More than half the American people polled on Joe Biden say they do not want him to run for re-election. Some of it is the economy. Biden’s approval ratings are in the 40s. But most of it is because of his age. That, at 80, he is too old to continue as president.
More than half the American people polled on Donald Trump say he should not run for re-election. Many Republicans and independent voters want to turn the page on Trump and find someone who will carry his populist, America First policies but without his chaos, narcissism and fixation on the last election.
The United States has not been in such a canyon of unease over the most likely presidential candidates in modern political times. When an incumbent president has exhausted his mandate – such as Jimmy Carter, afflicted with high inflation and interest rates, an energy crisis, an oil embargo, and the humiliation of the Iran hostage crisis, or George H W Bush, who did not see coming or appear to feel the recession across America in early 1992 – the other party’s nominee is seen as the answer. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton rode waves of approval to renew America’s economy and spirit.
Biden v Trump is a different calculus.
The United States has not been in such a canyon of unease over the most likely presidential candidates in modern political times.
Why has no serious Democrat – such as Gavin Newsome, the popular and successful governor of California, or Gretchen Whitmer, the compelling new governor of Michigan, or Pete Buttigieg, the super-smart next-gen rising star who struck so many chords in his 2020 tilt for the presidency – stepped up. Why has Biden not been challenged, and the age issue lanced and the Democratic offer to the country rejuvenated?
The answer is what happened to Carter in 1980. The country was in terrible shape. Malaise was the word of choice to describe those times and his leadership. Ted Kennedy, the last surviving brother who could reclaim the mantle of Camelot, was begged by many to challenge Carter. It was brutal. It split the party. Carter won that war. Those who saw it will always remember the night Carter won re-nomination, with Kennedy on the stage and Carter trying to raise his arm with Kennedy’s in unity. There was no joint victory salute. That battle left Carter weakened. The result: Ronald Reagan, and his brand of conservatism, smashed the Democrats and romped to a 44-state victory.
America faces tough economic challenges today, as does every country. But Biden is among the most successful of presidents and is favourably compared with Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson because of his achievements in getting more legislation enacted of more consequence, scale and scope on jobs, infrastructure, technology, health care, pharmaceutical prices, renewable energy and climate.
For Biden to be torn down by his own party would light the fuse of an outright Republican victory next year. These lessons are in the DNA of Democratic leaders in Congress and across the party today. That history is the principal reason Biden has not been challenged by anyone of consequence for re-election.
The question is also asked: Kamala Harris is unpopular. Why is she still on the ticket? The answer is because she excels in the qualities Biden deemed critical when he chose her as his running mate. She has not effectively communicated her achievements, and she is severely underestimated by the pundits. Harris has met every major world leader and engages on that stage. At home, her advocacy on abortion rights, voting rights and gun violence is passionate and fierce.
Biden wanted in his vice president what Barack Obama had from him for eight years: absolute confidence and trust from the president that Biden had what it took to fully discharge the office of the presidency if, in a heartbeat, he was thrust into it. That is this president’s view of his vice president, and it is firmly held. She is always in the room where it happens.
Biden has every confidence he has Trump’s measure and can beat Trump again – because, if anything, Trump is even more extreme, and more a threat to America’s democracy.
Kamala Harris is the first woman vice president and the first black person to hold that office. Her selection and elevation are of enormous importance to the black community. Her replacement on the ticket would carry an immense political price, no matter who was selected in her place.
This is the ticket for 2024. Is it a winning ticket?
While Democrats are more than ready to campaign on all the programs Biden has unleashed to build a strong middle class with more jobs and rising wages, the most likely political effect of his age will be to attract less intense support, with lower turnout in key demographics than in 2020, especially from younger voters. Hispanics are another constituency expressing softer support for Democrats. This could hurt Biden. At the same time, the Supreme Court’s record over the past three years has certainly activated women revolted by the repeal of their abortion rights, of people from all walks of life repelled by out-of-control gun violence, of people of colour angered by setbacks in access to colleges and other opportunities.
But in the end, it will be Biden against an opponent. Today, Donald Trump is most likely to continue his choke-hold on the Republican Party. Biden beat Trump, narrowly but decisively, in 2020. Biden has every confidence he has Trump’s measure and can beat Trump again – because, if anything, Trump is even more extreme, and more a threat to America’s democracy. Trump as the nominee could cause independent voters and moderate Republicans whose party is hostile to their views to stay home.
But what about Florida governor Ron DeSantis? DeSantis wants to take his Florida agenda national. His is a machine-gun assault on a four-letter word: woke. On top of his embrace of Trump policies on immigration, guns and voting rights, DeSantis targets anything that promotes diversity, equity and inclusion, the teaching of racial history, provocative books in libraries, anything associated with gay and transgender rights, and much more. Under his presidency, these culture wars will consume America. Biden believes DeSantis is easier to beat because his extremism is so raw.
But in the end, as with Carter and Bush, the economy will prove decisive. A Biden recession could end his presidency. A strong recovery could cement it.
Biden is not too old for Australia. Biden is a close and compelling partner with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his government. Their foreign policy programs are in sync, as reflected in AUKUS, the renewed diplomacy across the Indo-Pacific, and on China. The Asia agendas of Trump and DeSantis are not well defined today.
Biden is alive. And he’s just 80.