Joe Biden’s top political priority is to make Joe Biden a one-term president.
The 77-year-old Democratic front-runner has reportedly informed his closest advisers that if he is elected in 2020, he will not seek reelection in 2024. As Politico reports:
According to four people who regularly talk to Biden, all of whom asked for anonymity to discuss internal campaign matters, it is virtually inconceivable that he will run for re-election in 2024, when he would be the first octogenarian president.
“If Biden is elected,” a prominent adviser to the campaign said, “he’s going to be 82 years old in four years and he won’t be running for reelection.”
Some in the Democratic front-runner’s camp believe his limited ambitions are an asset worth advertising. After all, younger voters have evinced little enthusiasm for Biden, with only 11 percent of Democrats under 35 backing him in a recent Quinnipiac poll. Perhaps Biden would be best able to unite his party by selling himself as a kind of rusty old wedge for prying Donald Trump from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: In this economy, the only thing that can stop a bad old white man with a penchant for incoherent rambling is a mediocre old white man with a penchant for incoherent rambling. But don’t worry — Great Uncle Joe won’t linger too long after solving the White House’s pest problem. Let him put up his feet and catch his breath for four years and then he’ll be out your hair, and your favorite youngish Democrat will have his or her run of a de-Trumpified Oval Office.
This pitch has its attractions, though its appeal is somewhat contingent upon the identity of Biden’s heir apparent. And the moment he actually names a specific individual, the gambit becomes less broadly appealing. But even if we stipulate that Biden’s plans for an early retirement would mitigate millennial dissatisfaction with his nomination, those plans would still do more to indict his candidacy than enhance it.
In the immediate term, leaking word that you expect to be unable or unwilling to fulfill the duties of the presidency in five years raises the question of how you can be sure you’ll be up to the job in four. Which is to say, by letting his plans slip to Politico, Biden’s campaign has accentuated the candidate’s core weakness: that he is 77, but doesn’t sound a day over 86. If Biden wins the nomination, he will have to combat the perception that his age has rendered him unfit (or, in our spritely 73-year-old president’s phrasing, too “sleepy”) for the presidency. That’s going to be harder to do when you’ve already signaled that you’re so concerned about your own stamina, you’ve resigned yourself to being a lame-duck president from the day you take office.
But even if Biden had kept his intentions close to his chest, they would still be a problem. The advantages of incumbency in American politics aren’t what they used to be, but they still exist, especially at the presidential level. If positive economic performance holds, a party is still more likely to retain the White House with an incumbent president on the ballot than a new nominee. Given the Democratic Party’s myriad alternative options, picking a 2020 standard-bearer who won’t run in 2024 would be the opposite of pragmatic. It would needlessly increase the GOP’s chances of reclaiming the White House after a short hiatus.
Biden has built up a lot of goodwill among Democratic voters. And as of this writing, he appears well on his way to winning the party’s nomination. But if he knows he doesn’t have eight years of public service left in him, he should do the right thing for his party and country and stop trying to serve four.