early and often

Biden Should Quit While He’s Ahead

Photo: Elizabeth Frantz/REUTERS

Joe Biden is on an undeniable hot streak. He has signed into law sweeping legislation that will combat climate change and lower the cost of prescription drugs, both long-sought goals of the Democratic Party. He has fired up younger voters with his announcement that he’d attempt to cancel some student-loan debt. Gas prices are falling, and his approval ratings are rising.

Democrats, in turn, may not face the midterm bloodbath they were forecasted to suffer several months ago. They are now slight favorites to hold the Senate, which could give Biden two more years to confirm federal judges and possibly fill another Supreme Court vacancy. The Democrat-controlled House may still fall, but limiting losses there could keep Republicans from building a formidable majority in subsequent years.

Biden, undoubtedly, wants to run for reelection, and his first-term success gives him a serious argument for doing so, despite his advanced age. His accomplishments rival those of Barack Obama’s. Going back further, there are few presidents in modern times, Democrat or Republican, who can boast more tangible accomplishments, from a massive infrastructure bill to pandemic-relief legislation that filled the coffers of state governments, in one term. Inflation is stubbornly high, and economists have blamed the 2021 spending for fueling cost-of-living struggles, but rising food and fuel prices are a global phenomenon now, linked to supply-chain struggles and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Inflation cannot be solely blamed on the Biden administration.

Despite all of this, it would be wise if Biden announced sometime after the fall midterms that he will not seek another term. Biden boosters and Democrats giddy over his reversal of fortune will argue that now is the time to announce his reelection bid, that Biden is the best person to top the ticket against Donald Trump or any other Republican. Their enthusiasm, if understandable, is misguided.

When Biden ran in 2020, he promised to be a bridge to the next generation of Democrats. His campaign was predicated on “restoring the soul of the nation” and defeating Trump. He certainly did the latter and accomplished enough to at least restore some faith in government. Stepping aside, he can declare his mission accomplished and pass the baton on to much younger candidates who will, in 2025 and beyond, be more able to govern the nation and make an affirmative case for the party.

Biden simply is not popular. His poll numbers are rising in late summer, but they are still quite low, on the level of the deeply polarizing Trump. Will they surge enough so a majority of Democrats want him to run for president again? Possibly. It’s also possible that large numbers of voters will keep telling pollsters they’d rather see someone else top the ticket in 2024. The polarization of the electorate can make some of these approval ratings moot — Trump himself, with poor polling, won 74 million votes in 2020 — and there is a case to be made that Biden is still the best feasible option for the Democratic ticket in two years. If Democrats have the chance, however, to nominate a younger candidate without decades of political baggage, they should. An elderly, unpopular incumbent, no matter how accomplished, needn’t be regarded as the only option for the party.

Biden’s recent boost has been due in part to circumstances beyond his control. These are circumstances a different contender can benefit from, if the campaign is managed adequately. The overturning of Roe v. Wade has made the Republican Party seem far more alienating to the median voter, who supports abortion rights to a degree and does not align with the draconian, anti-women policies pursued on the hard right. Deep-red Kansas is a pro-abortion-rights state. The abortion issue, for decades, favored Republicans because the downfall of Roe was always a hypothetical; the GOP base could get excited about one day ending the precedent while Democrats, unsure if the Supreme Court would ever act, could prioritize other issues. Now abortion, along with the economy, is a top-tier concern for voters and enough motivation for many to vote Democrat. Biden, a pro-choice Catholic who has never been comfortable speaking aggressively or enthusiastically about abortion rights, is not a natural vehicle for this movement. Younger Democrats, especially women, can speak to the fear and rage of the electorate, and better channel it. The next step for Democrats will be to put Republicans on the defensive, to dare them to support, on the record, the blanket abortion bans they had no trouble touting four or five months ago. A different kind of presidential contender can do just that.

Beyond all of this, Biden is simply too old. There is no other elegant way to say this. He would be campaigning as an 81-year-old and begin a new term at 82. He is already the oldest president ever, and he is simply not what he used to be. If Biden were a Republican, Democrats would be happy to point out all the times he struggled to communicate basic facts, misidentified titles, or even forgot he already shook a hand. It’s perhaps not coincidental that he has done far fewer one-on-one interviews or unscripted interactions with the press than prior presidents. Defenders of Biden blame this on his lifelong experience with stuttering, but the Biden of a decade ago, while an occasional gaffe machine, was a far more swaggering presence, quicker on his feet and willing to engage with the media.

Hanging over this all is Vice-President Kamala Harris. If Biden does not run, Harris is the frontrunner to claim the nomination in two years. Harris has not been a deft politician in the White House, and her approval ratings are low. Harris’s relevative weakness has given Biden’s team room to maneuver; a different kind of vice-president would probably be motivating far more Democratic donors, party leaders, and activists to demand Biden step aside. The argument for Biden running, in part, is an argument against Harris. And that is reasonable enough.

Democrats, however, should get over their fear of an open primary. Let Harris compete. Allow other rising-star Democrats to jump into the fray as well. Harris may emerge as a sharper candidate in such an election and exorcise the ghosts of her disastrous 2020 bid. Or she’ll lose, and Democrats will have an unexpected standard bearer. Democracy works that way sometimes. In 2008, Hillary Clinton was the anointed frontrunner until a one-term senator from Illinois decided to try his luck. The primary was a nasty and brutal affair, yet Barack Obama emerged ready to battle in the general election and become the nation’s first Black president. If the next Obama isn’t waiting in the 2024 wings, someone else might be: a compelling candidate at the other end of that bridge Biden promised to build all those years ago.

Joe Biden Should Quit While He’s Ahead