'Our strongest candidate': House Democrats are sticking with Biden in 2024

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BALTIMORE — Three years ago, the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, threw her support behind liberal icon Bernie Sanders for president while questioning Joe Biden’s progressive credentials.

This week, at the House Democrats’ annual retreat, Jayapal stood before a bank of TV cameras and declared Biden the “most progressive president that we’ve had in a long time.”

“I would like to see him announce sooner,” Jayapal, of Washington, later said of his 2024 re-election bid.

The president has said he intends to run for a second term but has not officially announced his candidacy. An official announcement is anticipated this spring.

Biden’s approval ratings are still stuck in the low 40s, voters rate his handling of the economy even lower and there are nagging concerns about his age. He’s already the oldest president in history, and if he runs for and wins re-election, Biden would be 86 at the end of his second term.

But at a three-day gathering of House Democrats at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor this week, Democrats from every corner of the party — progressives and moderates alike, leadership and rank-and-file members — said they were sticking with Joe in 2024.

“Biden will kill both of them,” progressive Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York said of former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a viral exchange with Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., on the steps of the Capitol this week. “Biden passed three bipartisan pieces of legislation after an insurrection during a global pandemic, opened back up the schools — killin’ the game!”

Bowman, a member of “the Squad” of progressive lawmakers of color, repeated that same sentiment to colleagues and reporters later in the week in Baltimore.

It’s not just progressive members in safer blue districts who are fired up about Biden’s re-election. Some vulnerable Democrats, like Rep. Lauren Underwood of Illinois, said they have no qualms about running with Biden in 2024 despite his standing with voters. In last year's midterm election, Democrats braced for an anti-Biden red wave that they thought would sweep through the House; instead, it was a GOP ripple and 35 of the Democratic Party's most targeted members, including Underwood, beat back GOP challenges and returned to Congress.

“Democrats are united. Let’s just start there. We’re united,” Underwood told reporters this week. “We are so proud of the progress that the Biden-Harris administration has made, and I certainly am very pleased to have the opportunity to be on a ballot with President Biden in 2024. Unequivocally. Full stop.”

A warm reception

At-risk Democrats like Underwood are feeling better about Biden after the party’s better-than-expected showing in the midterms and the fact that the effects of several landmark bills Biden signed into law in the last Congress are finally being felt by voters.

Ground is breaking on new roads, bridges and water and sewer projects, funded by the bipartisan infrastructure package; the CHIPS and Science Act has spurred billions in investments in the domestic manufacturing of computer chips; the PACT Act has expanded health care for veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits; and Biden’s signature climate and health care law, the Inflation Reduction Act, is lowering prescription drug prices for millions of Americans.

“Folks are going to understand what you’ve done, and we’re going to make sure of it,” Biden said during his televised address to House Democrats this week.

He was greeted in Baltimore with a standing ovation, and after the reporters and TV cameras were ushered out, Biden visited with his House allies for more than an hour, discussing issues like climate change, the economy, the war in Ukraine and the Ohio train derailment, lawmakers said.

Because they staved off a red wave in 2022, Democrats in the House need to flip a net of only five seats to take back the majority in 2024. And they’re bullish they’ll do much better than that.

New Hampshire Rep. Annie Kuster, the new chair of the group of business-friendly moderates known as the New Democrats, said having Biden on the ballot will be beneficial in targeting the 18 Republicans who represent districts the president won in 2020.

“In those 18 districts that are held by Biden Republicans, he’s the best in terms of his message and how he approaches this,” Kuster said. “And the coalition that he built in 2020 [is] coming back even stronger in 2024.”

'Iron sharpening iron'

Democrats said no one at this week’s Baltimore retreat spoke ill of Biden or suggested he quit the party’s 2024 ticket. But one House Democrat has been beating the drum about the need for generational change. Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota, who did not attend the retreat because of a personal matter, has said he’d like to see younger candidates vie for the 2024 nomination, even as he has praised Biden.

If Biden “were 15-20 years younger it would be a no-brainer to nominate him,” Phillips, 54, told Politico last month. “But considering his age it’s absurd we’re not promoting competition but trying to extinguish it.”

Another Democrat who is encouraging competition in the presidential primary is freshman Rep. Hillary Scholten, 41, who flipped a GOP-held seat last fall in western Michigan.

She said she supports Biden and that he has done a “phenomenal job” in pushing his agenda through Congress — from infrastructure to gun reform to health care — and that it is directly helping her constituents. But, Scholten said, Biden’s low approval rating is unacceptable, chalking it up to a “messaging problem.”

“We’re not doing ourselves any favors to sort of stick our heads in the sand and say, ‘No problem here,’” Scholten said in an interview. "Unlike some of my colleagues, you know, who don’t necessarily recognize any disconnect, I do see a problem when, especially among young voters, you continue to hear a discontent with leadership."

Scholten also said it’s too early to endorse the president for a second term and she thinks it could be good if other Democrats throw their hat in the ring.

“I’ve said over and over, this president is doing a great job, but if there are other individuals out there who think that they could, our American democracy runs on that sort of iron sharpening iron,” Scholten said. “And I think this president has a lot of great talking points to hold up about all the amazing things he’s been able to deliver in his first term."

Pressed again about whether she would endorse Biden, Scholten replied: “We don’t know what the landscape is going to be. ... When we get to the campaign season, I’m going to take a look at all of them.”

Most Dems backing Biden

Still, Phillips and Scholten represent a vocal but extremely tiny minority. Nearly all other congressional Democrats are lining up behind Biden.

Rep. Pete Aguilar of California, the new Democratic Caucus chair who organized the Baltimore retreat, was asked at a Punchbowl News event whether Biden would be the best candidate for the party in 2024.

“Well, I think he will win. I think he’s our strongest candidate. I think if you look at the body of work that we have been able to accomplish over the last few years, I think it demonstrates to the American public exactly what his values are,” Aguilar replied.

“The Republicans that ran toward extremism were pushed back. But there he was, Joe Biden, signing bills from the American Rescue Plan to the bipartisan infrastructure bill to gun safety legislation. Time and time again, he was able to deliver with House Democrats, with Senate Democrats,” Aguilar added. “And so I think that he can and should run, and he’s going to have the support of the House Democratic Caucus.”

Jayapal said the Congressional Progressive Caucus she chairs has formed a strong bond with Biden and his team during the past several years and has influenced several pieces of Biden’s inflation reduction law. She will soon sit down with Biden’s new chief of staff, Jeff Zients, she said.

“Nobody’s surprised that Biden was not my choice in the first election for the primary. But the CPC and the president and his administration have formed an incredibly strong partnership,” Jayapal said. “They have been very respectful of both our power and our ability to deliver the votes that they need, but also our ideas."

“This was the president’s progressive agenda that we were pushing for," she continued, "and he has told me and he’s told us as a caucus, time and time again, that he’s grateful for us having his back.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com