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analysis

Then-President Donald Trump and then-Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden participate in the final presidential debate at Belmont University on Oct. 22, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn.Jim Bourg/The Associated Press

Nobody for president.

Or maybe a nobody.

More than two years before the next U.S. presidential election, and with more than three in four Americans believing their country is headed in the wrong direction, a former president and a sitting president are digesting sobering soundings in opinion polls that reflect fresh divisions in the country’s civic life and provide new reasons for public discontent.

The findings in the latest New York Times/Siena College poll are startling and perhaps without modern precedent. Only a quarter of Democratic voters want their party’s leader, President Joe Biden, to run again in 2024. Almost half of Republican voters would prefer someone other than Donald Trump to win their party’s nomination.

Discontent is an American hallmark. Yale University Press publishes a series of books it calls Democracy and its Discontents. Historian Daniel J. Boorstin, a former librarian of Congress, published a book bearing the same title, incorporating lectures he delivered at the University of Michigan in 1972. Precisely a half-century later, the United States is living with his prophecy: a “flood of information” and “the opportunities to tear down the old” – a combination so powerful that Mr. Boorstin felt moved to attempt “to help prevent us from being disillusioned.”

Now the disillusionment is so pervasive that two men who have won the presidency – the greatest political prize the U.S. can confer on its citizens, proffered, always with deep solemnity and often with great hope, to only 45 people in 234 years – are facing deep skepticism from many of the very voters who elevated them to the White House.

Taken together, the two represent parallel elements of a contemporary political culture that Americans revile: Mr. Biden as the timeworn symbol of a moribund political establishment rooted in 1970s conventions, and Mr. Trump as the crude, undisciplined symbol of a political insurrection with trace elements of intolerance. One appears as a hopelessly weak man, the other as an aspiring strongman.

Though neither is in imminent danger of being denied his respective nomination for the 2024 election, neither is in an even remotely strong position either.

There is, to be sure, no declared challenger to Mr. Biden and no well-known figure who might be a consensus replacement. Vice-President Kamala Harris, who ordinarily might be the presumptive successor, is viewed skeptically by Democrats and ran so weak a 2020 presidential campaign herself that she did not even get to the starting gate at the Iowa caucuses.

Similarly, Mr. Trump still sits atop the GOP, with a 2-to-1 advantage over his putative rival, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, according to the Times/Siena poll. The other potential candidates are in the mid-single digits.

Even so, Americans seem to be looking elsewhere.

Mr. Biden, who would be 86 at the end of a second term, seems tired, beleaguered and often unfocused. Mr. Trump, who would be 82 at the end of another term, still commands public attention and retains the loyalty of his base, but he is being battered by the congressional committee examining the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol and by accounts of his actions that, as Democratic Representative Stephanie Murphy of Florida put it in Tuesday’s hearings, were “corrosive to our country and damaging to our democracy.”

The American public seems to be saying this: We have already had a Biden-Trump election.

Younger voters of both sides – the progressives who push the Democratic Party to the left, the conservatives who have soldered the Republican Party into a populist form of conservatism – seem to be yearning for a fresher approach than anything offered by their party leaders. Overall, voters seem to be growing weary of both of them. Neither man, reflecting instinctive American contempt for communism, would countenance any insight from Karl Marx, but one – “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce” – is an apt reflection of the lack of public appetite for a rematch between the two.

American history suggests that presidents defeated after a single term are unlikely to return to the White House in a subsequent election; the only chief executive to have done so was Grover Cleveland, who was defeated in 1888 but elected again in 1892. That was more than five generations ago.

History also suggests that challenges to sitting presidents inside their own party are both rare and generally unavailing; there hasn’t been a serious one in four decades, not since 1980, when Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts tried to unseat President Jimmy Carter and failed to do so. Conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan challenged President George H.W. Bush in 1992 but made little headway. A more substantial challenge came in 1976, when former California governor Ronald Reagan tried, but failed, to unseat President Gerald Ford.

But eight years earlier, both Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and Senator Robert Kennedy of New York challenged the renomination of President Lyndon Johnson, who in turn withdrew from the race. Mr. Kennedy was assassinated, Mr. McCarthy’s insurgency fell short, and Vice-President Hubert Humphrey won the nomination, only to be defeated in the 1968 general election by Richard Nixon.

One in five Republicans believe Mr. Trump’s actions on Jan. 6, 2021, posed a threat to American democracy. One in three of the Democrats who say they would prefer Mr. Biden step aside do so because he is too old, with another third saying they don’t want him to run again because they object to his performance as President. At a time when the parties are skeptical of their own leaders, many Americans are recoiling at confronting the evil of two lessers. Two years before the next election, in this democracy there is discontent.

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