Wasington (Reuters) – It won’t be a campaign from the basement this time.
As U.S. President Joe Biden gears up for a bruising re-election battle, the realities of the 2024 race and differences with 2020 at the height of the coronavirus pandemic create new challenges for him.
Biden, a Democrat, says he is running again and is considering a formal announcement via video as soon as Tuesday.
In 2020, Biden kept a low profile as the spread of COVID-19 caused havoc to most aspects of American life, including the election campaign that pitted him against then-President Donald Trump, a Republican.
Trump still spoke at big rallies, but Biden did much of his campaigning virtually from the basement of his home in Wilmington, Delaware, largely avoiding crowds to prevent the spread of disease and reduce his own risk of catching the virus.
That will change this time around. Gone will be the aversion to public events, large and small, likely replaced by traditional campaign stops at diners, factories and union halls with handshakes, selfies, and crowds of people.
The Democratic convention in Chicago will be in-person rather than online. And Biden, who at 80 is already the oldest president in U.S. history, will have his day job to do while he makes the case for four more years in office.
Biden beat Trump in 2020 by winning the Electoral College 306 to 232, winning the close swing states of Pennsylvania and Georgia, and he bested Trump by more than 7 million votes nationally, capturing 51.3 percent of the popular vote to the Republican’s 46.8 percent.
Republicans will watch closely for signs of a diminished schedule to suggest that age has made Biden less fit for the campaign trail, and for the White House.
“It’s quite shocking that Biden thinks he would be able to fill a second term, let alone the rest of this term,” said Republican strategist Scott Reed.
Trump, the early front-runner for the Republican nomination, is himself 76 years old.
Biden’s reply to concerns about his age and running for re-election has been to say “watch me,” and the White House points to his record of legislative accomplishments as a sign of his effectiveness.
“An extensive travel schedule is not the measure of a candidate’s ability to do the job,” said Democratic strategist Karen Finney. “There’s no scenario where the Republicans don’t try to make his age an issue. We know that. And so the focus has to be on … what is the most effective way to reach the American people. Some of that, yes, is going to be in-person events and travel, but there may be other innovations.”
Biden campaign aides reinvented his 2020 campaign as COVID-19 spread across the country.
Some of the innovations were regarded as a success, including star-studded virtual fundraisers done without the need for expensive travel.
But other changes were more controversial, including a months-long prohibition on the use of door-knocking by campaign volunteers and the regular appearances by Biden in his home’s basement, which became a meme panned by right-wing voters.
Having to get out more than in 2020 could help Biden, said Meg Bostrom, co-founder of Topos Partnership, a strategic communications firm.
“Just look at the State of the Union (address.) That was the best I’ve ever seen. When Republicans started heckling him, he just lit up,” she said. Biden sparred ably with Republicans during his speech to Congress in February.
But other issues may trip up the incumbent president on the campaign trail, including his handling of the economy.
“The allure for voting for Biden in 2020 was sort of the quaint notion of getting back to normal,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, referring to the chaos of Trump’s time in office.
“The problem for Biden is that he’s been in power … and things are anything but normal, especially when it comes to the economy and inflation.”
Biden took office in January 2021 just as COVID vaccines were rolling out, and economic conditions gradually normalized during his early tenure after the shock of nationwide shutdowns. The United States now boasts 3.2 million jobs over the pre-pandemic peak.
But Americans are concerned about a potential recession, and Biden may suffer from being on the wrong side of an economic cycle heading into 2024, with unemployment likely to rise as growth slows, interest rates remaining high and inflation potentially hovering above pre-pandemic levels.
Trump, who has announced his re-election bid already and could be Biden’s opponent again, is expected to follow the strategy that he employed in 2016 and 2020 with multiple large rallies to energize his base.
But he will first have to win what could be a grueling Republican nomination contest – something that Biden, as an incumbent without major opposition inside his party, will not face.
“We don’t need fire and brimstone. We don’t need rah rah rallies,” said Democratic strategist Joe Lestingi. “We need the strength and conviction of our values and a steadiness not to move on them.”
Biden, he said, would provide that steadiness.
“I think he’ll get out more,” Lestingi said, praising Biden’s skill at traditional “retail” politics. “If you get an opportunity to be with him in a small intimate setting, he can make a real big difference.”