Why Biden Shouldn't Run in 2024

Mark Leibovich / The Atlantic
Why Biden Shouldn't Run in 2024 Joe Biden. (photo: Oliver Munday/The Atlantic)

Yes, he’s fit to be president right now. But he’s too old for the next election.

Let me put this bluntly: Joe Biden should not run for reelection in 2024. He is too old.

Biden will turn 80 on November 20. He will be 82 if and when he begins a second term. The numbers just keep getting more ridiculous from there. “It’s not the 82 that’s the problem. It’s the 86,” one swing voter said in a recent focus group, referring to the hypothetical age Biden would be at the end of that (very) hypothetical second term.

In recent weeks, I’ve spoken with 10 official and unofficial advisers to the administration who have spent time around the president during these deranged and divided days in America. “What has this been like for him?” is what I’ve been asking them, essentially. “How is he holding up?”

They say, for the most part, that Biden is coping fine. You know, despite the 8.6 percent inflation, his depressed approval numbers, his vice president’s worse approval numbers, the looming wipeout in the midterms, and all the other delights attending to Biden as he awaits the big, round-numbered birthday he has coming up in a few months. But here’s another recurring theme I keep hearing, notably from people predisposed to liking the president. “He just seems old,” one senior administration official told me at a social function a few weeks ago.

There is nothing like the U.S. presidency to accelerate the aging process. This has been well documented, usually in those side-by-side photos of spry incoming presidents seen next to dramatically older-looking versions of themselves upon departure. Yet Biden keeps insisting that he will run again. The White House reaffirmed as much on Monday night via a tweet from the president’s press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre. “To be clear, as the President has said repeatedly, he plans to run in 2024,” she wrote. It was an instant classic in the genre of political statements that raise far more questions than the one they were supposedly meant to answer.

Luckily, the message came equipped with everyone’s favorite political qualifier—“plans to.” Plans, after all, can change. In this case, the sooner the better.

Stepping aside would permit Biden to shed the demands of being a disciplined candidate (never his strong suit). It would be immediately liberating, allowing the president to focus on what he’s extremely well suited to: being a familiar mensch and champion and consoler to a country in dire need of one. He could off-load all of the burdens and suspicions that come with electoral ambitions. Nothing buys goodwill for a politician like self-removal from consideration.

The age issue will only get worse if Biden runs again. The “whispers” are becoming shouts. It has become thoroughly exhausting—for Biden and his party and, to some extent, the country itself. But the question quiets considerably when no one’s calculating how old a president born during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration will be in 2028.

It all feels impolite to point this out—disrespectful, ageist, and taboo, especially given the gross Republican smears about Biden being a doddering and demented old puppet. No one wants to perpetuate this garbage. In fact, people who have had regular contact with Biden describe him as engaged with the day-to-day aspects of his job and generally sharp on details. He will sometimes mangle sentences, blank on names, get tortured by teleprompters, lose his train of thought, or not make sense—which is not so abnormal for someone his age.

Biden is by no means the more eloquent character he was in his younger days. It can be painful to watch him give prepared speeches. His tone can be tentative, and certain sentences can become hopscotching journeys. His aides in the room look visibly nervous at times. Biden worked to overcome a stutter during his youth, and in general it can become more difficult for stutterers to conceal these effects as they age.

Otherwise, Biden deals with a fairly standard array of old-guy ailments. He has a spinal arthritis condition that his physician said might contribute to the “perceptibly stiffer” gait he has been observed with in recent years. He takes an anticoagulant and a cholesterol pill. He had a polyp removed from his colon last year, suffers from occasional bouts of acid reflux, and once had minor surgery to treat an enlarged prostate (you’re welcome).

Geriatricians are always emphasizing that the effects of aging vary widely from person to person. By every indication, Biden appears to be among the lucky ones. His doctors cite no major health concerns. He takes care of himself. He does not drink or smoke, is not overweight, and works out at least five times a week. He looks great for a guy his age. Biden is fit to faithfully execute his duties, the White House physician said in his most recent health summary.

The question is: Should he? The answer: Sure, for now. But not a day after January 20, 2025.

As a point of professional comparison, Biden would be enjoying his 15th year of retirement if he had spent his career as a commercial airline pilot, or his 24th year if he had been an air-traffic controller. There’s a reason the FAA mandates compulsory departure times for these positions (65 for pilots, 56 for controllers). These are life-and-death tasks that demand peak stamina and mental acuity. The pressure can be crushing, burnout is rampant, and no one wants to see grandpop in the damn cockpit.

A majority of Americans say they would favor a maximum age for their elected officials too. Of those Americans, about two-thirds think the limit should be 70 or younger. This would send nearly 30 percent of the United States Senate out to pasture. I would call this a good start, as hard as it might be to imagine someone other than Dianne Feinstein or Chuck Grassley charting out our kids’ futures.

The “concerns about Biden’s age” matter received a fibrous super-boost on Sunday when The New York Times published a front-page report that was based on conversations with nearly 50 Democratic officials across the country. Almost everyone interviewed expressed “deep concern” about the elderly state of the man in the chair. Biden’s advanced age was presented as a kind of proxy for the tired and hobbled state of his agenda and the Democratic Party. To see the sentiment presented so universally among prominent Democrats was rather jarring.

“The presidency is a monstrously taxing job and the stark reality is the president would be closer to 90 than 80 at the end of a second term,” David Axelrod, the chief strategist for Barack Obama, told the Times, putting a finer, fun-with-numbers point on the story.

The broader subtext of the Times article—and, in a sense, every article about Biden’s age—is that the matchup between America’s current condition and the doctor on call feels untenable.

This was not true in 2020. Biden said he was running for president—for the third time—because he viewed the prospect of Donald Trump’s reelection as an existential threat to the nation. Poll after poll revealed that “electability” was the most important quality that Democrats were seeking in a 2020 nominee. Biden scared the fewest people. They mostly just wanted someone who could get rid of Trump. Someone who could come into office, not tweet like a madman, not propose bleach as a COVID treatment, not impugn the reputations of war heroes, civil-rights icons, and disabled reporters. Someone who could just be decent and serious and leave America in relative peace for a little while.

And Biden did this. He performed the most vital service of his presidency before it even began, on November 3, 2020. He showed up on January 20, 2021, and swore his oath in front of 25,000 National Guard troops charged with protecting Washington from his predecessor’s most fervent supporters—kind of a yikes moment for our democracy, you might recall. Officials I’ve spoken with who were on the inauguration stage that day say the overwhelming sentiment was one of relief; people were milling about thanking one another for their various roles in helping along this exceedingly precarious transition.

Theoretically, the rest could have been gravy for Biden after that. Or, alternatively, a procession of headaches and crises before a more and more hostile audience.

“What a terrible job you have,” Jimmy Kimmel told Biden last week, when the president stopped by the late-night set for one of those feel-good presidential sit-downs. “I’m glad you’re doing it, but boy, oh boy, does this seem like a bad gig.” Biden kept insisting that he’s never been more optimistic about the country’s future, but he sure sounded like his heart was not in this. Kimmel became briefly exasperated.

“Why are you so optimistic?” the host interjected. “It makes no sense!”

The audience laughed. They had a point.

“This generation is going to change everything,” Biden went on. He meant young people—the same cohort whose support for Biden has eroded markedly in recent polling. This would have made a perfect segue for Biden to announce that he was stepping aside and allowing the ever-restless, too-long-waiting “next generation” of Democrats to finally inherit the whirlwind. Alas, he did not.

Probably the main rationale for Biden to re-up in 2024 is the argument that he is the candidate best suited to beating Trump if he runs again. Biden has done it before. His age would be less of a factor against his predecessor, who turned 76 on Tuesday.

But for all the trauma that Trump inflicted on the country during his term, he appears to have kept the devotion of his base voters. Trump has even edged Biden by a few points in a recent batch of way-too-early rematch polls. Swing voters, independents, and Republicans who voted for Biden in 2020 are among the most unenthusiastic to the idea of his running again, says Sarah Longwell, the Republican political operative who hosts the podcast The Focus Group for The Bulwark. They mainly cite his age, she adds. And Republican voters give every indication of being far more motivated right now than Democrats, many of whom are sounding alarmingly demoralized. It hurts to even imagine what another Biden-Trump race could look like.

The other rationale for Biden to run would be the gnawing riddle of: If not him, then who? “Don’t compare me to the almighty. Compare me to the alternative,” Biden used to say during the 2020 campaign. Four more years of Trump proved a sufficiently appalling “alternative” to land Biden in the White House in 2020, but it would be nice if Democrats had an obvious alternative to step in for the guy whom only 29 percent of Americans and 48 percent of Democrats want to see run again in 2024. Vice President Kamala Harris has not exactly asserted herself as the clamored-for heir apparent.

At the very least, Biden not running would unleash a profusion of youth and energy into the Democratic field. The non-AARP-card-carrying likes of Pete Buttigieg or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Chris Murphy or whoever it is could stand silently on the soapbox of the Iowa State Fair for five hours, and it would still feel like a refreshing change. They could commence with the Democrats’ long-overdue debate about their next leaders and best ideas. It would send a message of a party not afraid of its future, and provide a contrast with an opposing party cemented in its terrifying past—with its same terrifying frontman.

Aside from reinvigorating the Democrats, Biden could instantly burnish his own legacy by opting out of 2024. He would be praised for knowing when to step aside, for putting the interests of his party and country before himself, and for selflessly turning things over to the next acts. Gratitude would flow, maybe even from some of the Republicans he talked about doing business with. Everyone loves an elder statesman. A historic credit would be due to Joe Biden.

He spared the country from more Trump in 2020. He stepped in, calmed the thing down, and God love ya for that, Joey. He should be thanked up and down the Rehoboth boardwalk, ice-cream cone in hand, sooner rather than later.

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