Biden keeps South Carolina guessing

“People aren’t as vocal right now. They talk, but it’s in small groups,” Jefferson said. “I still believe Biden has the pulse of the people and people need him. It was quiet, however. People have not come to hear what is happening.

Biden’s presence in South Carolina is a microcosm of his broader current political fortunes. Democrats here say they’re ready to give him time to turn things around on his own. They are encouraged by recent legislative progress. But in dozens of interviews with people across the state, including current and former leaders and many ardent supporters of Biden in 2020, it’s clear they’re worried about his future and aren’t ruling out the idea that someone else could be the party’s standard bearer in two years. .

“This race is like a horse race,” said House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (DS.C.), who was returning to Washington to vote for a landmark tax, health care and energy bill. which is at the heart of Biden’s possible resurgence. “I wouldn’t bet on any race until I know which horses will be in it. »

Clyburn favorably compared Biden’s record of presidential accomplishments to Lyndon B. Johnson and Harry Truman, observing that he “has the sensitivity and compassion that is needed for this country at this particular juncture.” The congressman said he knew there was discouragement over the lack of progress on some Democratic priorities like voting rights, but noted that LBJ needed time and bigger majorities before moving a much of its national Great Society program.

“People want everything to happen tomorrow morning. And if it can’t be a tweet that makes the evening news or the morning headlines, people think it’s not getting done,” Clyburn said. “If people go to the polls next November and give us overwhelming numbers, the rest of what’s on the table will be done.”

Not all Democrats are prepared to preach patience. Party officials here told POLITICO they fielded calls from at least half a dozen would-be Democratic hopefuls who were quietly trying to make inroads if Biden steps down.

“They’re extremely cautious about it,” said Jim Hodges, the former governor of South Carolina. “I’ve had conversations with people I can’t identify who have always said they support Biden if he runs, but their interest is clear. It’s this game of ‘how long do I have to wait before making my feelings known?’ because I’m sure the Biden people are very sensitive to anyone who seems too overt in their efforts at this point.

Hodges stressed that he is “cautiously supporting” Biden in 2024. “But,” he added, “I think everybody needs to relax for six months.”

Biden’s respite on Kiawah Island offered few clues about his future, if any. Several of the South Carolina president’s confidants and friends said they hadn’t heard of him getting together socially. They offer him room to recover after a rebound fight with Covid. And they still hope the recent tidal wave of Democratic achievements on Capitol Hill — alongside falling gas prices and a robust jobs market — will help undo Biden’s polling slump and create a more promising environment for the party during the fall contests.

There are also bubbling fears that if Democrats don’t rally behind Biden before the midterms, there will be serious consequences for the party.

“Democrats have to get over it. This is all bullshit,” said Trav Robertson, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. “We have to solidify around this president, whether you support him or not. We need to pass a law and stop talking about whether he is running or not. This type of talk is why we have Donald Trump as president and Deer. against Wade was overthrown. »

On Biden’s last trip to Kiawah Island — a 2015 family vacation, following the death of his son Beau — friends and allies in the state tried to aggressively drag him into the race for power. presidency. And they were quite public with their desires. State Senator Dick Harpootlian, the highly quoted former chairman of the state Democratic Party, said The Wall Street Journal when Beau favored him in 2016. “If he does what Beau wanted him to do, he’ll run,” Harpootlian said.

The dynamic is different now, and so is Harpootlian’s handicap. “It’s actually way too early to project around 22,” he told POLITICO this week.

“I think they have to see what happens halfway through,” added Harpootlian. “We are seeing a drop in gasoline prices. And on abortion — if you think the election in Kansas is more than a jolt, and I do — we have a shot at not just keeping the Senate and keeping the House, but picking up seats. .

Harpootlian was quick to voice his frustrations with the political workings of the White House. Hodges also pointed the finger at Biden staffers for not attracting state politicians enough. “The range is terrible. Engagement with supporters is really poor. They don’t give much guidance on what to say,” he said.

“If you want the troops to follow you, you have to communicate with them. And, yes, that means hearing their complaints,” he added.

Those concerns are shared by Clyburn, who told POLITICO he spent Wednesday night and Thursday morning on the phone responding to complaints from voters and Democrats outside of South Carolina.

“I haven’t spoken to the president about it. I don’t plan to speak to the president about it,” Clyburn said. not treated the way I think they should be, in the near future I will speak to the president about it.”

The White House declined to comment on the criticism, though an official noted the president considers South Carolina a special place and has had positive engagement with elected officials, including several mayors, across the state.

Biden’s love for South Carolina lives on. As a senator, he was introduced to his players by his then colleague Fritz Hollings, the late state senator, and his wife, Peatsy. Hollings, whom Biden eulogized at the Citadel in Charleston in the days leading up to the launch of his 2020 presidential campaign, bonded with a younger Biden after tragedy struck the latter’s family in 1972. Hollings urged him to stay in the Senate, with Peatsy making calls to Biden’s office. to make sure he doesn’t miss regular dinners with the couple.

With Hollings’ presentations, Biden began to trek through the Lowcountry and establish his own budding political roots. Friends recently recalled how he proudly spoke about his Irish heritage at the Hibernian Society in Charleston and played Kiawah’s famous Ocean Course with island developer Buddy Darby. Security at this time was decidedly more lax, with Biden posing for photos around the island and periodically appearing on the state’s famous political stumps. As vice president, there was a church off Kiawah where he attended mass and an ice cream shop where they passed. Biden was swearing in Tim Scott when he told the new US senator: “When I die, I want to be born again in Charleston.”

People here who have known and supported Biden for decades offer long explanations for his diminished national standing. Few mentioned his performance, instead pointing to the party’s infighting and an electorate that they believe places too much emphasis on showmanship and the kind of incisive speeches Biden delivered in his youth and not enough experience, patience and loyalty.

“People are frustrated that he’s not getting credit and his numbers are low,” said Inez Tenenbaum, the former South Carolina superintendent of education and friend of the Bidens. “Americans are spoiled. They want someone to entertain them. They had ‘The Apprentice’ for four years. It’s not Joe Biden.”

Tenenbaum and her husband were among the South Carolinians who waited for Biden to choose not to run in 2016 before kissing Hillary Clinton. They’ve visited them over the years in Washington at congressional balls and Hanukkah parties, and Biden has always written “thank you” notes to Tenenbaum’s husband after selecting books to read. She served on a Biden steering committee and campaigned statewide with Jill Biden. Tenenbaum said she would support Joe Biden in 2024 in a heartbeat, while leaving open the idea that he might not run.

“It’s something that is a personal decision that he has to make based on what he and his family think is best for them,” she said.

“The man has served this country his entire adult life,” Tenenbaum added. “He’s sacrificed so much and for people to go public with how they feel is really doing him a disservice.”

Many others have lamented the intense focus on the president’s age, especially in a state where Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who is running for office this year, is just four years younger; and Clyburn is about three years older than Biden.

“We are a patriarchal, matriarchal place,” said Marguerite Willis, a veteran Democrat from South Carolina. “We respect our elders. We look to them for guidance and advice.

And yet, it is recognized that the toll of the pandemic – which manifests itself in fewer human interactions and social gatherings that serve as a political foundation – has made all this more difficult. “These are tough times in terms of not just the pandemic, but also the mood of the country now,” said David Mack, a longtime elected Democrat and radio host from Charleston.

“A lot of the attention goes elsewhere and so many people in this country have the attitude of, well, you vote every four years and then we’ll see how he does, then in four years we’ll vote again .”

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