Age, the Blue Sky and That Enduring Question of ‘Is Joe Biden Too Old?’

US President Joe Biden speaks during the White House Correspondents' Association dinner at the Washington Hilton in Washington, DC, April 29, 2023. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
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We hear a lot about Joe Biden’s age. And it’s not just Republicans endlessly going to town with out of context videos or clips of Biden looking down momentarily. When I talk to civilians — by which I mean people not immersed in the daily scrum of news and politics and all the commitments that go with it — they often tell me something like, “I like Biden. But I am concerned about his age.” 

So it’s an issue. It’s certainly an issue at the level of perception. And there’s simply zero question that Biden is a much older man that he was when he was Vice President. That’s true in the obvious chronological sense, as it is for all of us. But it’s true in a more specific one as well. Nancy Pelosi is two years older than Biden. You can see some signs of age in her face. Her skin is a bit more drawn. But overall she doesn’t seem much different to me than she did a decade ago. Age affects everyone differently. That’s literally life.

But you know what? Get over it.

Earlier this month, Eliot Cohen wrote an essay in The Atlantic entitled “Step Aside, Joe Biden.” After praising Biden for his historic mission and victory in driving Donald Trump from the White House, Cohen says Biden has no business running for President at 80. (Biden would be 86 in 2029 at the end of a second term.) He should do the right thing and bow out.

When I read this I realized there was almost no point in reading the discussion. It’s like a complex moral and aesthetic argument for why the sky should actually be green as opposed to blue. If the writer is intelligent and creative enough it might be a fascinating discussion. But for myself I have only limited time in the day for debates about things that bear no relation to the real world I live in. The sky is blue. I do not need to have discussions that proceed from other premises.

The sky is blue and Joe Biden is going to be the Democratic Party’s nominee. 

The reality is that Democrats collectively made this decision when they nominated him in 2020. American presidents run for reelection. It’s almost as certain as night follows day. Now that the two two-term rule has gone from being a norm to a constitutional rule, it is likely better to see the system not as a limit of two terms but as one in which presidents serve for eight years as long as they can get their contract re-upped midway through. Most do. 

The last exception to this rule occurred 55 years ago when Lyndon Johnson declined to run for reelection in 1968. Notably this was in the midst of a broad national crisis, which Johnson’s de facto resignation accelerated. And it led more or less directly to his party losing the White House.

There’s another key aspect of Johnson’s presidency that makes it distinct. Johnson had already run for reelection, sorta. He ran for election as the incumbent president in 1964 after taking over from the assassinated John Kennedy in 1963. There are three other presidents who declined to run again when they could have in the two-term era and not coincidently each had already run for office once as president after inheriting the office from a man who died in office: Teddy Roosevelt from William McKinley, Calvin Coolidge from Warren Harding and Harry Truman from FDR.

Of course, just because something hasn’t happened before or hasn’t happened in a really long time isn’t in itself a reason why it couldn’t happen now. If nothing else, recent years have taught us that clearly enough. I note the history because it’s such a consistent pattern for a reason. It’s deeply baked into the U.S. political system at a structural level. No one runs to be a one-term president. And no one runs for president and succeeds without an overweening level of ambition. So what the incumbent president wants is never going to be in doubt. That’s a given. What matters is that a whole apparatus of patronage, expected appointments, intra-party compromises and incumbent advantage for the political party as a whole is layered over that individual president’s overwhelming ambition. All of that gets tossed aside if the president just decides out of the blue he’s cool with a single term. Countless people are heavily invested in that reelection effort. And while others who aren’t as clearly sold on or allied with the incumbent are less invested, they don’t matter as much since their guy isn’t in power.

So far I’ve mainly been talking about people actively involved in politics professionally. But this all applies just as much for ordinary civilians. If you’re a Democrat into politics mostly as an observer, Joe Biden’s been carrying the torch for three years. You cheer his victories, of which there have been quite a few. You smack down the unfair criticisms. You share Dark Brandon memes when he pulls a rabbit out of a hat. You’re invested. Certainly not everyone is. But it’s in the nature of partisanship that most are. And by definition the people serving under Biden almost certainly are. And they’re in power.

All of this applies almost infinitely more when you’re actually in the midst of the reelection campaign. We can imagine an alternate universe in which a few months after taking office Biden announced that because of his age and the unique mission of the 2020 election he wouldn’t run for reelection. A key reason this doesn’t happen is because people elect a president to be president and a huge amount of a president’s power is bound up in the expected reelection campaign. Have that announcement and I can close to assure you there’s no infrastructure bill or Inflation Reduction Act. It’s not just announcing you won’t seek reelection. It’s basically announcing you’ll barely be in power during your first term.

In any case, now we’re in the midst of the campaign. Does it worry you that concerns about Biden’s health could weaken his reelection bid? Yes? Well me too. But certainly the best way to weaken Democratic chances of holding the White House is to suddenly kick off a totally open primary contest, very late on the calendar, with a host of strong and eager contenders and no clear standout winner.

Democrats today have a paradoxically strong bench and lots of players eager to be the successor in the post-Biden era. If for some reason we learned today that Biden couldn’t run for reelection I think my choice for a candidate would probably be Gretchen Whitmer. Maybe for you it would be Gavin Newsom. Maybe for you over there it’s Kamala Harris. For many it’s probably the equally aged Bernie Sanders. And there are probably a half dozen others who want in. That’s not only a rough and tumble contest of competing personalities. It also, critically, throws open a more vast and potentially much more divisive battle between the party’s more establishment, pragmatic wing and the progressive left. 

One of the paradoxical triumphs of Biden’s presidency is the way he has been able to hold these factions pretty much united — a fact that most of his career would have given little indication of. He’s largely done this through a mix of his personal and instinctive conventionality mixed with the fact that he has governed to a great degree with the issue agenda of the progressive left, especially on fiscal policy. Throwing this debate wide open again with no warning would be about the best way imaginable to wrongfoot the party going into a general election and greatly increase the chances of defeat. And this doesn’t even get into the separate though related issue of racial and gender inclusion. Should it be another white man? That’s a tough sell. Can it be easily denied to the black woman who is the incumbent vice president and has the position that would normally have the inside track on the succession?

Of course, this doesn’t even get into who, exactly, is going to convince Joe Biden to step aside when he’s totally committed to running? When his whole team is totally committed to running? When most Democrats, for all the misgivings, are committed to him running? Sure, that will go smoothly. 

Joe Biden is going to be the nominee. For better or worse. To me, it’s for the better. He’s been a deceptively effective president. Pain me as it does, he’s been a much more effective president than Barack Obama. He’s pulled off things I didn’t think were possible. I still don’t get how he managed them. Trying to force a change now is like putting a bullet through your head because you’re concerned about your persistent headaches. If you’re worried about whether Biden’s up to another term, well, he’s old. No question. For my part I see no signs his age has affected his ability to do the job on the merits — a different question from whether his physical presence may give people pause. I think he’s been a pretty effective president. Maybe you think so and maybe you don’t. But whatever. He’s the nominee. And if you’re uneasy about that, don’t fool yourself into thinking that changing horses right now wouldn’t be politically close to catastrophic. 

I’m happy to sit in with you on a grad school seminar about whether the sky should be green. I’m sure the topic raises a number of fascinating questions. But the sky is blue. Joe Biden will be the nominee. I don’t make the rules. 

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