive rights and the threat to democracy represented by Maga. He followed that script and the rest is history.”
Whipple added: “They defied the expectations in the midterms. I suspect he’s getting very similar advice right now: that’s a winning formula. In the 2022 midterms, normal beat crazy, and crazy is even crazier as we speak, given the latest indictment of Trump and the craven obedience of the GOP [Grand Old Party] to Trump.”
Despite Trump facing federal criminal charges over his mishandling of classified documents, no one in the Biden campaign is taking victory for granted. Presidential elections are decided by a few percentage points in a few swing states. There are warning signs that Biden will find 2024 tougher going than 2020.
The Associated Press-Norc Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that only 26% of Americans – and only about half of Democrats – said they wanted to see Biden run again. Among Black adults, only 41% said they want him to run and 55% said they were likely to support him in the general election.
The sagging enthusiasm has been thrown into sharp relief by two fringe candidates making inroads into his support among Democrats. A Quinnipiac University poll released this week found that 70% of Democratic-leaning voters support Biden in a 2024 primary but environment lawyer Robert F Kennedy Jr is drawing 17% and self-help author Marianne Williamson has 8%.
Biden has struggled to fulfill key promises to Black voters, perhaps the most loyal group in his political base. While he tapped Ketanji Brown Jackson to become the first Black woman on the supreme court, he has been unable to follow through on pledges to protect voting rights against a wave of Republican-backed restrictions or enact policing reform to help stop violence against people of colour at the hands of law enforcement.
Although the Inflation Reduction Act made historic climate investments, critics point to Biden’s recent backsliding on the issue: this year he approved Willow, an $8bn oil drilling project on pristine federal land in Alaska, and agreed to fast-track the $6.6bn Mountain Valley pipeline (MVP) in West Virginia.
Michele Weindling, electoral director of the Sunrise Movement, a youth climate advocacy group, criticised Biden for his recent “negative choices” and said: “It is the president’s duty to ensure that he is constantly grappling with the crisis at hand and I don’t think that he’s taking the crisis seriously when he negotiates around fossil fuels and continues to pass drilling permits even after promising not to.”
Pushing climate to the margins could damage Biden’s re-election chances, Weindling warned. “There’s a risk of it making our jobs a lot harder in terms of mobilising young people to get out to vote. The proof is in the past two elections where young people turned out in record numbers to elect Democrats who were running on bold progressive platforms, on popular agendas.”
Meanwhile, Biden’s toughest critics are calling for him to drop out of the race and make way for another Democrat. Norman Solomon, national director of RootsAction.org, sponsor of the Step Aside Joe! campaign, argues that, whereas Trump was on the defensive in 2020, this time Biden will represent the status quo.
“There are many reasons to believe that this Biden campaign is on a collision course with disaster. Nobody knows for sure but there are so many signs from the polling, from his public appearances, from the footage that is catnip for the Fox News world that, literally and figuratively, Biden is stumbling.
“Instead of being in denial and being like the crowd in the story The Emperor’s New Clothes, Democrats, including members of Congress and movers and shakers at the Democratic National Committee, still have an opportunity to step up. But instead, with very few exceptions, they’re simply fawning at the president.”
If there is one hallmark of the Biden presidency, however, it is that he is constantly underestimated. Ronald Reagan, then the oldest president in US history, had an approval rating of just 35% in early 1983 but went on to win re-election in a landslide the following year.
Bob Shrum, a consultant on several Democratic presidential campaigns, said: “Lots of factors matter here. Does the economy continue to stay healthy and to get healthier? What happens overseas? All of those things are contingencies that you have to take into account but, looking at it right now, I not only think Biden wins, I think Republicans are going to get more and more uncomfortable with Trump.”