In the first few months of 2023, 80-year-old Joe Biden will let it be known whether he intends to seek another term in office. Public opinion is not on his side. Even a majority of Democrats say he should serve only one term.
For old Joe, that must be disheartening. Even after manifestly exceeding expectations in the midterm elections, and even after racking up a decent legislative record since defeating Donald Trump in 2016, the rank-and-file don’t want him to stick around.
Will he take the hint?
It’s a rare thing when leaders voluntarily relinquish power. Expecting one to make a commitment to do so when he’s only been in office for two years is asking a lot.
But in the mix in Mr. Biden’s case is not just the highly unusual circumstance of his advanced age. There’s another consideration that should make his decision easier: He’s already made his mark. He’s already secured his legacy.
He’ll be credited – saluted in the history books – as the president who brought down Donald Trump, who saved the country from the arresting dangers the demagogue posed.
Joe Biden: dragon-slayer. That’s not a bad epitaph.
He did it not just in defeating Mr. Trump in 2020 but in inflicting, through his Democratic Party, another beating on the Trump brand of Republicanism in the recent midterm elections.
Mr. Trump isn’t finished yet – not quite, anyway. If he isn’t behind bars he could still win the Republican nomination for the 2024 election. But even if he were to do that, his chances of winning a general election would be negligible. The Democrats should be hoping he becomes the GOP’s standard bearer. It would make things easier for them.
Had his Democrats been trounced in the midterm tests, Mr. Biden would have been sorely tempted to stay on and prove himself by running in 2024. Now it’s no embarrassment for him to signal his departure. He can do so in peace knowing he warded off perhaps the biggest threat to democracy his country has faced in two centuries.
The notion that he cannot announce his departure plans because it leaves him a lame duck is a fatuous one. In the American system, lame-duck status is normal. Every president who is elected to a second term is automatically in that predicament for the four years that follow.
If Mr. Biden does announce that he will be running again, he’ll be taking a huge risk. It will sow divisions, leaving ambitious women and men in the party – who are anxious to succeed him – fractious.
There’s also no certainty, given the tough circumstances that await Mr. Biden next year (before the primaries begin) that he would get the nomination.
His Senate majority hangs by a thread owing to the decision by Kyrsten Sinema to act as an independent and Joe Manchin’s hinting that he may do the same. With the Republicans in control of the House, many of Mr. Biden’s plans will be stifled. Republicans will soon be triggering investigations into his botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, into the mess at the southern border, into the alleged politicization of the FBI and into his son Hunter Biden.
Far from going away, the age issue will only be stirring more controversy for a President already derided by opponents as a stumblebum.
It’s not that you can’t function effectively at such an age. I’ve recently interviewed former prime ministers Jean Chrétien, who is 88, and Brian Mulroney, who is 83. They were both energetic, focused and in command of their memories and facts. In the U.S., Henry Kissinger is 99 and still contributing lucidly to the public debate.
Bearing the burden of the presidency in your 80s, however, is another thing. Mr. Biden is showing his years. He sometimes appears doddering, his thinking blurred. Hardly a week goes by without him making a cringeworthy blunder. At a White House function in September, he gave a shout-out to congresswoman Jackie Walorski. “Representative Jackie – are you here? Where’s Jackie?” She’d been dead for a month.
The evident infirmities are among the reasons why Mr. Biden’s approval ratings are languishing in the low 40s, hardly any better than Mr. Trump’s were. The country will need a younger leader, and he should realize that.
Given the legacy of accomplishment he has registered, two more years in the furnace for Joe Biden will be plenty. He should signal soon that he will be passing the torch.