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2 July 2024

Biden’s only choice

He can stand aside and show the strength of American democracy – or embody its decline.

By Katie Stallard

Since he announced his re-election bid last year, Joe Biden has responded to concerns about his ability to govern due to his age – he would be 86 at the end of a second term – with a stock phrase: “watch me”. After his catastrophic performance in the CNN presidential debate against Donald Trump on 27 June, many American voters will feel they have seen enough.  

It was not just that he stumbled through his answers, trailing off mid-sentence and struggling to articulate a coherent thought. Nor that his resting face was an expression of bewilderment – mouth open, eyes disconcertingly wide – broadcast on an unforgiving split-screen alongside the comparatively assured-looking Trump. It was also his abject failure to hold his opponent to account on matters of policy or basic fact. When Trump declared that Democrats were in favour of “after-birth” abortions, for instance, which is to say they want to kill newborn babies, Biden was unable to mount an effective response. When he was asked about abortion, one of the most important issues for Democrats, Biden mangled his answer and inexplicably pivoted to immigration, one of Trump’s strongest areas. The most forceful exchange the two men shared all evening was about their golf handicaps, as they bickered over who would win a driving contest between them. “Let’s not act like children,” Trump eventually said. “You are a child,” Biden hit back. It was a dismal spectacle. 

Trump is a weak candidate. He is a convicted felon who tried to overturn the results of the last election, has been found liable for sexual assault, and could yet be sent to prison for his various crimes. But Biden is even weaker.

Even before this debate, 70 per cent of registered voters thought Biden was “just too old to be an effective president”, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll on 20-25 June. That figure has been roughly static for the last six months. (Meanwhile, 39 per cent said the same about Donald Trump, who is 78.) Biden is also one of the most unpopular presidents in decades. Many voters hold his administration responsible for the steep price rises they have experienced and believe the economy was better under Trump. He currently trails Trump in all six of the battleground states that will decide this election, and on the issues that voters say matter most to them: the economy and immigration.  

In other words, this was not just one “bad debate night”, as Barack Obama wrote on Twitter, in a campaign that is otherwise going well. Biden is losing this race because he is an unpopular president who Americans think is too old to run again. This debate was meant to shift that narrative. Instead, it has only made matters worse. A CBS poll on 28-29 June found that just 27 per cent of voters think Biden has the mental and cognitive ability to serve another term.

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Yet Biden’s strategists insist they know better. They are holding fast to the mantra that this election will ultimately come down to a choice about democracy, and once voters come to terms with that fact – and the urgent threat Trump poses to the republic – they will come around. There is a fine line between self-belief and arrogance, loyalty and blind faith. Biden and his entourage are beginning to look like they are on the wrong side of that line.  

The wider Democratic Party is culpable too. With the notable exception of Dean Phillips, the lone congressman from Minnesota who had the gall to challenge Biden for the Democratic nomination last year, the party has closed ranks behind the president, insisting that unity is strength. Panicked Democrats lit up reporters’ phones with panicked messages after the debate, but few were prepared to go on the record with their concerns. In public, they toed the party line: anyone who questions Biden’s candidacy is guilty of “bedwetting” and betrayal, and only Biden, in consultation with the first lady and a few close confidantes at most, can make the decision to stand down.   

But the US is not an autocracy. It should not be left solely to the judgement of one man and his inner circle, who have considerable vested interest in the outcome, to make this call. This is how you end up with the Soviet gerontocracy. The Democratic Party has a deep bench of rising stars: Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, Pennsylvania governor Josh Shapiro, Georgia senator Raphael Warnock, California governor Gavin Newsom, Illinois governor JB Pritzker. But there is a collective action problem. Nobody wants to be the first to wield the knife. Even more so when this would also mean challenging Kamala Harris – the first woman and the first person of colour to be vice-president – for the nomination. Far safer for all concerned to keep their heads down and preserve their prospects for 2028. 

If the stakes in this election are really as high as Democrats say they are, then this is a dangerously complacent approach. Maybe Biden will somehow become a much more vigorous campaigner in the next four months. Maybe voters will forget their concerns about his age. Maybe they will be convinced that the economy is doing better than they think it is. Maybe Trump’s campaign will yet implode. Maybe. But hope is not a strategy.   

If Joe Biden can be prevailed upon to step aside, he can still leave office with dignity. He would be remembered as a man who devoted his life to public service and defeated Trump at a moment of national peril, but who understood when it was time to pass that baton on. That process would be challenging. A contested convention in August would be messy and uncertain. Agreeing on a new nominee would be fraught. But this is also how a healthy democracy works. By choosing to stand down and become the transitional president he once promised to be, Biden could signal his faith in his party and the democratic ideals it represents. Or he can cling on to the bitter end as the embodiment of its decline.  

[See also: How Ukraine shattered Europe’s balance of power]

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