What if Joe Biden decided not to run for re-election?
PJOE BIDEN’S LYRICS it is literally living history. With each passing day he sets a new record for the oldest president – the only octogenarian ever to occupy the Oval Office. When he began his campaign to oust Donald Trump, Mr Biden said he would not seek a second term, presenting himself as an elder statesman who would calm the country’s turbulent politics before a younger generation took over. Nevertheless he is now giving every sign that he intends to stay in office for another six years, by seeking re-election in 2024.
It’s not like his age is showing. The president stumbles through his speeches, withdraws from the media and recently had a bit of a health scare in the form of a cancerous skin lesion. So why doesn’t Joe want to go?
The proximate cause was the midterm elections, which did not go as badly for the Democrats as Mr. Biden’s lackluster approval ratings suggested they might. That put to rest the sense, once well-founded among Democrats, that he was leading the party to disaster and the re-election of Mr. Trump in 2024. The exception is the challenge named after Marianne Williamson, a quackish self-help guru who believes the Avatar movies hold the secret to peace in the Middle East.
The unexpectedly light voter turnout – which narrowly gave Republicans the House of Representatives and even gave Democrats an extra seat in the Senate – gave the administration a chance to talk about his achievements. The president had led the country out of the pandemic, passed the largest climate change relief bill in history, repaired international alliances and helped the West guidance in supporting Ukraine. A younger president with a similar record would undoubtedly have the right to seek re-election.
But the other dynamic that could keep the Democratic ticket unchanged is a real form of risk aversion. The party is afraid of Mr. Trump’s return to the White House and the damage that would cause. Mr. Biden’s current position is the result of a similar pragmatic calculation: when the party threatened to nominate the ultra-progressive Bernie Sanders in 2020, support consolidated around Mr. Biden as the only viable option to win.
This time, too, many Democrats fear an open primary could be disastrous. Kamala Harris, the vice president, has earned a reputation for bungling issues assigned to her, such as banning immigration at the southern border. Her approval rating among the public is even lower than that of the president. Her gaffes rival her boss’s, but without the age-old excuse. But plenty of donors and probably plenty of voters would find the prospect of passing the nation’s first female vice president objectionable. The memory of Hillary Clinton’s defeat still haunts the party.
Despite her weaknesses, hardly anyone in Washington expects Mr. Biden to choose another running mate. The vice presidential survival sweepstakes is a quadrennial parlor game, but the last president to make it through was Franklin Roosevelt in 1944.
Mr. Biden himself sees it as his mission to defeat Trumpism. “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent terrorism that threatens the foundations of our republic,” he said in a hard-hitting speech delivered in Philadelphia last year. In 2020 Mr. Biden promised to beat Mr. Trump “like a drum ”; he believes he can deliver another bump in 2024.
But while Mr. Biden’s credentials as Trump’s successor are undeniable, the calculations in a match against the Republican choice are not so strong. The president’s approval ratings remain low, barely better than Mr. Trump’s at this point in his presidency. A recent YouGov poll shows that only 44% of Democrats want Mr. Biden to run again. (Other polls show even less enthusiasm.) Most are not sure who they would prefer to replace him, however. Only 2% say they would like to see Ms Harris at the top of the ticket.
Make a way while the sun shines
Democrats may be right to think that widespread disdain for Mr. Trump, who has alienated many of his own party’s donor class, would speak to some of Mr. Biden’s vulnerabilities. But the difference with Ron DeSantis, the 44-year-old Republican governor of Florida who is closer in age to some of the president’s grandchildren, would be particularly extreme. And very obvious: unlike the 2020 campaign, which was largely conducted in lockdown, the upcoming race will require a serious campaign.
There is precedent for a president to renege on a re-election pledge, but he is not happy. In 1968, after a disappointing showing in the New Hampshire primaries, Lyndon Johnson dropped his campaign for another term just eight months before the presidential election – which his party later lost to Richard Nixon. However, an open primary may not be as devastating as some Democrats fear.
When evaluating a party’s presidential bench, conventional wisdom tends to focus on those who campaigned in the previous election. Most of those who were also running for the Democrats – such as Pete Buttigieg, who is now the secretary of transportation, and Elizabeth Warren, a senator from Massachusetts – do not inspire much confidence as contenders. Ms. Harris’s stance is so boring that she won’t freeze the field like Mrs. Clinton did in 2016. That leaves room for other options.
As Democrats have moved away from their volatile progressive stances in 2020 and back toward the center, a crop of state governors, who tend to be more pragmatic than senators, are emerging stronger. . Instead of opting for progressives like Gavin Newsom in California or JB Pritzker in Illinois — both of whom have unequivocally signaled they want to run for president — Democrats could to engage with Gretchen Whitmer, who just won a useful re-election in the important midwest. swing state, Michigan. The new governors of Pennsylvania and Maryland, Josh Shapiro and Wes Moore, are both talented speakers. Jared Polis, the free-thinking governor of Colorado, is an effective supporter.
Then there are governors, like Andy Beshear in Kentucky and John Bel Edwards in Louisiana, who have been able to win in red states. And Gina Raimondo, who was the governor of Rhode Island before becoming Mr. Biden’s commerce secretary, may be the most effective member of the current administration.
If a senator has to be elected, there are decent newcomers who might be better for a general election than throwing a bomb. Raphael Warnock is an African-American preacher who won the top swing state of Georgia twice in two years. Mark Kelly has done the same thing in Arizona – and would have the distinction of being the first astronaut president that school children dream about.
All of them may be possible, but none of them will challenge the president unless he apologizes. Almost every modern president who has taken on a primary opponent as an incumbent—Johnson, Jimmy Carter, George Bush senior—has lost. And no Democrat wants to be blamed for making sure their party loses.
Mr. Biden obsessively tries to study examples of past presidents, and convenes historians’ councils at the White House. It may do well to look back further than today, to the time when George Washington handed over power so that the business of democracy could flourish. After accomplishing the Herculean task of defeating Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden has already achieved unexpected success. That’s all in proper code; a loss to a wiser Republican would be an undignified end for America’s elder statesman. ■
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