Column: Happy birthday, Mr. President. Will you run again?
Not often does a president’s birthday get much notice, or spark discussion. Next week is different: Joe Biden, the oldest person to assume the office in U.S. history, turns 80 on Nov. 20.
Most Americans probably think Biden already passed that mark, so great has been the buzz about his aging. With midterm elections mostly ended, that buzz is about to become deafening: Attention has turned to 2024, and whether Biden should run for another four-year term that would see him turn 86 as his presidency wound down.
More than two-thirds of voters Tuesday said no to that question, according to exit polls, including nearly 6 in 10 Democratic voters. Yet Biden definitely sounded like a candidate-in-waiting at his post-election news conference Wednesday, if only to quiet the buzzing. (Good luck with that.)
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“Our intention is to run again,” he said, the “our” reflecting his family’s votes in the matter. “That’s been our intention, regardless of what the outcome of this election was.”
What’s your message to the two-thirds of voters opposed to your running again, a reporter asked Biden.
God knows, we will be watching his every shuffling, stumbling move and garbled clause — those who don’t want him to run, as well as those who do — looking for any signs that the president is slipping mentally, physically or both.
Until this week, I vacillated between the Go Joe and No Joe camps. But now I say: If Biden believes he could do the job until 2029, then run, Joe, run.
The Democrats’ better-than-expected showing in the midterm elections is context. Had Biden’s party been washed away by a red tsunami, as Republicans and some pundits predicted, he would have been well-advised to surrender the stage — even though Presidents Clinton, Obama and Trump all experienced midterm shellackings and ran again. They weren’t octogenarians.
The Republican Party’s vaunted red wave turned into a ‘red wedding.’ And it’s their own fault.
As William Galston, a longtime governance scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, wrote Thursday, “If Democrats had suffered a major reverse, the pressure on President Biden to stand down in favor of a fresh face would have been intense.”
“Instead,” Galston continued, “the choice is now the president’s to make, and the midterm election results will probably resolve any doubts he may have had about running for reelection.”
Several considerations allayed my own doubts — mostly — about his running.
For one, I’d hate to see Biden forfeit power and political leverage by making himself a lame duck for his final two years, just as Republicans are likely to take control of the House, if not the Senate as well.
If Republicans do come to power in Congress, they will be weakened by a smaller-than-expected majority divided between right-wing and far-right-wing, between MAGA/QAnon and normies, and split over how extreme to be on policy and the investigatory front: Just torment Hunter Biden with investigations, to undermine his father, or go for the Big Guy, too, and impeach him for [fill-in-the-blank]? Try to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits, or simply force Congress to decide every five years on whether to sunset the programs? Press to reduce taxes for the wealthy or slash them? Abandon Ukraine, or simply grouse a lot about the cost, to flaunt a faux fiscal conservatism and America First chauvinism?
Against such opponents, it’s better that Biden maintain a strong political hand as a 2024 contender.
The mood among congressional campaigns in tight races across California is cautious optimism though results are still likely weeks away.
Another factor: Democrats soon may become absorbed by a separate generational transfer of power, given the heightened possibility that Rep. Nancy Pelosi — the best speaker in modern times and a master legislator — decides to leave the job of party leader in the House. One such shift at a time, please. (Democratic caucus leadership elections are Nov. 30.)
In normal times, the Democrats’ encouraging midterm results might have given Pelosi reason to stay two more years. But these aren’t normal times, as dramatized by the attack on her husband (meant for her) at the end of October. When CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked, in a pre-election interview, whether she’d decided on her leadership future, an emotional Pelosi sure sounded like someone eyeing the exits for her family’s sake: “Well, I have to say my decision will be affected by what happened the last week or two.”
Finally, with Republicans very likely headed into a 2024 intraparty bloodletting amid the recriminations over their midterm failures, Democrats should avoid igniting their own civil war by challenging Biden’s reelection bid or by his voluntarily stepping aside.
No ambitious Democrat would defer to Biden’s ostensible heir apparent, Kamala Harris, who is less popular than the president. Instead of sparking an internecine free-for-all, Democrats should be patient and let their bench get more experience.
Among the prospects: Govs. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Roy Cooper of North Carolina and Gavin Newsom, and Govs.-elect Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania, Wes Moore of Maryland and Maura Healey of Massachusetts. Give them and others time to prove their mettle between now and the early skirmishing for the 2028 Democratic nomination.
Have a happy birthday, President Biden. And many more.
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