Will the ghost of Eugene McCarthy haunt Joe Biden's path to re-election?

Everyone thought Lyndon Johnson would cruise to renomination in 1968. There's a lesson there for Joe Biden

Published December 17, 2022 8:00AM (EST)

US President Joe Biden | Senator Eugene McCarthy, 1968 (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden | Senator Eugene McCarthy, 1968 (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

These days, conventional media wisdom says that President Biden will have a smooth path to renomination if he wants it.

Don't be so sure.

Fifty-five years ago, pundits scoffed when a Democratic senator announced that he was running against incumbent Lyndon Johnson for their party's presidential nomination. Eugene McCarthy launched his campaign to challenge Johnson's continual escalation of the war in Vietnam.

Joe Biden's public approval rating is now at 42 percent, virtually identical to what President Johnson's was when the McCarthy campaign began in November 1967. A few months later, on March 12, 1968, McCarthy received 42 percent of the votes — a stunning result, just seven points behind Johnson — in the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary. Sen. Robert Kennedy jumped into the race four days later. And two weeks after that, Johnson shocked the country by declaring that he would not seek re-election. 

It would be nice to hear from Biden the kind of statement that Johnson made: "I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office — the presidency of your country." But Biden has said in recent weeks that he intends to run again.

Spinners aligned with the White House are careful to detour around the notable shortage of enthusiasm for Biden among the Democratic electorate. New polling has found that 57 percent of Democrats don't want him to be the party's nominee.

So far, no Democrat in Congress has shown any interest in entering the 2024 primaries against Biden. Yet a progressive challenger could launch a principled campaign to constructively give Biden a run for his corporate money in early primary states — raising vital questions about crucial policies along the way.

Skeptics might point out that, unlike when McCarthy received strong support from antiwar citizens, today there is no single overriding issue like the Vietnam War. But there is a class war (by any other name) going on with great intensity in the United States — and a wide range of Americans are feeling the countless dire consequences of inordinate corporate power and worsening economic inequality.

Of course, Biden does not want to face a primary rival who could clearly illuminate such issues. In the absence of a credible opponent, the president could skate through the primaries without needing to face cogent critiques of his administration's record on an array of chronic problems — including corporate price-gouging, skyrocketing costs of housing, voter suppression, and a bloated military budget that soaks up roughly half of all federal discretionary spending.

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Given the enormity of the crises facing the United States and the world, measures that Biden has proposed are often akin to calling for garden hoses to put out roaring wildfires. Being far better than Republicans in Congress is a high jump over very low standards, while simply blaming Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, the Senate's two pseudo-Democrats, is more like scapegoating than explaining. 

Whether in the realms of the predatory health care system or the exploitative treatment of workers by huge corporations or the ever-increasing stranglehold of big tech companies or many other ills, Biden has often accepted or worsened destructive priorities while rejecting remedies that would improve people's lives instead of boosting corporate profits. 

"Our ideas are way more popular than Joe Biden is," a progressive Democratic member of the New Hampshire legislature says in a TV ad that will begin to air throughout the state this week. A young voter says, "Joe Biden representing the status quo in 2024 simply won't cut it." Another New Hampshire voter warns in the ad (which was produced by our colleagues in the Don't Run Joe campaign), "We can't afford to risk the White House for a Republican who could defeat status-quo Joe."

But where is a prominent progressive Democrat willing to challenge "status-quo Joe" in the primaries? Political courage appears to be in short supply among self-identified progressives on Capitol Hill, who so far have done nothing to help get Biden out of the way and clear a path for bolder leadership. It will be up to grassroots activists to get the job done.

By Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen is co-founder of, a retired journalism professor at Ithaca College and author of “Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media.” In 1986, he founded the media watch group FAIR.

MORE FROM Jeff Cohen

By Norman Solomon

Norman Solomon is co-founder of RootsAction and founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. He is the author of many books, including "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death." His latest book, "War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine," was published in June 2023.

MORE FROM Norman Solomon

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Commentary Democrats Elections Eugene Mccarthy Joe Biden Lyndon Johnson Progressives