When he learned that George Washington would step down as the first President of the United States, King George III said, “If he does this he will be the greatest man in the world.” To be fair, Washington was much younger than Joe Biden today and could have gone on as long as he wanted.
Biden nevertheless has a chance to win the affection of history and the respect of his country by avoiding what would surely be a painful second term. All political careers end in failure, someone said. The exception would be those that end at a time of their choosing.
The time for such a self-sacrificing statement from Biden is so good that it almost certainly won’t happen. It’s hard to imagine a presidential year since the mid-1980s that has gone as smoothly as 2022 for Biden. He began it with a slow funeral march. Insiders had nixed his chances of passing meaningful legislation. Its foreign policy was in disarray after the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan the previous summer. And a midterm election annihilation for the Democrats was taken for granted.
Biden ends the year with a more united West than since the end of the Cold War, the best midterm results for an incumbent party in 20 years, a wave of heavy-handed new legislation and waning anxiety about the future of the American republic. This is precisely why he wants to run for office again – and will likely announce his intention in January. Biden has prepared his whole life for this role. Why would he stop now when everything is going so well?
The answer is that the road from here goes downhill. It is likely that Biden would be re-elected in 2024 if Donald Trump was his opponent. A world of pain would still await him on the other side.
Political instinct may be one of the last faculties to stir, especially for a longtime professional like Biden. But his goof rate is worse than two years ago. He jostles his lines more often and remembers things poorly, such as when he confused the Iraqi city of Fallujah with the recently liberated Ukrainian city of Kherson.
Who cares, say Biden defenders? Trump refused to visit a World War II cemetery because it was full of “losers” and wanted to dig a ditch along the Mexican border and infest it with alligators. What’s a little aging compared to world-class malignancy? Moreover, Trump would be 82 at the end of a putative second term, only slightly younger than Biden’s 86.
The problem with this line of argument is that it ignores what most American voters keep saying. Forget the others: A majority of Democrats want Biden to quit. They may be paying attention to something Washington’s professional conflict consultants are paid to ignore — a person’s waning ability to do any type of job in their mid-eighties. No credentials are needed to perceive the raw reality of aging. Indeed, if Washington’s indifference to Biden’s age is any clue, insiders are wearing blinders. There are worse things than worrying about a president’s stamina.
The math changes if Biden’s opponent was from a younger generation, like Florida’s Ron DeSantis, who will be 46 in the next election, or former governors like Nikki Haley (52) or Chris Christie (62) . Biden would find out his opponent’s age too late for other Democrats to enter the fray.
A bid for the White House takes months to prepare — an even longer delay than in Washington’s days. A dozen ambitious Democrats are on suspension while Biden decides. The idea that Democrats have a thin bench is wrong. Many have good references. The same goes for the likely Republican formation.
Biden’s secret weapon is that he is so often underestimated. He showed it again this month. Washington’s expert class now overcompensates by giving it powers that transcend actuarial considerations. They also lack the wood for the trees.
A Biden victory in 2024 would set up a Republican takeover of the White House in 2028. A new Democratic president, on the other hand, would start with a clean slate for re-election.
Many saw this year’s election as the mother of all midterms. A sufficient number of American voters passed this test by showing that they could tell the difference between Republican candidates who believed in democracy and those who did not. In this sense, Biden has kept his promise. He said he would be America’s bridge to normalcy after Trump and he did.
One of Biden’s favorite lines is, “Don’t compare me to the almighty, compare me to the alternative.” Would hanging that comparison in Washington persuade Biden to rethink?