How is it that the world’s most powerful country is likely facing a choice for president next year between an 81-year-old incumbent, who most Americans wish would not run again, and a 78-year-old ex-incumbent who most pray would just go away?
Eighteen months out, the 2024 U.S. presidential race looks like it will be a rematch between Democrat Joe Biden, who formally launched his re-election bid on Tuesday, and Donald Trump, who is still the favourite for the Republican nomination despite repeatedly leading his party to defeat in 2018, 2020 and 2022, and leaving most his country and the world on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
This is not the kind of matchup any rational person who cares about the fate of the planet and their own sanity would consciously choose to watch. Mr. Biden has been a remarkably successful president despite the poisonous political environment in which he has had to govern. But he has never been popular, and his advancing age is just too big of an elephant to ignore this time around.
Mr. Biden would be 86 by the end of his second term. It is not ageist to point that out.
It says a lot that Mr. Biden’s campaign team is rooting for Mr. Trump in a GOP primary contest that is shaping up to be crowded and nasty. Polls show a generic Republican candidate handily beating Mr. Biden, but Mr. Biden narrowly besting Mr. Trump.
Biden strategists are also betting that, with a septuagenarian Mr. Trump on the ballot, the age question will fade. But with the 2024 race likely to be decided in a handful of states – Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – that is too big of a risk to take.
Besides, in 2020, Mr. Biden sold himself as a “transition candidate” who could heal the country after Mr. Trump’s traumatic reign and prepare the way for a new generation of Democratic leaders. That was a big part of his appeal to younger and older Americans alike, who yearned for generational change but wanted first to defeat Mr. Trump.
“Look, I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else. There is an entire generation of leaders [ …] behind me,” Mr. Biden said at an early 2020 campaign event with former primary rivals Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who had all endorsed him. “They are the future of this country.”
This was not a fleeting remark. It was a major theme of Mr. Biden’s 2020 campaign. “I view myself as a transition candidate,” he said a couple of months later. “You got to get more people on the bench that are ready to go in – ‘Put me in coach, I’m ready to play.’ Well, there’s a lot of people that are ready to play, women and men.”
So why isn’t Mr. Biden stepping aside for any of them now?
The obvious answer is that Ms. Harris, whom Mr. Biden chose as his 2020 running mate and heir apparent, has been such a dud as Vice-President that it would be too risky for him to pass the baton to her now. But by keeping her on the ticket in 2024, Mr. Biden will force Americans to consider a default Harris presidency as not just a possibility, as they did in 2020, but a probability given his age. Either that, or like Ronald Reagan in his second term, Mr. Biden could end up as President in name only.
On his Irish tour this month, Mr. Biden’s attempt at humour fell flat when he confused New Zealand’s national rugby team, known as the All Blacks, with the Black and Tans, a British military force that terrorized Ireland before its independence in 1922.
“The world is growing more dangerous by the week, and the U.S. faces more formidable adversaries than any time since the height of the Cold War. It will take more than a figurehead President to confront and counter them,” a Wall Street Journal editorial warned. “In 2008 Hillary Clinton ran an ad saying she was prepared to take a 3 a.m. phone call in a crisis. Could an 84-year-old Joe Biden take a 3 p.m. call?”
If that sounds like a low blow, The New York Times editorial board has raised similar concerns, albeit more diplomatically. Noting that Mr. Biden’s most recent medical summary described him as a “healthy, vigorous 80-year-old male who is fit to successfully execute the duties of the presidency,” it added: “But his cognitive abilities went unmentioned. That is something he should discuss publicly and also demonstrate to the voters, who expect the president to reflect the nation’s strength.”
Mr. Biden was clearly the best candidate to stop Mr. Trump in 2020. History will rightly remember him for it. But he is tempting fate by running again. And fate always wins.