An opinion that was once unthinkable is quickly taking hold of the Democratic Party. What will it take for Joe Biden to step aside?

By Sam Rosenthal

In February 2023, I stood outside the Democratic National Committee Winter Meeting handing out flyers. It was a bright, sunny day in downtown Philadelphia, but bone-chillingly cold; within just ten minutes I had lost feeling in my toes and fingers. I, along with a handful of other volunteers, was there to spread a heterodox and unpopular message: that Joe Biden, then cruising to his party’s renomination, should not seek another term in 2024. 

Our flyers pointed to Biden’s shortcomings in his first term and how they would affect his candidacy in 2024 — how a lack of progressive policy achievements had damaged his reputation with critical constituencies that propelled him to victory in 2020, including young people, people of color, and grassroots activists. We highlighted his cratering popularity within his own party, how many Democrats already said that they preferred a different nominee at the top of the ticket in 2024. We implored DNC members to take seriously the acute threat a second Trump term posed to our country’s democracy and earnestly reconsider whether Joe Biden was as well-positioned to defeat Trump as he had been in 2020. As we flyered in front of the hotel where DNC meetings were being held, a mobile billboard truck circled the block bearing our campaign slogan — “Don’t Run, Joe!”

don't run joe. truck

How did DNC members, staffers, and media attendees react to our open display of dissent? About how you would expect — most ignored us, a few others mocked us, one or two even angrily confronted our ragtag group. U.S. media, when they grudgingly agreed to hear us out, wanted to know why, if our stance was truly held by a majority of Democrats, no one within the party agreed with us. Most of the U.S. journalists I spoke to that weekend approached me with a mix of bemusement and mild derision. None of our interviews made it into their coverage of the Winter Meeting.

In contrast, iInternational press wanted to speak with us about our campaign. They asked thoughtful questions that revealed their honest impressions on the precarity of Biden’s position.

Meanwhile, something notable kept happening that weekend. Convention attendees would approach us, most looking over their shoulders, to express their quiet agreement with our position. “Who else is with you?” they wanted to know. Journalists told me that DNC members, even Democratic members of Congress, had privately expressed their concerns about Biden’s candidacy, but that none would go on the record. One DNC member approached me to say that he agreed completely with us, but that there was no way of changing the party’s approach at this late stage (never mind that the election was still nearly two years away). There was palpable anxiety bubbling under the surface of an apparently sober and pro forma party convening, but no one was willing to say the quiet part out loud.

Now, of course, the Step Aside Joe campaign is no longer the lone dissenting voice. Since Biden’s disastrous debate appearance on Thursday night, what was a long-simmering conversation has erupted into a full boil, with a growing chorus of voices, from across the political spectrum, in agreement that Biden is, as one commentator put it, past his “sell-by date.” 

There is, of course, still time for the Democrats to find someone else who can take up the party’s mantle and avert a likely electoral catastrophe, but it will require a concerted effort from voters, party leaders, electeds, and media figures to pressure Biden to end his campaign. Nothing can happen unless Biden himself agrees to step aside. For those who are new to the Step Aside Joe terrain, I’d like to offer a few quick insights gleaned from my handful of years as one of the few inhabitants of SAJ island:

First, there is far more anxiety among party insiders than has been reported. Last night was not the beginning of a period of worry for those who have been closely following Biden’s re-election campaign; rather, it was the culminating moment wherein all of their worst fears and anxieties were realized and concretized in one, faltering performance. Unfortunately, in modern electoral politics, to be isolated is to be on the precipice of extinction, and so almost no Democrat who has to run for re-election themselves in the coming years can afford to publicly express their misgivings about Biden’s candidacy. However, if a few brave electeds in prominent positions were to speak out, my guess is that the tide would turn quite rapidly.

Second, members of the media have long fielded concerns about Biden’s candidacy from those aforementioned party insiders. This has been going on at least as far back as the February 2023 Winter Meeting, and I suspect much farther than that. But, these sources are at pains to stay completely off the record or not for attribution by name, meaning that the media ultimately has very little fodder from which to generate a compelling story.

As we saw on Friday morning though, the sheer volume of anxious messages coming in from sources inside the Democratic Party machinery was enough for mainstream media to finally declare that a desire for Biden to step aside was widespread within the party. In the coming weeks, Biden’s camp will want to tamp down lasting concerns about his debate performance and proceed in a business-as-usual fashion. It will be up to journalists to keep this story alive, even if it costs them access to sources within the White House.

Finally, the gulf between the Democratic Party and its constituents can be incredibly vast. If voters are worried about the party’s current approach — and they should be — they must let their representatives know. Members of Congress are ultimately beholden to their constituents, although that fact is often easy to forget, and enough pressure from in-district voters could help nudge these electeds into taking a more confrontational approach to those in the party leadership who want to stay the course. We do not have to smash heedlessly into the approaching iceberg, but voters must take active steps to steer the party away from the consequences of its own bad decision-making. It is unlikely the party will course correct on its own.

It is not an exaggeration to say that replacing Joe Biden at the top of the ticket is critical to saving our very imperfect democracy. This is an opportunity for activists and voters to make their voices heard, but an effort needs to take hold quickly, and with urgency, if we want to avoid the coming catastrophe.