Biden should not run again — and he should say he won’t
By Bret Stephens
Is it a good idea for Joe Biden to run for reelection in 2024? And, if he runs again and wins, would it be good for the United States to have a president who is 86 — the age Biden would be at the end of a second term?
I put these questions bluntly because they need to be discussed candidly, not just whispered constantly.
In the 1980s, it was fair game for reputable reporters to ask whether Ronald Reagan was too old for the presidency, at a time when he was several years younger than Biden is today. Donald Trump’s apparent difficulty holding a glass and his constricted vocabulary repeatedly prompted unflattering speculation about his health, mental and otherwise. And Biden’s memory lapses were a source of mirth among his Democratic primary rivals, at least until he won the nomination.
Yet it is now considered horrible manners to raise concerns about Biden’s age and health. As if doing so can only play into Trump’s hands. As if the president’s well-being is nobody’s business but his own. As if it doesn’t much matter whether he has the fortitude for the world’s most important job, so long as his aides can adroitly fill the gaps. As if accusations of ageism and a giant shushing sound from media elites can keep the issue off the public’s mind.
It won’t do. From some of his public appearances, Biden seems ... uneven. Often cogent, but sometimes alarmingly incoherent. What is the reason? I have no idea. Do his appearances (including the good ones) inspire strong confidence that the president can go the distance in his current term, to say nothing of the next? No.
And many people seem to know it. On Sunday, my colleagues Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns reported on the Democratic Party’s not-so-quiet murmurs about what to do if Biden decides not to run. Aspirants for the nomination appear in the story like sharks circling a raft, swimming slow.
This is not healthy. Not for the president himself, not for the office he holds, not for the Democratic Party, not for the country.
In 2019, the Biden campaign — cognizant of the candidate’s age — sold him to primary voters as a “transition figure,” the guy whose main purpose was to dethrone Trump and then smooth the way for a fresher Democratic face. Biden never made that promise explicit, but the expectation feels betrayed.
Things might be different if the Biden presidency were off to a great start. It is not. Blame Joe Manchin or Mitch McConnell or the antivaxxers, but Biden’s poll numbers have been deeply underwater since August. The man who once gave his party hope now weighs on his party’s fortunes like a pair of cement shoes.
Things might also be different if it looked like the administration would soon turn the corner. That is the administration’s hope for the mammoth Build Back Better legislation. But last month’s passage of the infrastructure bill didn’t really move the political needle for Biden, and that bill was genuinely popular. Now BBB looms as another costly progressive distraction in a time of surging prices, spiking homicides, resurgent disease, urban decay, a border crisis, a supply-chain crisis and the threat of Iran crossing the nuclear threshold and of Russia crossing the Ukrainian border.
Oh, and Kamala Harris. Her supporters might decry the fact, but to an ever-growing number of Americans, the heir apparent seems lighter than air. Her poll numbers at this point in her term are the worst of those of any vice president in recent history, including Mike Pence’s. If she winds up as her party’s default nominee if Biden pulls out late, Democrats will have every reason to panic.
So what is the president to do? He should announce, much sooner than later, that he will not run for a second term.
The argument against this is that it would instantly turn him into a lame-duck president, and that is no doubt true.
But, news flash: Right now he is worse than a lame duck because potential Democratic successors are prevented from making calls, finding their lanes and appealing for attention. That goes especially for people in the administration who should be powerful contenders: Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and infrastructure czar Mitch Landrieu.
And what would that mean for the rest of the Biden presidency? Far from weakening him, it would instantly allow him to be statesmanlike. And it would be liberating. It would put an end to the endless media speculation. It would inject enthusiasm and interest into a listless Democratic Party. It would let him devote himself wholly to addressing the country’s immediate problems without worrying about reelection.
And it needn’t diminish his presidency. George H.W. Bush accomplished more in four years than his successor accomplished in eight. Greatness is often easier to achieve when good policies aren’t encumbered by clever politics. Biden should think on it — and act soon.