CNN  — 

There’s one tiny sliver of hope for Joe Biden in a devastating new poll that flags rising concerns over the President’s age and performance and shows even most Democrats want another candidate in 2024. He could still beat Donald Trump.

This small consolation for the White House cannot disguise growing signs that Biden’s presidency is in deep trouble even before midterm elections in November, which threaten a devastating rebuke to his Democratic Party in the House. The New York Times/Siena College nationwide survey coincides with a flurry of unflattering stories about Biden’s age and political proficiency and growing speculation about his prospects for reelection. The question of whether any Democrats would dare challenge him in a primary is an increasingly hot topic despite dismissals by leading alternative potential candidates.

And yet, Biden, saddled with an approval rating of just 33% in the survey, is still in the game against Trump. The survey showed no clear leader, with Biden earning 44% to Trump’s 41% among registered voters, within the poll’s margin of sampling error.

The poll also shows that Trump would not be the unanimous choice inside his own party. Nearly half of Republican primary voters preferred another candidate for the nomination. That’s especially the case for primary voters under 35 and those with at least a college degree, majorities of which indicated they’d oppose Trump, according to the Times. Of all the names tested, however, Trump remained the favorite for the GOP nod by a wide margin.

A poll is just a snapshot in time, but it’s hardly encouraging news for the ex-President and suggests he has huge liabilities in the general electorate, despite expectations among his conservative media boosters that he would cruise to revenge over an elderly Biden in 2024.

But the closeness of the hypothetical Biden-Trump matchup also points to a more profound theme that is emerging as the US barrels toward 2024 and has implications beyond the identity of the person who sits in the Oval Office in 2025. A country mired in multiple crises, politically estranged within and facing risky international flashpoints may get a 2024 contest between two candidates whose answers haven’t worked over the previous eight years and whom millions of people would like to see retire from the stage to make room for younger, fresher faces.

Such a scenario would be an indictment of a party system that is already fused into dysfunction by hyper partisanship and Trump’s attack on the 2020 election. It would likely leave the victor in 2024 without a workable mandate at a time when Washington is failing to respond to the country’s longer-term needs. And it would further strain faith among voters about the political system.

A defining feature of a 2024 campaign

A country where the passing of a political torch has been a strident feature of presidential races for generations could be about to endure one last slugfest between 1940s babies trying to defy time.

But paradoxically, a President who most of his own party wants to retire and an ex-President who left office in deep disgrace, could be exceedingly difficult to dislodge. The prospect of a November 2024 contest between a man who would be just shy of 82 and a 78-year-old former insurrectionist-in-chief is very real.

Biden is a proud man. He waited a lifetime to win the presidency, and resented being overlooked in favor of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for earlier Democratic nominations. His team is adamant he is running for reelection and he has the best talking point – he already beat Trump and deserves a chance to repeat it.

Trump, meanwhile, is itching to launch a revenge campaign, associates have told CNN, even before November’s midterms. He may want to leap in to freeze out potential GOP rivals, capitalize on Biden’s low approval ratings and portray any potential criminal referral from the House select committee investigating his coup attempt as a naked political ploy.

Any attempt from inside the Democratic and Republican Parties to push either candidate out could backfire, and might require challengers to put their own political futures on the line to do so – diminishing the likelihood of truly contested primary races. The chances of either Biden or Trump giving up on a race for the good of their parties this far out seems slim, though events and health questions could still reshape the future of the two rivals.

Biden’s diminished presidency

Biden’s presidency has been in free-fall for nearly a year, since the messy and bloody US withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer and his overtaken vow last July Fourth that the coronavirus pandemic was all but over. Both undermined his self-assigned job description as America’s fixer.

It’s not just independent and cross-over Republicans who have lost in faith in Biden. His support in his own party is plummeting too, according to the Times poll, which shows more than 60% of Democrats preferring an alternative nominee in 2024. Those who want a change cite Biden’s age and job performance as the top two reasons why. This is a flashing warning sign for the President.

If Democrats do poorly in the midterms, where they are widely expected to lose the House but may cling to the Senate, the calls for a fresh face at the top of the ticket 2024 ticket will surely grow. CNN’s Edward-Isaac Dovere has spent recent days chronicling disquiet among Democrats about their President but he found a unified front from key party figures who warn an anti-Biden movement could let a Republican win in 2024. No one needs reminding how Sen. Edward Kennedy’s challenge in 1980 fatally weakened President Jimmy Carter – a one-term predecessor to whom Biden is increasingly compared – and heralded 12 years of Republicans in the Oval Office. But a cataclysmic midterm election will increase pressure on Biden exponentially.

FILE - President Joe Biden listens to a question during an interview with the Associated Press in the Oval Office of the White House, June 16, 2022, in Washington.  Biden's top political advisers are bracing for big midterm losses in November. They know that the party holding the White House nearly always losses congressional seats in the first midterm election of a new presidency. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
CNN report: This is why Democrats are frustrated with Biden
04:45 - Source: CNN

While the White House dismisses questions about the next election as media speculation, chatter about Biden’s age and prospects is growing among Democratic voters and a wider swathe of Americans outside the presidential bubble. Given that Biden was the oldest ever President the second he was sworn in, the issue of his age was always going to come up. His political troubles have perhaps just advanced the conversation. Incidents like the one recently when Biden fell off his bike, which could happen to any President, get far more coverage given his age. And it’s undeniable that the President is not the sprightly, backslapping, quintessential politician of even his vice presidential years. He’s perceptibly aged in office. It’s his misfortune that despite regular workouts and a physician’s report that he’s fit to serve, he must endure incessant public scrutiny. But that does come with the job.

The White House must brace for constant questions about Biden’s future plans, Democratic strategist James Carville told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Monday. “It’s not going to go away. I suspect that they don’t much like this story, but they are going to have to deal with it,” said Carville, who masterminded Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Monday insisted Biden was focused on the present not the future. “Polls are going to go up and they’re going to go down,” she said. “This is not the thing that we are solely focused on.”

How Biden could turn it around

Biden’s problems among Democratic voters may reflect the divided nature of his party – and even his own success in 2020. His victory in the Democratic primary was forged as he ran as a statesmanlike voice for a quiet majority of moderates in a party with an increasingly youthful and progressive base.

But that electorally successful coalition has proven to be a governing liability in many cases. Despite early achievements like passing a big Covid-19 relief bill, cutting child poverty and signing a bipartisan infrastructure law, hopes for a Lyndon Johnson era of progressive reform have foundered to the frustration of House progressives furious that moderate senators like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin curtailed Biden’s agenda. An unlikely late push to enact some big wins, like social and climate spending, before the midterms could enthuse Democratic voters and improve Biden’s prospects. But there have been signs in recent weeks that raise fresh alarm – including the White House’s flat-footed initial response to the Supreme Court’s overturning of the constitutional right to an abortion, which followed a draft conservative majority opinion published by Politico weeks earlier.

The White House stumble over abortion also sparked questions about the dexterity of the Biden operation with a reelection campaign looming after the midterms. Running for president as President brings a whole new set of challenges unfamiliar from a first campaign. The commander-in-chief is torn between his duties in the United States and abroad and often exhausting cross-country campaigning. It’s hard for any president to keep up, let alone one who will be 81 during the election year. This is why some strategists still think that Biden will eventually look at his prospects for 2024 and decide against running again. It would be painfully ironic if he emulates Johnson, not with the scope of his domestic reform program but with a decision not to seek reelection after a full first term amidst cratering political prospects.

Yet Biden has one card to play with Democrats that could change everything. An early campaign launch by Trump would allow the President to yet again start drawing a sharper contrast with a potential alternative who is viewed with horror by almost all Democrats – and many more Americans.

The New York Times survey, for example, found that if the choice in 2024 was between Biden and Trump, 92% of Democrats would stick with the President.

This story has been updated with additional developments.