WASHINGTON — Forget the Wilmington basement. This time he will have a Rose Garden. And Air Force One and a big white mansion and all the other advantages of incumbency in a year when he is not forced by a pandemic to stick to streaming from downstairs.
But as President Biden prepares to run for a second term, his team is mapping out a strategy for 2024 that in many other ways resembles that of 2020. Whether he ultimately faces Donald J. Trump again or another Republican trying to be like Mr. Trump, the president plans a campaign message that still boils down to three words: Competent beats crazy.
Whether he can sell that theme again represents a singular challenge given surveys showing that the public has not exactly rallied behind him and harbors deep doubts about his age. When Mr. Biden kicks off his re-election campaign this spring, as is widely expected, he will be the oldest president in history but one of the lowest-rated in the modern period, presiding over an economy that is improving but unsettled and leading a party publicly behind him but privately angst-ridden. And rather than Mr. Trump, he may yet face a Republican challenger closer to the age of his son.
The goal, according to interviews with White House officials, outside advisers, key allies and party strategists, is to frame the race as a contest, not a referendum on Mr. Biden. On one side, in this narrative, will be a mature, seasoned leader with a raft of legislation on his record aimed at winning back working-class Democrats. On the other will be an ideologically driven, conspiracy-minded opposition consumed by its own internal power struggles and tethered to a leader facing multiple investigations for trying to overturn a democratic election.
“It’s incumbent on the president and his team to make sure the election is a choice,” said Lis Smith, a senior adviser to Pete Buttigieg during the 2020 Democratic primary campaign. “It’s not going to be Joe Biden versus some mythical Democratic candidate. It’s going to be between Joe Biden and whoever the Republican nominee is.”
Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster, said a rematch between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump would be the best scenario for the president. “At this point, President Biden just needs to seem like he is still very much with it and able to do the job and at that point his fate is largely out of his hands,” Mr. Ayres said. “He’s got to pray the Republicans blow themselves up again.”
Mr. Biden previewed his approach in his State of the Union address this month when he baited Republicans into a debate over Social Security and Medicare, then pressed his argument during appearances in Wisconsin and Florida. He used the nationally televised speech before Congress to highlight his legislative successes while focusing on pocketbook issues to reach out to voters upset at him over inflation.
The trips that followed illustrated one important difference from 2020. No longer tied to the basement of his home in Delaware, the way he was by Covid-19 in 2020, Mr. Biden will travel frequently this year to deliver his message, aides said. As projects from the 2021 infrastructure package break ground, the president intends to cut a lot of ribbons around the country to take credit.
Republican strategists are gambling that the physical toll of a full-scale, nonpandemic campaign effort will wear on an 80-year-old president. They plan to portray him as an aging, failed leader and a big-spending captive of the political left who drove up inflation and did little to defend the border against a record wave of illegal immigration.
Which Republicans Are Eyeing the 2024 Presidential Election?
The G.O.P. primary begins. For months, former President Donald J. Trump has been the lone Republican officially running for president in 2024, but that’s no longer the case with Nikki Haley entering the race. It’s the first major Republican challenge to Mr. Trump, but unlikely to be the last. Here’s a look at the potential field:
Nikki Haley. The former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador under Mr. Trump, Ms. Haley has called for “generational change” in the party after three disappointing election cycles for Republicans. But in early surveys, she is polling in single digits. Here are five things to know about Ms. Haley.
Ron DeSantis. The Florida governor is the most formidable potential Trump challenger so far. He has become a household name by attacking what he calls liberal orthodoxies in government and culture. A DeSantis campaign probably won’t arrive for months, after Florida’s legislative session ends and Mr. DeSantis has new policy victories to promote.
Mike Pence. The former vice president has stumped for midterm candidates, toured early-voting states to sign a memoir and poached staff members from rivals. But his popularity with Republican voters has fallen since he refused to try to block the 2020 election, and he is reluctant to criticize Mr. Trump. Mr. Pence appears in no hurry to make a 2024 decision.
Mike Pompeo. Mr. Pompeo has an imposing résumé: congressman, C.I.A. director, secretary of state. A new memoir allowed him to tour and test out a presidential message. A home-state paper, The Kansas City Star, said the book reads “like a guy at a bar trying to show his toughness.” Mr. Pompeo has said that he would decide on a bid “in the next handful of months.”
Other Republicans. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, former Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland and Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire are seen as weighing 2024 bids. The possible field is rounded out by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia and Liz Cheney, who lost her House seat after helping lead the Capitol riot inquiry.
“Joe Biden’s campaign team doesn’t have a strategic problem; they have a candidate problem,” said Chris LaCivita, a Trump campaign consultant. “Americans have now watched Joe Biden wreck our economy, and he’ll have to answer for it. Biden won’t be able to hide in his basement like last time.”
While Mr. Biden seems eager for a rematch, it is hardly certain that he can replicate the 2020 outcome. Not only is his approval rating hovering at an anemic 43 percent, but two recent surveys, the Washington Post-ABC News poll and the Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll, found Mr. Trump leading by several points. Moreover, despite Mr. Biden’s legislative victories, 62 percent told The Post and ABC that he had accomplished “not very much” or “little ornothing.”
Biden aides scorn such surveys, saying that the polling system is broken, as proved by the midterm elections when Democrats did better than expected.
Although Mr. Biden has yet to formally announce his campaign, the decision is taken as a given within his circle. The next step, advisers said, will come in March when Democrats announce which city will host their nominating convention next year; the finalists are Atlanta, Chicago and New York.
Democrats expect Mr. Biden to make his bid official no earlier than April to put off scrutiny of his fund-raising until the next reporting deadline in July. While Mr. Biden has appeared at fund-raising events for the Democratic National Committee, he has yet to mount a major effort to raise cash for his re-election bid. But aides said the president was driven less by such considerations and as a tested incumbent had the luxury of time. They say that his fund-raising list is bigger than any of his Democratic predecessors and that their campaign apparatus remains intact whenever Mr. Biden is ready.
An April kickoff would be consistent with Mr. Biden’s 2020 campaign, which formally got underway in April 2019, and President Barack Obama’s re-election bid, which formally began in April 2011. (Mr. Trump, by contrast, filed for re-election on the day of his inauguration.)
No leadership for the campaign has been chosen yet. Biden advisers have spoken with top Democratic campaign strategists, but at least three have indicated they are not interested in running the campaign and declined to have additional conversations about the post for a mix of personal and professional reasons, according to people informed about the discussions.
Among other things, there is a sense from younger campaign strategists that the crucial decisions will be made by Mr. Biden’s longtime aides in the White House, meaning that the official manager may not have a lot of control but will still take much of the blame for tactical and strategic mistakes.
Some of Mr. Biden’s most trusted political strategists are expected to remain at their posts in the White House and coordinate with the campaign from there, including Anita Dunn, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, Steven J. Ricchetti and Bruce Reed. Mike Donilon, a senior adviser who has long been at Mr. Biden’s side, may switch over to the campaign but no decision has been made, according to Democrats close to the situation. Ron Klain, who just stepped down as White House chief of staff, and Kate Bedingfield, who is leaving as White House communications director, may help with the campaign in some capacity.
No decision has been made about where the campaign’s headquarters will be. The president has pushed for Wilmington, his hometown, according to people briefed on internal discussions. But some advisers fear that such a location would make recruitment harder, with younger campaign aides not eager to spend a year in a sleepy, small town. They are pressing instead for Philadelphia, where Mr. Biden’s 2020 effort was based.
In seeking a second term, Mr. Biden is pushing history where it has never gone before, asking voters to keep him in power until he is 86. Surveys and focus groups have consistently identified that as a major concern of voters, and even a majority of Democrats tell pollsters they would prefer the party nominate someone else.
In conversations, Democratic voters regularly mention Mr. Biden’s octogenarian status without being asked. During a lunch this month at the Riverfront Market food hall in Wilmington, Kate Watson, 69, and Tre Sullivan, 71, had high praise Mr. Biden’s presidency — and deep worries that he could win again.
“People will not vote for somebody in their 80s who by the time he’s done being the president he’ll be 84,” Ms. Sullivan said.
Reminded that Mr. Biden would be 86 at the end of a second term, the two women recoiled.
“Oh, God, that’s right,” said Ms. Watson, who is retired from the marketing business.
“It’s not going to happen,” said Ms. Sullivan, who is retired from a career in sales work.
Mr. Biden responds to such concerns by pointing to his record of rebuilding roads and bridges, expanding health care, curbing the cost of prescription drugs for Medicare beneficiaries, investing in climate change projects, forgiving student debt and treating veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. His aides argue that voters will still prefer a president who delivers regardless to the divisive and unpopular policies of Mr. Trump’s Republican Party. And Mr. Trump, if he wins the nomination, would be 82 at the end of a second term.
A focus group of swing voters convened after the State of the Union by Sarah Longwell, a Republican pollster and vocal critic of Mr. Trump, found that Mr. Biden still had residual good will among some of those who took a chance on him. The voters who participated, all of whom voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and switched to Mr. Biden in 2020, used phrases like “family man” and “he cares” to describe the president. They remained viscerally disaffected from Mr. Trump, calling him “demonstrably unfit for office” and “an embarrassment to our country.”
Still, another challenger would pose more of a generational threat. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is 44; Nikki Haley, a former U.N. ambassador, is 51; and former Vice President Mike Pence is 63. “If the Republicans nominate a younger, vigorous person, male or female, who seems up to the job, I think he’s in trouble,” Mr. Ayres said of Mr. Biden.
For the moment, with no Republican nominee to debate, Mr. Biden plans to play off House Republicans the way he did at the State of the Union, hoping they will turn off voters while he appears to focus on the country’s priorities.
Senator Chris Coons, a Democratic ally of the president from Delaware, noted how House Republicans devolved into chaos simply trying to pick a new speaker, a process that deadlocked until the 15th ballot, while Mr. Biden appeared recently with politicians from both parties at an Ohio River bridge set to be upgraded as part of the infrastructure package he signed.
“That was a pretty sharp contrast,” Mr. Coons said, “and I think you’re going to see that contrast every week this year.”