“People are not so vocal right now. They talk, but it’s in small groups,” Jefferson said. “I still believe that Biden has people on the pulse and that people need him. It’s been quiet. People haven’t come to hear what’s happening.”
Biden’s position in South Carolina is a microcosm of his current political fortunes. The Democrats here say they are willing to give him time to turn things around for themselves. They have been strengthened by recent legislative progress. But in dozens of interviews with people across the state, including current and former leaders and many of Biden’s ardent 2020 supporters, it’s clear they’re concerned about his future and don’t rule out the idea that someone else may be the flag bearer of the United States in two years. could be a party.
“This race is like a horse race,” said House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (DS.C.), who returned to Washington to vote for a landmark tax, health care and utility bill central to Biden’s potential resurgence. “I wouldn’t bet on any race until I knew which horses were competing.”
Clyburn compared Biden’s record of presidential performance favorably to Lyndon B. Johnson and Harry Truman, noting that he has “the sensitivity and compassion that this country needs at this particular time.” The congressman said he knows there is despondency at the lack of progress on some Democratic priorities such as voting rights, but noted that LBJ needed time and larger majorities before much of its domestic agenda for the Great Society was moved.
“People want to see everything happen in the morning. And if it can’t be a tweet that makes the evening news or the morning papers, 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 these things on the table will be done.”
Not every Democrat is willing to preach patience. Party officials here told POLITICO they’ve received calls from at least half a dozen potential Democratic hopefuls quietly trying to get through if Biden were to step aside.
“They are extremely careful with 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 it’s clear what their interest is. It’s this game of ‘how long should I wait before letting my feelings know? ?’ because I’m sure the Biden people are very sensitive to anyone who seems too overt in their efforts at this stage.”
Hodges stressed that he will “cautiously support” Biden in 2024. “But,” he added, “I believe everyone should chill for six months.”
Biden’s respite on Kiawah Island has provided little, if any, clues about his future. Several of the president’s confidants and friends in South Carolina said they hadn’t heard from him about social gathering. They offer him room to recover after a rebound attack with Covid. And they are still hopeful that the recent tidal wave of Democratic performance on Capitol Hill — in addition to falling gas prices and a robust job market — will help reverse the slump in Biden’s polls and create a more promising environment for the party in fall competitions.
There is also a bubbling fear that if Democrats do not rally behind Biden before the midterm elections, it would have serious consequences for the party.
“Democrats need to come out on top. This is all bullshit,” said Trav Robertson, the chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. “We need to strengthen around this president, whether you supported him or not. We need to pass legislation and stop talking about whether he is active or not. That kind of talk is why we have Donald Trump as president and Roe. v Wade was overthrown.”
On Biden’s last trip to Kiawah Island — a family vacation in 2015, after his son Beau died — friends and allies in the state tried aggressively to put him in the running for president. And they were quite public with their desires. State senator Dick Harpootlian, the highly quoted former chairman of the state’s Democratic Party, told The Wall Street Journal at the time that Beau preferred him to run in 2016. “If he does what Beau wanted him to do, he will run,” Harpootlian said.
The dynamics are different now and so is Harpootlian’s handicap. “It’s actually way too early to make any predictions about ’22,” he told POLITICO this week.
“I think they need to see what happens in the meantime,” Harpootlian added. “We see gas prices falling. And as for abortion – if you believe the Kansas election is more than a gimmick, and I do – we have a chance to not only keep the Senate and the House, but also win seats.”
Harpootlian was not shy about his frustrations with the White House political operation. Hodges also gave Biden staffers the finger for not being attractive enough to state politicians. “The range is terrible. The engagement with supporters is very bad. They don’t give a lot of clues about what to say,” he said.
“If you want the troops to follow you, you have to communicate with them. And yes, that means we need to hear their complaints,” he added.
Those concerns are shared by Clyburn, who told POLITICO he spent Wednesday evening and Thursday morning on the phone handling complaints from voters and Democrats outside of South Carolina.
“I didn’t bring that up with the president. I’m not planning to bring that up with the president,” Clyburn said. “But if the concerns I’ve been hearing over the past few days, really weeks now, aren’t being addressed the way I think they should be, I’ll be discussing it with the president in the near future.”
The White House declined to comment on the criticism, although an official noted that the president views South Carolina as a special place and has had positive contacts with elected officials, including several mayors, in the state.
Biden’s love for South Carolina is enduring. As a senator, he was introduced to his players by then-colleague Fritz Hollings, the late state senator, and his wife, Peatsy. Hollings, who praised Biden at the Citadel in Charleston in the days before he launched his 2020 presidential campaign, bonded with a young Biden after tragedy struck the latter’s family in 1972. Hollings urged him to stay in the Senate, with Peatsy calling Biden’s office to make sure he didn’t miss regular dinners with the couple.
With introductions from Hollings, Biden began traveling the Lowcountry, establishing his own burgeoning political roots. Friends recently recalled how he spoke proudly of his Irish heritage at the Hibernian Society of Charleston and how he played Kiawah’s famous Ocean Course with the island’s developer, Buddy Darby. Security was decidedly more lax at the time, with Biden posing for photos around the island and regularly popping up on the state’s famous political stumps. As vice president, there was a church near Kiawah where he attended mass, and an ice cream parlor they would pass by. Biden swore off Tim Scott when he told the new US senator, “If I die, I want to be reborn in Charleston.”
People here who have known and supported Biden for decades offer elaborate explanations for his diminished national status. Few mentioned his performance, instead pointing to the party struggles and an electorate that they believe places too much value on showmanship and the kind of voice-blinding speeches Biden gave in his youth and not enough in experience, patience and loyalty.
“People are frustrated that he doesn’t get the 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. For four years they had ‘The Apprentice’. That’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 hugging Hillary Clinton. They attended them in Washington at convention balls and Hanukkah parties over the years, and Biden always wrote “thank you” notes to Tenenbaum’s husband after he picked out books to read. She served on a Biden steering committee and campaigned in the state with Jill Biden. Tenenbaum said she’d back Joe Biden in the blink of an eye in 2024, but leaves open the idea that he might not run.
“That’s a personal decision 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 be public about how they feel is a real disservice to him.”
Many others lamented the intense focus on the president’s age, especially in a state where Republican government leader Henry McMaster, who is running for reelection this year, is only four years younger; and Clyburn is about three years older than Biden.
“We’re a patriarchal, matriarchal place,” said Marguerite Willis, a veteran Democrat from South Carolina. “We respect our elders. We count on them for guidance and advice.”
And yet it is recognized that the toll of the pandemic — manifesting itself in less of the human interactions and social gatherings that serve as political bases — has made it all more difficult. “These are tough times regarding not just the pandemic, but just the mood of the country right now,” said David Mack, a longtime elected Democrat and talk radio host from Charleston.
“A lot of the attention is going 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 and then in four years we’ll vote again.”