Michelle Goldberg, whose work I generally like a lot, published an op-ed this morning on the nation’s most-read op-ed page (increasingly a tallest building in Omaha superlative but whatever) urging Joe Biden not to run for re-election.
She frames her argument by acknowledging that Biden has done an excellent job during the first half of his term. So why should he step aside?
It’s been widely reported that Biden plans to use the State of the Union to set up his case for re-election. There’s a rift in the Democratic Party about whether this is wise for an 80-year-old to do. Democratic officials are largely on board, at least publicly, but the majority of Democratic voters are not. “Democrats say he’s done a good job but he’s too old,” said Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist who conducts regular voter focus groups. “He’ll be closer to 90 than 80 by the end of his second term.” Perhaps reflecting this dynamic, a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that while 78 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents approved of the job Biden has done as president, 58 percent of them wanted a different candidate next year.
The arguments for sticking with Biden are not trivial. In addition to his successful record, he has the benefit of incumbency. Primaries are expensive, exhausting, bruising affairs. If only Biden were just a few years younger, it would not be worth the Democratic Party enduring one.
But it’s hard to ignore the toll of Biden’s years, no matter how hard elected Democrats try. In some ways, the more sympathetic you are to Biden, the harder it can be to watch him stumble over his words, a tendency that can’t be entirely explained by his stutter. Longwell said Democrats in her focus group talked about holding their breath every time he speaks. And while Biden was able to campaign virtually in 2020, in 2024 we will almost certainly be back to a grueling real-world campaign schedule, which he would have to power through while running the country. It’s a herculean task for a 60-year-old and a near impossible one for an octogenarian.
I guess I’m going to go meta on this.
(1) All other things being equal, having an 82 to 86 year-old president is a terrible idea. Goldberg is correct that Biden’s age is beginning to show in various ways, and the key point here is that the effects of aging are not linear: indeed they’re often exponential. Age 85 is numerically only 21% higher than age 70, but dementia risk — to name just one of an endless number of such risks — is 700% higher.
(2) The fact that per the WAPO poll a solid majority of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters don’t want Biden to run again should be giving Democrats pause. We may deplore that number for all sorts of reasons, not least being the work the liberal media [sic] have done that has helped produce it in the first place, but it’s still a sobering stat.
(3) A huge consideration here is or ought to be the extent to which you believe some combination of incumbency being a significant advantage for Biden — this is at least questionable in presidential elections — and that Biden has some special advantage in regard to beating Trump, who remains by far the most likely GOP nominee.
Trump of course is also way too old to be re-elected president, although in his case that’s about 117 places down the list of reasons he shouldn’t be put back in office. As Goldberg notes, Trump as the GOP nominee should ameliorate the age discourse around Biden. On the other hand, Ron DeSantis is 44, and that’s a matchup that at least in regard to this metric the Democrats don’t want to see.
Personally I think both of those assumptions are pretty shaky. I think Biden presented in 2020 as someone who was in many ways the ideal candidate — basically a non-threatening avuncular old white man — to help the country move past the Trump nightmare, at least temporarily. Four years later, the calculation is quite different, and again from my perspective it would be potentially a big boost to Democratic enthusiasm to have someone like Gretchen Whitmer or Raphael Warnock or Gavin Newsom at the top of the ticket. The idea that Democrats don’t currently have several strong potential presidential candidates besides Biden is ridiculous, and basically a classic loser mentality at work.
(4) ON THE OTHER HAND . . . if Biden chooses to run, all this is academic in the worst sense of the word. Biden isn’t going to be challenged for the nomination, nor should he be: The downsides of a primary battle, especially given that it would feed the media’s beloved Democrats in Disarray template, easily outweigh the potential benefits.
I fully expect Biden to run, and I’ll of course support him with an enthusiasm unknown to man against Trump, DeSantis, Melkor who is known as Morgoth, or whoever else the not even hiding it anymore authoritarian ethno-nationalist theocrats choose to run.
But if Biden were to unexpectedly change his mind/decide not to run, I would also be very enthusiastic about the many exciting possibilities that decision would open up, and I would greatly admire his decision as a fitting conclusion to his more than half-century long career near the pinnacle of American political life