By Jeff Zeleny, Chief National Affairs Correspondent
President Joe Biden delivers a standard two-word answer whenever he is asked about his fitness to serve a second term, smiling as he declares with an air of boastful confidence: “Watch me.”
That’s exactly what Kathi Harris is doing. So far, she is unbothered by it all.
“Age is just a number,” said Harris, a loyal Democrat and longtime civic leader here in western Michigan. “Until God takes him home, he has the strength right now to do what he needs to be doing for the country.”
Yet that does not mean she is particularly enthusiastic about the road ahead or doesn’t wish voters would be given choices beyond Biden, 80, and a potential rematch with former President Donald Trump, 76.
“Do I get excited? No!” she said. “I just think of, again, all that craziness.”
A week after declaring his bid for reelection, a wave of new Biden campaign ads touting his accomplishments are already airing in Michigan as the president works to elevate his standing among Democrats and independents who backed him four years ago.
Khara DeWit, a small businesswoman who opened South East Market two years ago to bring fresh groceries to an underserved Grand Rapids neighborhood, exhaled when asked about the next presidential race and whether she intended to cast her vote once again for Biden.
“I personally only voted for him as a way to debunk Trump,” said DeWit, who fondly recalls seeing Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, her preferred candidate, on a visit here before the Michigan primary in 2020. “But I really thought our democracy was in jeopardy and I wanted someone else.”
For more than two years, she has watched Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and is not displeased with their record or governing style.
Of the president, she said: “He is about getting the job done.” Of the vice president: “I was really pleased she was elected. She needs more of a platform.”
A tone of respectful reluctance toward Biden comes alive in interviews with many voters here, but DeWit and others expressing some points of skepticism said they had little hesitation at the notion of supporting the ticket again.
Asked whether she would be motivated to cast a ballot for Biden or one against Trump, should he become the Republican nominee, DeWit didn’t hesitate, saying: “Trump is the motivator. How do we make sure he doesn’t get elected?”
Even as the Republican primary race is still taking shape, Trump dominates the political conversation — among Democrats and Republicans — in Grand Rapids and surrounding Kent County, which he lost in 2020 after winning four years earlier. Once again, this western swath of the state will be among the most competitive pieces of terrain in battleground Michigan.
Terry Almquist, a retired professor, said he understands myriad questions about health, stamina and age that are an undercurrent to the doubts a majority of Americans have about the president running again.
If elected, Biden would be 82 when taking the oath of office and 86 by the end of his term, setting new records for an American leader.
“It will be an issue to a lot of people. I don’t think it should be, but I think it will be,” Almquist said. “But what can I say, I’m 80 years old myself, so he’s one of my people.”
A tepid sense of excitement for Biden is palpable in conversations with many people who supported him, like Sarah Laman, who opened Last Mile Coffee in Grand Rapids during the pandemic. She said she has mixed feelings toward the Biden administration as she tries to keep her business on track during high inflation.
“Just because somebody has my vote,” Laman said, “doesn’t necessarily mean I’m a massive advocate of them.”
Asked whether she intended to vote for Biden again, she paused for a moment and finally said: “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
She lamented the limited choices for voters and wondered aloud if a third-party candidate could find an enthusiastic reception or simply be a spoiler, saying: “I have not voted third-party in a presidential election before, but maybe I would be inspired to.”
At this early stage of the presidential race, her sentiment helps frame pivotal questions of the 2024 campaign: Can Trump exhaustion lead to Biden enthusiasm? Could that enthusiasm be fleeting if the president faces a new opponent — or two — next year?
Nancy Wagner, a retiree and political independent, said she voted for Trump in 2020. But she recoils at the thought of a rematch with Biden.
“I think it sounds awful,” Wagner said, stopping to chat after attending a town meeting with her congresswoman, Hillary Scholten, on Tuesday evening. “We need a new generation of leaders. We need people with fresh ideas.”
Wagner addresses a quiet concern among some Democrats, too, that Biden may be well-positioned to confront Trump, but may not be the right man for the job if the Republican nominee is someone else who can mount a generational argument for change.
Scholten, who last fall became the first Democrat to represent western Michigan in three decades, believes her party must better explain its accomplishments. From the landmark infrastructure law to the investments made to create jobs in the Inflation Reduction Act, Scholten said her constituents aren’t always aware of the Biden administration achievements.
“I look at the approval ratings. We all know there is still some dissatisfaction with national Democrats, despite everything they have delivered on in the last two years,” Scholten told CNN. “It’s not an everyday reality for people just yet. These large major improvements are going to take time to come through.”
That sentiment underscores a central challenge facing the White House: touting the administration’s record without assuming that all Americans can feel or appreciate the benefits.
Driving across Grand Rapids, signs of those accomplishments come into sharper view, like major road construction projects along Eastern Avenue or Interstate 96 or the major expansion of a terminal at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport.
“I think the president is not getting the credit for what he has done. We need so much more in the way of infrastructure,” said Almquist, the retired professor. “We’re just scratching the surface.”
Almquist said he voted for Biden without hesitation last time, but acknowledges he wasn’t sure how the longtime senator and former vice president would fare in the Oval Office. After watching the president for more than two years, he now believes those doubts were misplaced.
“I knew he was a competent person, but I didn’t know how he would present himself on the main stage,” Almquist said. “I must admit, I was wrong. I think he’s handled the whole situation very well.”
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