Joe Biden has a ready answer to the question of whether he is too old to run for a second term as US president. “The only thing I can say is, ‘Watch me’,” he told ABC News in February. Well, Joe, voters have been peering at 80-year-old you closely, and they think you are past it. In an NBC poll on the eve of Biden’s campaign announcement on 25 April, 70 per cent of respondents said he should not run again. Nearly half of those, 48 per cent, cited age as a major factor; 21 per cent thought it was a minor factor, and 29 per cent were unfazed. I have not met too many of those.
Biden’s launch video for his 2024 campaign was a clever mash-up designed for the TikTok age, which began with images of the 6 January assault on the Capitol and segued from the threat posed to American democracy by extreme MAGA Republicans to the idea that the same bunch of nutters will be coming for people’s reproductive rights, choice of partner, and health and social security benefits. Not a bad message. There was a duff note, though, when Biden was shown sprinting for a couple of seconds (where, we do not know). Whenever I see Biden running my brain is conditioned to see him stumble, just as whenever he speaks in public his aides involuntarily cringe.
Biden is already the oldest US president in history. He looks his age, sounds his age and would be 86 at the end of his second White House term. Obviously, it is folly for him to run again. He knows this himself, having joked to an interviewer soon after his last birthday, “I can’t even say the age I’m going to be. I can’t even get it out of my mouth.” But having been a young man in a hurry – he was 29 when he was elected to the Senate in 1972 – Biden waited nearly 50 years to become president. No matter what he mumbled in his 2020 campaign about serving in a transitional capacity, he was never going to relinquish power voluntarily.
His friends have to hope he doesn’t leave office feet first. From now until election day, Biden will be coddled and swaddled with care. Because he does have one persuasive claim to be the best available 2024 presidential candidate. “Don’t compare me to the Almighty,” he likes to say. “Compare me to the alternative.”
This applies as much to fellow Democrats as it does to Donald Trump, his predecessor, and Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, the favourites for the Republican nomination. The truth is the Democratic Party is more clapped out than the geriatric Biden. Does anybody long for the return of Bernie Sanders, who is 81? What about Pete Buttigieg, 41, the youthful transport secretary? He was the future once, but is wilting badly after failing to visit the site of the toxic waste train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, in February for nearly three weeks.
[See also: Ron DeSantis’s campaign is already in trouble]
Gavin Newsom, the slick, wealthy governor of California, fancies his chances of becoming president almost as much as he fancies himself, but few share his view. Gretchen Whitmer is enjoying a decent run as governor of Michigan but has low name recognition. And then there is the Kamala Harris “problem”. She has long been a target of racist and sexist attacks, and her job approval numbers are as below-par as Biden’s are. They tend to hover in the low forties, with over 50 per cent of voters disapproving of her performance as vice-president. However, ditching the first black person, first Asian and first woman in the post would risk alienating the crucial voters on which the Democrats depend. So, faute de mieux, she remains Biden’s 2024 running mate.
Does it matter? Perhaps, if Harris goes up against an experienced Republican campaigner such as Nikki Haley for vice-president, although that might credit Trump or DeSantis with too much good sense. The good news for Democrats is that Harris’s performance has improved recently with passionate attacks on the gun lobby and anti-abortion laws, two motivating issues for young voters and suburban women. There will be further efforts to boost her reputation before election day, though she will also come under heavy scrutiny because of Biden’s advanced age.
As for Biden, it has been said he is the “unluckiest” and “luckiest” politician, having suffered terrible family tragedies – including the deaths of his first wife and two of his children – before eventually winning the presidency in 2020. With Trump mired in lawsuits and criminal charges, yet dominating the airwaves and pummelling DeSantis, Biden has the advantage of incumbency. Despite the fact that 70 per cent of voters don’t want him to run again, he may be lucky enough to win.
His situation reminds me of John Fetterman, the Democrat who was elected senator for Pennsylvania in November 2022. He suffered a stroke six months before the midterm elections and was seriously incapacitated but his Democratic handlers kept him out of public view as much as possible during the campaign. Although he stumbled badly in a televised debate, he still beat the Republican celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, who was endorsed by Trump. Fetterman’s victory, in a swing state, ensured the Democrats kept control of the Senate.
In fairness, Biden has a record of accomplishment over the Ukraine war (though not the withdrawal from Afghanistan) and the passage of the $1trn infrastructure bill. Interest rates are high, but unemployment is low and inflation has steadily come down to 5 per cent. But while the US economy could improve or slide into recession, or a new foreign policy challenge could confirm or upend Biden’s achievements, his age is going in only one direction. Of course he should pass the torch to the next generation of Democrats, but they need to step up before he steps down.
[See also: Nikki Haley is an extremist in moderate clothing]
This article was originally published on 27 April 2023.