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The 2024 Conundrum: Should Biden Run?

Lucas Haskins examines American politics in the run-up to the Midterms.

The presidency is the ultimate job. Theoretically available to any American, it shimmers mirage-like on millions of intimate and individual horizons. In What It Takes, his 1,100 page paean to president-picking, Richard Ben Cramer writes that this singularity “was someone altogether larger, and more extraordinary than we.” 

This chief executive, we are told, holds the keys to that “shining city on the hill”, and cradles, Vestal-like, freedom’s very flame. 

Also, they get the nuclear codes. 

Joe Biden, like his predecessors, has a face and a voice known to billions. His every utterance is newsworthy, and if he falls off a bike? Well, that goes straight in the history books. 

In the last few decades, the presidency has lost a lot of its imperial sheen. Some of that is due to the end of the Cold War, and some of that simply reflects the unglamorous reality of 21st century life and media. Frankly, Rick and Morty’s President Curtis hit the nail on the head with “try having an historical administration after Facebook goes online, you old-timey bitch!” 

There are simply too many opportunities to look undignified. 

Yet, even given the recent phenomenon of presidential memeability, who holds the post does, to understate somewhat, matter. And with Donald Trump lingering like a fart in a poorly ventilated room, the question that every panicky liberal wants answered is “should Biden run again?”

Currently: yes.

Among other things, it would be weird if he did not. 

The last time a president failed to seek reelection / election in his own right was in 1968; the year in which the dream died. The country was buckling, “going up in flames each summer” as MLK put it, cracking and straining under the pressures of war, of cultural change, of progress and backlash. 

Lyndon B. Johnson had an albatross, Vietnam, hanging round his neck, dragging his approvals ever downwards, and he was facing a gruelling primary season. 

Eugene McCarthy, the progressive senator from Wisconsin, challenged him for the Democratic nomination and massively overperformed expectations in New Hampshire, losing, but losing by only 7 points; 49% to 42%. Scenting blood in the water, Robert F. Kennedy also entered the race. Staring down declining health and declining poll numbers, Johnson withdrew to live out his few remaining years in his native Texas. 

Before Johnson bowed out, the last president to eschew reelection was Harry Truman, who failed to seek his party’s nomination in 1952, believing, as Johnson did, that his electoral prospects were fast becoming untenable. It should be noted, however, that both men had already served for longer than four years. Johnson completed Jack Kennedy’s term after his assassination in Dallas, and Truman had served just shy of eight years, taking over from FDR following his death in the early months of his fourth term. 

It would therefore be highly anomalous, in modern presidential politics at least, were Biden to stand down before 2024.

Of course, the important normative question is not “would it be weird if Biden didn’t run?”, but rather “should he run?”, and this is intimately linked to whether he can win. 

Those who have already written off Biden for 2024 are wrong. He can run. He can win. 

Biden likes to say “don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative” and that is what this article will do. Despite his drawbacks and the obvious risks inherent in seeking a second term, for five principal reasons, Joe Biden remains the best option for Democrats to hold the White House against Trump and Republican extremism, whilst also translating liberal aspirations into substantive policy. 

Firstly, let’s dispel a nasty rumour. 

Biden is not senile – he simply is not. He has fully shouldered the burden of the presidency; the meetings, the travel, the speeches, the gruelling hours, and he is fine. You need not even take my word for it – Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R – West Virginia) called him “sharp as a tack” in meetings. Senator Todd Young, also a Republican, this one from Indiana, stated that Biden was “well-prepared and well-briefed” when the two spoke. 

Believe me, it is obvious when a politician has held onto office longer than is advisable. Articles about 89 year-old Senator Dianne Feinstein’s cognitive decline have become Washington and California cottage industries, and she is not nearly the chamber’s worst. According to one Senate aide, Strom Thurmond, who reached his 100th birthday whilst still a Senator, spent his last decade unaware “if he was on foot or on horseback”.

Joe Biden is not Pericles. He was gaffe-prone in 2008, he was gaffe-prone when he first ran for President in 1988, and he will be gaffe-prone until the day he dies. His tendency to put his foot in it produces frequent wince-inducing moments. This does not mean he is unwell. 

Contemporary Presidents constantly find themselves answering questions before the cameras whilst exhausted and disoriented. All of them make errors. The Washington Post recently noted that these errors tend to be spun by opposition partisans to bolster wider, politically salient narratives: Bill Clinton = devious, Reagan and Bush Jr. = stupid, Biden = demented, etc. 

Amusingly, it appears widely forgotten that, like Roman augurs with chicken innards, liberals spent four years examining footage of Donald Trump and divining health woes everywhere. How quaint now seems the collective hysteria over Trump drinking a glass of water with two hands and awkwardly descending a ramp. 

The lesson is that partisans seek to convince themselves of the things they want to be true and that ceaseless documentation of modern presidents makes this especially easy.

Donald Trump remains frustratingly alive, and to paraphrase a misquoted Mark Twain: reports of Joe Biden’s dementia are greatly exaggerated. 

It is true that Joe is old, and I do not wish to dismiss the problems that may accompany this reality. When he was inaugurated in January 2021 at a robust 78, he immediately became the oldest man ever to hold the presidency. Ronald Reagan was 77 when he left office, and that was after 8 years in the job. Biden will soon be 80.

Of course the question of whether Biden can function in the role of President – not “is he as sharp across all dimensions as he was in, say, the 1990s”, but “can he do the job?” – is absolutely critical. But the answer is “yes”. Circumstances can always change, but there is currently no health related impetus for replacing the President atop the Democratic ticket. 

Secondly, Joe Biden’s prospects look brighter than they did in the summer. 

When I first drafted this article, I described his approval ratings as “horrible”, resembling in trajectory and magnitude “a man bleeding out.” 

Since that rather gloomy time, Biden has been on a hot streak. His approval ratings are ticking upwards with a dogged consistency previously reserved for the downward trend begun a year ago with the Afghanistan withdrawal and the BBB slugfest. From lows of c. -20 in June, as of late October, Biden is at -12; not good by any means, but no longer catastrophic. 

Moreover, and more importantly, approval ratings at this point (give or take a couple of months) really aren’t very instructive. At the end of 1982 / beginning of 1983, Reagan’s approval ratings were in the high 30s / low 40s. Even in April 1982, when his approval ratings were only c. -4 (43% approval to 47% disapproval), hypothetical match-ups showed him tied with Walter Mondale (Jimmy Carter’s Veep) and trailing Teddy Kennedy by 6 points. 

Of course, Democrats ultimately nominated Mondale and Reagan annihilated him, winning  every state in the union save for Mondale’s home of Minnesota – which he clung onto by fewer than 4,000 votes. 

By contrast, at this point in his presidency, George H.W. Bush was polling in the 70s and was yet to drop below 50%. In November 1992, Bill Clinton, a previously little-known Governor of Arkansas with a history of extramarital affairs, turfed Bush out of The White House – and it was not particularly close.

Of course, Reagan was at his nadir midway through his first term, and Bush was just shy of his high point. The former trended upwards as his reelection approached, and the latter trended downwards (although in both cases by less than one might perhaps imagine). Had Reagan faced the voters with approval ratings under 40% he likely would have lost, and had Bush stayed in the 70s, he certainly would have won. 

The point is not to say right now that Biden is guaranteed to win or guaranteed to lose were he to seek reelection. The point is that approval ratings are a dynamic indicator, and the status quo one day might seem unimaginable the next. Or, as Harold Macmillan put it, leaders are variously aided and challenged by “events, dear boy, events.”

As it happens, there are reasons to be hopeful when looking at Biden’s approval ratings. Among other things, there is a decent chance he gets more popular in the next year or two. 

The last two Democratic Presidents, Clinton and Obama, both saw their approval ratings melt during their first two years in office. In the subsequent midterms (1994 and 2010), both men took a beating, a “shellacking” as Obama famously called it. Both lost dozens of seats in the House, and eye-watering numbers of seats in the Senate. Under Clinton, Democrats lost both chambers, whereas in 2010, a narrow Democratic Senate majority was preserved.

The downside was that Republicans gained control of much of government, but the upside was that Republicans gained control of much of government. Having a trifecta is awesome, and it lets you pass legislation, but it inevitably invites thermostatic backlash. It also means that the party in power, regardless of a situation’s actual context, gets blamed for anything and everything that goes wrong. 

By contrast, divided government can give the president a foil, a reminder of why said president’s voters chose him (thus far) over “those guys”. This effect is particularly pronounced when the foil is composed of congressional Republicans, currently an extreme and extremely off-putting bunch. (Google Marjorie Taylor Greene if doubtful). 

Both Obama and Clinton saw their approval ratings start ticking up after Democrats lost power in Congress. In November 2010, Obama’s approval was at -4%, but come election day 2012, it was back up to +12%. Clinton’s polls fluctuated a little more, but immediately prior to the 1994 midterms he was often dropping below -10%. Yet, just as with Obama, by 1996 and Clinton’s own day of reckoning he was at +20%. 

Democrats, despite probably doing better than in 1994 or 2010, still look extremely likely to lose the House and possibly the Senate too. This will present massive dangers for the country, as I have explored here, but to be totally blunt, it might improve Biden’s reelection chances: it did for the last two Democrats. 

Thirdly, Biden has a surprisingly strong record upon which to run in 2024. 

On the 20th of July, The New Statesman ran this article titled “Why Joe Biden failed”. This seems harsh and rather overstated. For one thing, labelling a presidency a failure 1/3rd of the way through the first term is surely jumping the gun. And for another, on the merits of Biden’s presidency it is not a failure at all. Actually, thus far at least, a remarkable amount has been achieved. 

The tortured and tortuous history of the Biden legislative agenda deserves an article of its own, and so I will not go into it here, but suffice to say that the President’s domestic accomplishments include (among so much else) the extension until 2025 of enhanced Obamacare subsidies, around $200 billion dollars for scientific research, $52 billion to develop domestic semiconductor manufacturing capacities, $1,400 stimulus cheques to individuals as part of the COVID recovery, $550 billion in new spending of (re)building infrastructure, and the year-long Child Tax Credit

This is in addition to the closure of loopholes in the tax code which disproportionately benefited the wealthy, as well the largest ever American investment in decarbonization (c. $370 billion). 

Joe Biden has run the most pro-worker, pro-union administration in decades, and shifted the economic orthodoxy decisively in favour of industrial policy and other forms of government intervention. Moreover, Biden deserves significant credit for the resolve of the NATO alliance in the face of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Under his leadership, the US has put its money where its mouth is, appropriating over $50 billion for Ukraine, including billions worth of armaments.

Should Joe Biden seek reelection in 2024, he will be able to do so as the rare president better with actions than with words, and as the rare president with a veritable smorgasbord of impressive and enacted policies. 

Meanwhile, Donald Trump does not have a positive economic case to make for his reelection. Even looking solely at 2017, his administration failed in its attempt to repeal Obamacare (which would have been disastrous), and his tax cut cost $1.9 trillion whilst doing remarkably little for regular people. The economic theory was that slashing the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21% would spur investment leading to more employment, higher wages, and greater output. 

One of the many problems, however, was that corporations did not need the money. As we now understand looking back on the 2010s, liquidity was extremely easy to come by and borrowing was shockingly cheap. In other words, there were minimal constraints on corporate investment even without the rate reduction. One IMF analysis concluded unsurprisingly that leading S&P 500 companies funnelled 80% of their windfall into dividends, buybacks and the like, with 20% going to “capital expenditures” or R&D. 

Consequently, the contrasting political competence, and economic approaches, of the two men is easily perceptible. 

As Tony Blair often remarks, the best antidote to authoritarian populism is democracy delivering (in this case, Democrats delivering). And, contrary to many expectations, Democrats are doing a hell of a job. 

Fourthly, should Biden stand aside, the successor candidate may be weaker.

In keeping with comparing him to the alternative rather than the Almighty, any analysis of whether Biden should run must take seriously his likely replacement as Democratic standard bearer. There is a danger, should Joe Biden decline to seek reelection, that Democrats will find themselves trying to construct a ticket out of rather a thin bench. 

The party has talent(s). Figures like Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (assuming they win reelection in November) may well be viable national candidates in a few years. However, the elephant in the room when discussing immediate successors to Biden is Vice President Harris.

The fact of the matter is that, in recent years at least, a VP (former or incumbent) who seeks their party’s nomination invariably gets it. Democrats nominated Biden in 2020, Al Gore in 2000, Walter Mondale in 1984, and Hubert Humphrey in 1968. Republicans nominated George Bush Sr. in 1988, and Richard Nixon in both 1960 and 1968. Typically, the only way the Veep does not get the nomination is if they do not seek it. 

If one counts Veeps who ascend due to Presidential death or resignation, the trend gets even stronger: Democrats nominated Harry Truman in 1948 and LBJ in 1964, whilst Republicans tapped Gerald Ford in 1976. 

Admittedly, this apparent historical gospel rests heavily on selection bias. Essentially, Veeps win the nomination because those who might lose never bother running. Dick Cheney, for example, did not bother attempting to become the designated Republican loser to Barack Obama in 2008 (I cannot imagine his 13% approval ratings helped). Likewise, hapless Dan Quayle, Vice President to the elder Bush, never entered the 1996 race.

Therefore, were Biden to retire, there is no guarantee that Democrats would nominate Harris; she might not run. 

But this seems unlikely. 

And if she did run, Kamala Harris would most probably be the nominee. History is squarely in her corner, hypothetical primary polling is decent for her (there is no obvious challenger implying a likely coalescence around the VP), and one would have to assume that Biden would endorse her, as would most establishment Democrats. 

Furthermore, almost anyone who challenged Harris would have to contend with some poor optics. Imagine if you will, Pete Buttigeg, who polled in the low single digits with black voters in 2020, attempting to wrest the Democratic nomination away from the first African-American, female, Vice President. 

Nope. If Harris wanted it, the 2024 nomination would be hers. 

That is a slightly worrying prospect for Dems. 

The Vice President’s approval ratings are clearly tied to Biden’s, and so Harris does not bear absolute responsibility for them. Still, -12 is pretty shabby. To state the obvious, it is dangerous to run a candidate who most Americans do not particularly like (*cough* Hillary *cough*), especially if they are not even the incumbent President. Admittedly, Trump is more unpopular than Harris, but he was more unpopular than Clinton too. 

This unnerves me, but it does not unnerve me quite as much as the qualitative indicators. Harris was much touted as a “top-tier” 2020 contender but dropped out months before the first primaries, having run an unfocussed campaign bedevilled by staff turnover and internecine struggles. Since becoming vice president, her office has been much the same, marred by bickering, a revolving door, and a general impression of disarray. The Veep’s unfortunate habit of presiding over administrative messes does not inspire confidence either in a general election campaign or a potential presidential administration. 

Robert Singh, part of the politics faculty at Birkbeck, has called Harris “surely the weakest vice president since, and perhaps even including, Dan Quayle”. I know circa three things about Dan Quayle, and one of them is that whilst visiting an elementary school, Quayle ‘corrected’ a 12 year old’s spelling of the word “potato” to “potatoe”. This is not, then, a flattering comparison for the VP. 

From an electoral performance perspective, my preference is for Joe Biden over Kamala Harris. On the one hand, Biden has won a presidential election (defeating Trump), he has the powers associated with incumbency, and the administration’s achievements are first and foremost in his name. On the other hand, Kamala Harris has underperformed expectations (though to be entirely candid, this is as much a snowballed media consensus as it is a reality), and did rather a dismal job of running for president last time.

Fifthly and finally, *Donald Trump is not a good candidate*.

If he wants it, and I think he does, the 2024 Republican nomination is almost certainly Trump’s. I simply do not see him losing in the primaries – his lead over the entire field of potential rivals has been stable at around 25%, typically with a narrow majority of the vote, and this does not even account for the fact that some Republicans polled against Trump would refrain from taking the plunge if it actually meant facing the former President. 

Ted Cruz said in September that “the whole world will change depending on what Donald Trump decides. That’s true for every candidate. That’s true of every potential candidate.” 

This is a president who never achieved an approval rating of 50%, not once since his inauguration five-and-a-half years ago. This is a president who lost the popular vote twice, the first president since Herbert Hoover to lose the presidency, House, and Senate in one four year term. 

When Donald Trump ran for reelection, he lost! That is still comparatively rare in American politics! More to the point, when he ran for reelection, 81 million people voted for Joe Biden; before 2020, the most votes ever cast for a candidate had been 69.5 million (Obama 2008).

And all of this was before he attempted a coup. It was a farcical, humiliating authoritarian attempt, but an authoritarian attempt nonetheless. Not only that, Trump cannot for the life of him shut up about the “stolen” election. A presidential candidacy predominantly focussed on an entirely fictional grievance does not seem like a mysterious alchemical formula for electoral success. Trump may win in 2024, but let us not pretend he would not have grievous weaknesses – a potential indictment being high on the list.

As foalishly skittish as a Biden / Trump rematch would make me, I do believe that Biden would probably win. 

For the Democrats, it would be better to stick with the devil they know. Earlier, I mentioned two occasions when Democratic presidents had declined to seek reelection (Truman in 1952 and Johnson in 1968). Republicans went on to win both of those contests – (though of course it would be utterly disingenuous to pretend that the electoral headwinds which drove two presidents into retirement did not have something to do with this.)

The party should ride with Biden. If he does run in 2024, there must not be a primary challenge. The last two presidents to face anything more than token opposition (George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter) both went on to lose. Admittedly, both of these presidents were vulnerable to begin with, but a failure of the party to coalesce around its incumbent does not just suggest blood in the water, it puts it there – hence why Obama’s team worked so diligently to tamp down on speculation about a challenger from the left. 

Joe Biden has his weaknesses. He lacks the kind of celestial radiance which emanated from Clinton and Obama. And yet despite that, Democrats will most probably do better in 2022 than they did in 1994 or 2010, and the party has achieved much to be proud of in its two years of power. Additionally, Biden’s much touted ‘decency’ contrasts well with the malice which characterises today’s Republican officeholders  – certainly it contrasted well with Donald Trump’s. 

Joe Biden, despite his age, remains a strong politician with a strong record. Unless circumstances become significantly more desperate, he is the best choice for 2024. 

Image credit: Gayatri Malhotra

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