The Tortured History of Joe Biden’s Presidential Campaign Announcements

8 minute read

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

President Joe Biden has all the groundwork laid to make official his 2024 re-election bid. The video is apparently filmed. The donors are primed, if a little confused about the timing and the specific task ahead of a Friday summit in Washington that is decidedly not a fundraiser. The staff—and, more importantly, the family this time—are behind the effort.

All that is missing is the boss’ go sign. For veterans of the Biden orbit, they’ve been here before. Biden’s last 20 years are sign-posted by presidential campaigns that sputtered to a start or never even got off the ground.

Eight years ago, Biden’s brain trust had everything at the ready, including a fully vetted 2,500-word thesis on why he was choosing to push through the grief of the loss of his son Beau and campaign for the job he had coveted since his late 20s. Instead, he shelved a turn-key operation and bowed out on a sunny day in October of 2015, flanked in the Rose Garden by two central figures in his political life—wife Jill Biden and then-President Barack Obama—who were each relieved he decided to sit that race out and let Hillary Clinton have her shot.

That Biden had made it to the White House even as a Vice President was something of a stunner to many in his inner circle, who had watched in agony back in 2007 as the then-presidential candidate screwed up right out of the gate, calling Obama “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”; even his loyal brother would signal from the back of the room it was time for long-winded Biden to wrap things up. It was a trippy flashback to Biden’s first run for the White House, a 15-week vamp in 1987 that sent him back to Washington facing accusations of plagiarism. Still, Obama made the cold calculation that he needed Biden on the ticket to calm skittish Democrats, and it worked.

And four years before that, ahead of the 2004 race, Biden almost threw his hat in. Dr. Biden was so ticked off that her husband was meeting about a possible presidential run with Democratic Party brass at their home in Wilmington, Del., that she sat poolside until scrawling a giant “NO” on her stomach and walking through the living room in her bikini.

Things are different this time around, as Biden’s vacillation is not being interpreted by many as a sign he may not run. No serious Democrats are talking about an effective primary challenge against the sitting President. He has proven to be the one person in the United States who has bested Donald Trump, and Biden remains the safest bet in facing a still-sorting GOP field of contenders. Biden has the gravitas befitting the oldest man ever elected to the job, and his accomplishments are nothing to sneeze at either. By all accounts, Dr. Biden is fully on board despite reticence as late as last fall.

And yet…

Poll after poll after poll shows the majority of the Democratic Party doesn’t want Biden to run again. They’re incredibly clear in wanting someone else to join the race. They respect Biden and appreciate his stewardship in a role he once described himself as a “transition” leader. Still, there’s the not-so-quiet rumble—and a roar for those watching Fox News’ primetime lineup—that Biden might be off a step. All of which has added to the building suspense of when Washington will wake up to a push alert that confirms what everyone has long suspected—or not—as soon as Tuesday.

Those close to the White House are expecting his fourth run for the top job in American politics to be made official on Tuesday, which on some people’s calendars marks a four-year lag behind when Biden declared his 2020 ambitions in a video message focused on Charlottesville, Va., where Donald Trump’s response to a march by white supremacists had inspired Biden to join the fight. Though Biden quickly became the front-runner, he drew a constant barrage of hand-wringing over his age, and whether he was the right candidate to lead the party, and the country, at that moment. Sound familiar?

(Even the issue of when Biden’s 2020 campaign officially launched depends on who you ask. The April 25, 2019, announcement video focused on Charlottesville, Va., and some aides advised that Biden would soon have a campaign launch rally there; it never happened. An April 29 visit to a union hall in Pittsburgh did take place, although aides aggressively insisted it wasn’t the actual start of the campaign. Eventually, the campaign settled on a new narrative, starting with a rally on May 19, a few blocks from the campaign ground base in Philadelphia. His work actually meeting voters started a few weeks after that.)

Biden allies have been less-than-subtle in detailing the preparations for Biden’s run this time, down to the details of a video shoot with the family to announce the coming campaign. Staffing decisions have started to leak, including the possible pick of Julie Chávez Rodriguez, a senior White House adviser and the granddaughter of labor leader Cesar Chavez, as campaign manager. But, as is typical with so many Biden choices, the President himself hasn’t made any final decision on who would run the day-to-day grind of a campaign, or even where it would be based.

If all of this sounds muddled, it can be, at least from the outside. Biden World is an insular place, with only a handful of advisers ever really understanding what the boss is truly thinking. For his part, Biden cares about fewer. While his family was on board for his 2016 campaign, even his closest advisers had doubts. “I don’t think you should do this,” Mike Donilon told Biden on Oct. 20, 2015—the last night his would-be-campaign staff huddled. It was quite the turnaround from the Donilon who faced down naysayers on the team up until that point with the same refrain: “Don’t take this away from him.”

The same was true in 2020. “I just thought the price was going to be too high,” Valerie Biden Owens wrote in her memoirs, weighing her support for her brother with her own family’s fragility so soon after Beau Biden’s death.

Joe Biden had told aides even into last fall that he wanted to wait as long as he could before announcing his re-election bid, perhaps even well into 2024 itself. To Biden’s mind, the longer he can wait to start acting like an official candidate, the longer he can delay raising the money needed to wear that title. A national campaign this time could cost Biden and his allies as much as $2 billion to be credible, and Biden, frankly, hates to ask people for money. Which, of course, is why the hastily summoned donor summit at the end of this week is pointedly not a fundraiser, thank you very much.

All signs point to Biden running. Biden returned from a nostalgic trip to his ancestral homeland of Ireland with a perk in his step, and he’s watching House Republicans bumble their way toward an intra-party implosion over the looming debt ceiling deadlines. Polling is bedeviling Biden, but he’s been counted out before, he likes to kid. With Trump riding high in Republican polls, Biden is as determined as he was in 2019 to knock the bully from his ledge. On top of all of that, Biden actually heads into reelection with as strong a case as any recent incumbent to mind.

And yet, once again, Biden is facing those who have doubts of whether a run makes sense. This time, it’s millions of members of his own party who are the ones asking their beloved Uncle Joe if he really, really needs to take on this challenge. To Biden’s mind, there is but one obvious answer.

Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the D.C. Brief newsletter.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Philip Elliott at