Last week, Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney of the Upper East Side, chair of the powerful House Committee on Oversight and Reform, made national headlines by telling me, in the middle of a high-stakes televised debate, that she thinks Joe Biden will voluntarily be a one-term president.
“I don’t believe he is running for reelection,” she said in response to my yes/no question about whether Biden ought to be a candidate in 2024. The remark drew a double take from attorney Siraj Patel, one of her fellow debaters, but it wasn’t a gaffe: When asked on CNN to clarify the remark the next morning, Maloney quasi apologized and pledged her support for the president, but reemphasized that she doesn’t believe Biden will be a candidate.
Maloney’s remarks fly in the face of emphatic White House statements. “To be clear, as the president has said repeatedly, he plans to run in 2024,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre tweeted in June. The Democratic National Committee, led by Biden loyalists, has refused to create a schedule for presidential primary debates in the 2024 cycle.
But that hasn’t stopped the chatter within the party about who might step up if Biden does, indeed, decide to drop out. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker has been giving speeches in New Hampshire and Florida, two early primary states. Some aides to Senator Bernie Sanders recently floated a memo about his making a possible third bid for the White House; others are pushing Representative Ro Khanna of California to consider running. Vice-President Kamala Harris and California Governor Gavin Newsom are said to be talking with big money donors about possible runs, although publicly both have expressed slavish loyalty to Biden, with Newsom saying he has “subzero” interest in running.
Biden brought much of this speculation on himself. In 2019, he reportedly told aides he would likely only serve a single term, and pointedly declined to say whether he’d serve one or two terms when asked by the Associated Press about the issue. Even after winning, Biden hedged when asked about a second term on ABC World News Tonight, telling host David Muir last year, “Look, I’m a great respecter of fate. Fate has intervened in my life many, many times. If I’m in the health I’m in now, if I’m in good health, then in fact I would run again.”
That ambiguous word — if — is all politicians need to hear. Even the slightest hedging by Biden gives birth to a thousand conspiratorial whispers among the horde of ambitious Democrats eager for a shot at the Oval Office. If Maloney and others feel comfortable about publicly announcing their own conclusions about Biden’s health or intentions, he has no one to blame but himself.
But this might be the worst possible time for Democrats to be distracted and divided by discussions about whether Biden, at 79, the oldest man to ever serve as president, is too old to run for a second term. With Election Day only three months away, the party should be laser focused on trying to buck a decades-long tradition of the president’s party losing, on average, more than two dozen seats in Congress in the midterms. And that means rallying around Biden’s eminently defensible record.
The post-pandemic economy is roaring back to life, with unemployment reaching 3.5 percent, a 50-year low, and an astounding 528,000 jobs added to the rolls in July alone. Biden has won the first significant gun-control legislation in 30 years. He signed a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, an achievement that eluded the last two administrations. He killed the leader of Al Qaeda. He has appointed 69 federal judges, second only to Bill Clinton in the overall numbers for a president in his second year, and set a record for diversity too: Sixty-eight percent of Biden’s appointees are Asian, Latino, or Black, notably Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman appointed to the Supreme Court.
And importantly, he beat Trump soundly in 2021, expanding the Democratic map to include Georgia and Arizona for the first time in decades and helping the party win control of the Senate by a razor-thin margin, with the tie-breaking vote cast by the first woman vice-president. That same Senate just passed a bill that will significantly expand renewable energy options and allow Medicare to bargain directly with drugmakers and push down the price of medication, something Dems have been trying to do for 30 years.
All of this happened in just two years. If Biden and the Democrats are too timid to sell that record to their base — and too undisciplined to quash the rumor mongering of those calling the president too old to serve — the party will suffer a worse defeat in November than it should. And they’ll deserve it.
The president should announce a date certain — say, Christmas of this year — when he will decide whether or not to run for reelection. And then he should hit the road to help members of his party make the case to midterm voters that the progress we’ve seen over the past two years, especially the economic recovery, is a trend worth continuing.