“Democrats just don’t have any choice and it’s so difficult,” said Dennis DeConcini, 86, an Arizona Democrat who served with Biden in the Senate. “He’s too old. So am I. What I tell people is in comparison to Trump, he’s a decent guy. He may be too old and stumble a little bit. The problem, in my opinion, is the Democrats really have a problem if he didn’t run because [Vice President] Kamala Harris — I don’t think she could be elected.”

“We’re kind of stuck with Biden because of that,” he added.

Biden allies insist the president’s accomplishments — not pressure — are what has kept challengers at bay. Jay Inslee, the Democratic governor of Washington, ran for president in 2020 but opted not to try again this time around. One reason, he says, is that Biden has delivered.

“Democrats historically are a rebellious group,” Inslee said in an interview. “We’ve had all kinds of presidential primaries. It’s unusual that has not happened” this time. “But it’s based on the president’s performance.”

He drew a contrast between Biden and Trump, whom he grappled with during the Covid-19 crisis. “It’s night and day between our state’s relationship with the executive branch compared to when Trump ignored us,” he said. “I remember asking for his [Trump’s] assistance in Covid and he basically told me that wasn’t his job.”

“It was a brush off at a moment of desperate need for our state,” Inslee added. Biden, in turn, “has been responsive in every way we’ve requested, including the most recent fires we had in Spokane County. The president called me and the FEMA director called me.”

‘If there’s no one better’

Everyday voters aren’t so dazzled. Persuading them to look beyond Biden’s age and focus on concrete accomplishments won’t be easy for a party leadership that’s moving toward a coronation at the Chicago convention. A survey in July found that 71% of people had heard little or nothing at all about one of Biden’s signature legislative victories: a massive spending package to curb global warming.

Even if inflation and the jobless rates are declining — as Biden likes to point out — many people still feel stressed by high prices both at the grocery store and the gas pump. Against these real-world pressures, Biden’s legislative breakthroughs may seem an abstraction.

A person shops at a supermarket in Chicago
A person shops at a supermarket in Chicago on Aug. 9.Scott Olson / Getty Images file

“I need my party to stop acting as though the suffering that people are feeling, especially socially and economically, is a figment of their imagination and they don’t understand all that we’ve done,” said Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator who was a staunch critic of Biden during the 2020 primary. “The talking heads feel it. The people in the bubble feel it. But big mama and big papa do not feel that this economy has gotten better for them.”

Throughout the country, a yearning for something other than the Biden-Trump rematch is easy to spot. In a focus group with Georgia voters who supported Biden in 2020, the moderator started a question by asking for a show of hands of those who wished neither Biden nor Trump were running in 2024. Before he even finished getting the question out, all five hands went up.

“The analogy I like to use is Trump and Biden are like the fifth-place team playing the sixth-place team, and you’re being required to root for one of them,” said Rich Thau, who ran the focus group in May of swing voters who had switched from Trump in 2016 to Biden in ’20.

If there are grounds for optimism among Democrats, it’s that the election may come down to a clarifying choice: Biden on the one hand or a former president facing multiple indictments on the other.

“Joe Biden is the sitting U.S. president and he clearly beats Trump in a general election and he already has once,” said Jim Messina, who ran Barack Obama’s successful re-election campaign in 2012. “So, what are we supposed to do? Go to an unproven candidate who fails on the national stage, when we have a successful presidential candidate?”

Visiting a county fair with her mother in northeast Ohio on Thursday, Catiana Kutyla, a Democrat from New Jersey, spelled out the calculus that many in the party may be making.

“If there’s no one better, I’ll vote for Biden,” she said. “But if another candidate comes up who’s actually younger, understands what this country needs, and just seems like a better candidate, then I would vote for that candidate.”