The Democratic presidential candidate the GOP fears most — Michelle Obama

Following a better-than-expected showing for his party in the midterm elections, an emboldened President Joe Biden, who just celebrated his 80th birthday, making him the oldest president in U.S. history, faces mounting pressure to officially announce whether or not he will seek reelection next year.

Despite lingering concerns about his age and health, Biden is viewed in Democratic circles as the party’s best chance of staying in the White House. While the midterms provided some reassurance of Biden’s political viability, the real issue is that the president has failed to informally anoint a potential successor, making him all-but indispensable.

Biden recently said that he intends to run again, a prospect that first lady Jill Biden is reportedly now “all-in” on. In all likelihood, Biden will be the Democratic nominee without a serious primary challenger — yet, there is no denying that this is a shaky prospect for someone who will be 82 years old in 2024.

To be sure, if Biden decides against running for whatever reason, chaos would ensue within his party. His natural successor, Vice President Kamala Harris, is an untenable option. Only 39% of Americans view her favorably, which is lower than the ratings of the last four vice presidents at this point in their tenure, and her handling of the migrant crisis at the Southern border has been widely deemed a failure.

None of the other potential 2024 hopefuls on the Democratic side — Gavin Newsom, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Gretchen Whitmer and Cory Booker, among others — rise above the rest. Any would be highly vulnerable in a national contest against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is increasingly regarded as the heir apparent of the Republican Party.

Should Biden step aside, there is only one Democrat that the Republican Party would truly, and with good reason, fear in 2024: Michelle Obama.

The case for Mrs. Obama’s candidacy is undoubtedly compelling. For one, she is one of the most popular political figures in the Democratic Party, and indeed in the country.

On top of the fact that she is viewed favorably by an overwhelming 91% of Democrats, recent polling finds her with a wide lead over a sans-Biden primary field: she is 8 points ahead of the second-place contender, Kamala Harris, and 12 points ahead of the third-place candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Given Mrs. Obama’s universal popularity with the base and obvious association to the beloved former President Barack Obama, no Democrat would mount a serious primary challenge against her. She is the only alternative to Biden who could save the party from a grueling primary battle — one that would put intraparty divisions and rifts on display and delay Democrats’ pivot to the general election campaign.

Her national appeal is also robust: she left the White House with a 68% favorability rating among all Americans, according to the last Gallup poll taken during the Obama Administration. A separate Gallup survey found that she was the most admired woman in the U.S. from 2018-2020 (the last time the survey was conducted). Additionally, according YouGov’s tracker, her husband remains one of the most popular former presidents, with a 58% favorability rating.

Mrs. Obama is also in a rare position that few political figures find themselves in these days, as she is perceived as both authentic and well-qualified. She has seen the operations of the presidency up-close and has remained active in political causes; but she is not a politician, so she doesn’t bear any baggage that could undermine her candidacy.

She is deeply admired, and has a celebrity-like aura that could generate much-needed buzz and excitement among both Democratic voters and donors alike. The level of enthusiasm that her candidacy would engender — with the Democratic base, as well as Independent women and minority voters — would reverberate down the ballot.

Mrs. Obama has repeatedly and adamantly insisted that she has no desire or intention to seek the presidency, and we now know that she was not a strong proponent of her husband’s decision to run in 2008.

That being said, it is not difficult to envision a scenario in which Mrs. Obama is put in the same position that Biden was before the 2020 election.

Following the death of his son in 2015, Mr. Biden repeatedly insisted that he would not seek the presidency at any point in the future. But once it became clear that Donald Trump posed an existential threat to the country, Biden jumped into the 2020 race at the urging of party insiders, who rightly concluded that he was the only Democrat who could prevent another four years of Donald Trump. Biden has since described his turning point as the 2017 Charlottesville riot, when Trump described the White supremacists as “very fine people.”

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To be sure, Biden had presidential ambitions long before 2020, while Michelle Obama has never expressed interest in the job. However, if it becomes clear that democracy and civil rights are at risk, whether because of Trump or DeSantis, she could feel compelled to change her mind.

Mrs. Obama played an active role in the 2022 midterms, using her considerable clout to advocate for two of the core Democratic causes close to her heart, voting rights and women’s rights, which were under attack by far-right extremists.

Admittedly, it is improbable, but not impossible, that Michelle Obama will run for president in 2024. But there is no denying that she stands above the rest as the only prospective candidate who could assure Democrats another four years in the White House.

Douglas Schoen is a longtime Democratic political consultant.

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