can the Democrats stay united if Joe Biden is toppled?

Last month’s Los Angeles fundraiser for Joe Biden was a roaring success, bagging more than $30mn in donations for the president’s re-election campaign and high-wattage backing from the likes of George Clooney and Julia Roberts.

As the evening wound down, the crowd was cheering, the band was playing exit music and it was time to leave the stage — except Biden appeared to freeze. His former boss, Barack Obama, came to the rescue, taking the 81-year-old president’s arm and guiding him away.

Many Democrats are now hoping Obama will again be the one to usher Biden aside after the president’s dismal performance at last week’s debate against Donald Trump convinced them his campaign for re-election in November is doomed.

The problem, warn those who know the president and his team, is that an Obama intervention might have the opposite effect. Among the Bidens, there is still bitterness at Obama for backing Hillary Clinton — against his own vice-president — as his successor in 2015.

“If Obama tries to get involved it’s going to be counterproductive,” a top donor to the Democratic party said.

A Democratic lobbyist agreed: “I think the thing that a lot of people don’t understand is that Barack Obama and the Clintons and Biden don’t have a great relationship.”

Relations between the Democratic party’s three leading clans has never been straightforward. Obama drew the Clintons’ ire when, as a first-term senator, he had the audacity to challenge Hillary Clinton for the party’s 2008 nomination.

Biden and Obama portrayed a happy partnership during their eight years in the White House. Yet various accounts indicate that the then-vice president — a son of blue-collar Scranton, Pennsylvania — nursed resentment at what he viewed as the party’s Ivy League wing.

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Biden’s ties to the Clintons were never especially strong, according to another operative who placed little faith in efforts to enlist Bill and Hillary in the campaign to sideline the president.

Those old wounds and rivalries — for a place in history and continued sway over the apparatus — now form a layer of mistrust atop an already-fractured party as it grapples with a historic crisis.

Four years ago, Biden was the one to hold together a broad coalition — progressives, blue-collar voters, young and old, Blacks, those who subscribe to identity politics and those who do not — to defeat Trump. His removal threatens to unravel it.

“There is no unity among Democrats because, basically, the Democratic coalition’s pieces do not share the same values,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime party strategist, citing the widening gap between its traditional blue-collar base and its educated urban elites. Of the party’s leading families he said: “They all represent different factions. They all think they have the answer.”

By contrast, the Republican party has appeared ever more uniform under the domination of Trump. Its unity has been achieved, in part, by persecuting dissenters, including those who blamed the former president for inciting the January 6 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol.

One veteran Democratic operative warned of “a giant shit-show” if Biden were to be toppled. This person envisioned chaos as the likes of Bernie Sanders, the socialist senator from Vermont, Chuck Schumer, the Senate Majority leader, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young star of the progressive “Squad”, Nancy Pelosi, the 84-year-old former Speaker of the House, and other potentates clashed over a replacement.

Some of the Democrats’ divisions were on display in the recent Congressional primary race in New York’s 16th district. It pitted a Black member of the progressive “Squad”, congressman Jamaal Bowman, against a white establishment figure, George Latimer, who had Hillary Clinton’s endorsement. What ensued was an intraparty contest that featured charges of racism and antisemitism, inflamed by generational disagreements over Israel’s war in Gaza.

In one sign of potential fissures in the party, Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina congressman who helped solidify Black support for Biden four years ago, this week warned against passing over vice-president Kamala Harris, who is also Black, should Biden step aside. That runs counter to the wishes of many big donors who are convinced that Harris is not the best candidate to face Trump.  

Other Democrats dismiss predictions of chaos and infighting as a self-serving argument to keep Biden in place. A spirited contest that would be settled at the August convention in Chicago might be just the unscripted exercise of democracy to inspire voters put off by both Trump and Biden, they argue.

So far, the party’s heavyweights have managed to keep their disagreements under wraps. But some clues have emerged in the media. They have come via former Clinton and Obama advisers-turned-pundits, James Carville and David Axelrod, whose calls for the president to step aside have stung the Biden camp.

Following the debate, Ben Rhodes, the former Obama aide, blasted the Biden campaign’s attempt to repair the damage. “Telling people they didn’t see what they saw is not the way to respond to this,” he bristled.

In reply, Axios quoted a longtime Biden aide sneering that “Davos Dems love to hedge their bets against us”, and in due time, would be back “begging for Christmas party invitations and then for a plus-one”.

Said Sheinkopf: “Biden was a unifying figure despite the dissension. The question now becomes: who in the next generation can replace him?”

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