At the end of George Washington’s second term of office in 1797 many world leaders still believed in their divine right to rule over their subjects and were willing to murder them to prove the point. But instead of clinging to power like his contemporaries, George Washington stunned the world by declining to run for a third term. Before leaving office he delivered a carefully worded farewell address in which he noted his longing for retirement and warned the country of what he considered to be the biggest threats to its budding democracy: political infighting and foreign intervention.
Two centuries later American democracy is at a breaking point. This month’s midterm elections revealed a deeply divided country that in some cases avoided electing extremist, election-denying candidates by a margin of only a few thousand votes. On 15 November these candidates’ idol Donald Trump – a twice-impeached former president, currently being investigated on suspicion of criminal and civil offences – formally announced that he would run for president again in 2024.
Trump does not know what it means to put anything above his own ego and personal ambitions. Instead of retiring to a quiet life of charity work or memoir-writing like many former presidents, he struts around the country like a bully on the playground demanding a rematch of the last election. As tempting as it may be to enter the ring again, the best thing Joe Biden, who beat him last time, can do for America is to not give Trump the opportunity he so relishes. Instead, he should do what Trump never could, and step down for the good of the nation.
This isn’t to say that Biden has performed worse than Trump. As far as presidents go, Biden may not have been the most exceptional but he is far from the worst. He came into office during one of the most politically divided times in American history. Thousands of Americans were sick with Covid-19 and millions more were mourning the loss of those who died during the pandemic. While Biden’s ambitions have often outstretched his capabilities, he has managed to get important legislation passed through Congress and has navigated the first potential nuclear threat in a generation. But if Washington was exhausted from a lifetime of public service at the age of 65, Joe Biden is most certainly tired on the cusp of 80. And it’s showing.
In October Biden boasted that he had just signed a law forgiving student loans. This never happened and everybody familiar with the proposal to do so – via executive action, not through legislation – knew it. What’s not apparent is whether Biden knew it. He has been known for his many gaffes, but his age seems to be leading to more and more of them.
Biden is also not particularly popular. Although the Democrats experienced better midterm results than expected, that was more due to the Republicans putting forward extremist candidates rather than voters embracing Biden. In a CNN exit poll 67 per cent of Americans, including 31 per cent of Democrats, said they did not want Biden to run for the presidency again. His approval rating is at 41 per cent, almost the same as Trump’s at the same point in his presidency, and lower than the last 12 presidents at the same point in theirs.
While Biden is more popular than Trump there is a strong possibility that he would end up running against a different Republican come 2024: the younger and oddly popular Ron DeSantis. The Florida governor is quickly becoming the Republican star after comfortably winning re-election against a centrist Democrat. An exhausted Biden would not look good in front of a slick 44-year-old. And there are other strong contenders for the Democratic nomination. Pete Buttigieg, 40, the transport secretary, has presidential ambitions and is a former Rhodes Scholar and US veteran. Gretchen Whitmer, 51, won re-election as governor of Michigan – a swing state like DeSantis’s Florida – and can boast that she’s avoided a kidnapping attempt by a paranoid right-wing militia.
In his farewell address Washington alluded to his fatigue serving the country when he wrote, “after 45 years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest”. With autocratic leaders threatening the continuation of liberal democracy, the American president needs to set an example by putting country before self. Biden has served his country well and deserves those mansions of rest. It’s time he sought them.
[See also: The coming Republican civil war]