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Washington Wednesday: The donkey in the room


WORLD Radio - Washington Wednesday: The donkey in the room

President Biden announces his campaign for 2024 while polls indicate voters want to see someone else in the White House

President Joe Biden pumps his fists after speaking at the North America's Building Trades Union National Legislative Conference at the Washington Hilton in Washington, Tuesday, April 25, 2023. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s the 26th of April, 2023.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. It’s Washington Wednesday.

A familiar voice has joined the 2024 presidential race.

BIDEN CAMPAIGN VIDEO: When I ran for president four years ago, I said we were in a battle for the soul of America. And we still are. The question we’re facing 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. This is not a time to be complacent. That is why I’m running for reelection.

After months of hinting, President Joe Biden announced his candidacy in a video posted on Tuesday morning. The three-minute mashup includes various images of Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and we see footage from the U.S. Capitol riot back in January 2021. We hear Biden castigating “extreme MAGA Republicans” clearly framing up a rematch with former President Trump.

But will this be a repeat of the 2020 election cycle? What are Biden’s chances after three years in office so far?

REICHARD: Joining us now to talk about it is Henry Olsen. He is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Good morning to you, Henry.

HENRY OLSEN, GUEST: Good morning.

REICHARD: Well, let's turn our attention first to the elephant—I guess I should say donkey in the room: returning Democratic candidate Joe Biden. The White House said earlier that it wasn't in any particular hurry to announce another run for him, seeing as the Democratic Party did so well in the midterms. Henry, what do you think of the timing to launch Biden's campaign now?

OLSEN: Well, they're clearly trying to get to the anniversary of when he announced his campaign in 2019 so that they can have some sort of symmetry. I also think they know they need to act early enough to raise money and preempt any uncertainty within the Democratic field. So presuming that the announcement is interpreted as unambiguous from the Biden campaign, you never know. I think that'll serve their purpose. But the fact is, they will still have to be on the lookout that this is a candidate who remains liked, but not popular with many Democrats. The polls regularly show that large numbers, in some cases majorities of Democrats, don't want him to run again, even though they approve of the job he did. And that means that even though he's announced now, he shouldn't be convinced that he's going to have a essentially free ride. So getting in now, kind of helps set that 'I'm running and scaring some people’ who might otherwise be tempted to get in the race now.

At 10:00 REICHARD: The Democratic National Convention seems fully behind the president, despite challengers getting in. There's no official endorsement yet from the DNC, but it also said there's no plan to hold primary debates. Even if it did, the DNC would refuse long shot candidates that chance anyway. Henry, what do you think this means? Is Biden automatically the Democratic nominee?

OLSEN: Well you know, first of all, neither Marianne Williamson nor Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the only two candidates who are in the race, are serious candidates. You know, they're the the democratic equivalents of William Weld and Joe Walsh, from 2020 against Donald Trump, you know, they'll get a couple of percent of the vote, but that's pretty much all that they'll get. And so as long as they are the only ones in the race, there is no reason for the Democratic National Committee to weaken the person who's going to be the nominee anyway. What happens if somebody starts getting 30% in the polls? I doubt Williamson or Kennedy could, but what happens if instead of President Biden having no serious candidate, there is somebody who was emerging with significant support, somebody who's raising millions of dollars, somebody who's throwing rallies. I think at that point, they would have to allow debate.

REICHARD: I wonder if this was correct, what I saw that RFK did come in, in the first initial poll, after he announced it, around 14% approval. Was that, is that not even close to what's needed to be included?

OLSEN: Yeah, it's not even close. You know, the thing is that you need 15%, just to get a single delegate. So 14% means that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. would get zero delegates in any place that can contest it. This isn't like a presidential campaign in the general election where in order to be somewhat fair to non-two party candidates, they've established a 15% floor saying, if you've got 15% of the people, then you've reached the status where you should be able to have a free platform. In the Democratic primary, somebody gets 15% and you know, 14%, they've got nothing. And I don't think the Democrats will do anything unless and until somebody starts breaking 30.

REICHARD: Henry, do you expect to see a repeat of Biden's 2020 campaign? You know, he basically just stayed at home and let the headlines be about his opponent. If he's going to conduct a new campaign. Is it going to be the same old same old or is there going to be a new strategy?

OLSEN: He can’t literally sit at home the way he did during the pandemic. But it's not unusual for a president to run what used to be called the Rose Garden strategy, which is to say “I'm going to spend my time in the White House and govern the country and you can do the tawdry stuff about campaigning.” During the Democratic primary, as long as there's not a serious energetic challenger, Biden will not actively campaign, I think he will make a couple of pro forma appearances. But let's recall, Donald Trump did not stump Iowa against Joe Walsh, or William Weld in 2020 personally, he let his campaign do the crushing. And I think that's what Biden will do in the absence of a serious challenge. Now, if there's a serious challenge, if we're talking about October or November, as somebody who's emerged, who is getting crowds, who is raising millions of dollars, he's moving up in the polls, then I think he will come out of the White House and begin to engage.

Let's then fast forward to the spring, let's say that he is the putative nominee by April, I think he will then begin to have a few heavily scripted events, to set the stage much as he did, during the midterms, where he will say basically try and wrap himself around the flag of America, cast whoever the nominee is, as being the Republican nominee is or could be as an ultra Maga out of the mainstream candidate. I don't think he'll be active, running around a lot. I think, though, that he'll give a few campaign speeches, and he will give presidential speeches, which is what presidents do. I do not think he will actively campaign in the model of most candidates until after Labor Day, and then it will be less energetic than a normal nominee would, you would expect from a normal nominee.

REICHARD: Okay. My final question here. You've mentioned as far as talking points for Republicans, age will be an issue, but Trump also has to deal with that if he is indeed the candidate. What other opposition material, so to speak, do Republicans have as it comes to Biden?

OLSEN: There's lots of things that you can say with respect to Biden, but again, you have to have a strategy. You can't have a “throw everything at the wall” strategy. That doesn't work. So the question is, clearly, there are things that motivate Republican voters, you want to talk about abortion, you want to talk about the size of government spending, you want to talk about wokeness. The question is, how do you craft these together with a message that also reaches the voters you need to win. You know, take a look at Georgia, there are thousands of people who voted Biden-Kemp. There are thousands of people who voted Biden-DeSantis. That's the voter that you need to focus on. And to focus on that voter, I'm not sure what they think. I have some ideas on what I think you ought to do. But it really depends in part on the candidate. There are things that a Nikki Haley or a Ron DeSantis might be able to say that Donald Trump simply can't say. And vice-versa, there are things that a Donald Trump could say that they simply can't say. So I think they will obviously focus on themes that resonate with a Republican base audience. But to be successful, they also need to have themes that will communicate to that swing voter who is somebody who may not like Biden, but also is not an automatic Republican, and how you craft that is going to be key to whether you can win.

REICHARD: Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the ethics and Public Policy Center. Henry, thanks so much for joining us.

OLSEN: Thanks for having me.

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