I can’t help feeling very sorry for Joe Biden. He’s wanted to be president for most of his life, first running 34 years ago. Had his son Beau not died in 2015, Biden might have entered the Democratic primary then; as vice president he would have been a favorite and likely would have beaten Donald Trump.
By the time he finally achieved the office he longed for, he was far past his prime. Trump had left the country in ruins, its institutions collapsing, much of the population gripped by furious delusions, and millions traumatized by the pandemic. Biden was elected to bring back a normality that now appears to be gone for good.
Many of the crises driving down Biden’s approval numbers are not his fault. If an 8.6% inflation rate were due to his policies, then it’s hard to see why the rate is even higher in Britain, at 9.1%, or why it’s 7.9% in Germany. The mulish attachment to the filibuster by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., makes most legislation impossible. Even if Biden had more activist inclinations, there’s not much he could do about the Supreme Court’s cruel reversal of Roe v. Wade or the increasing tempo of massacres that punctuate American life.
Nevertheless, I hope he doesn’t run again, because he’s too old.
Now, I didn’t want Biden to be the Democratic nominee in 2020, partly for ideological reasons but even more because he seemed too worn-out and unfocused. In retrospect, however, given the way Republicans outperformed expectations, Biden may have been the only one of the major candidates who could have beaten Trump; voters showed no appetite for sweeping progressive change.
So I recognize that I could be wrong when I make a similar argument today. But the presidency ages even young men, and Biden is far from young; a country in as much trouble as ours needs a leader vigorous enough to inspire confidence.
As a recent New York Times/Siena College poll found, 64% of Democrats want a different presidential nominee in 2024. Those Democrats cite Biden’s age more than any other factor, though job performance is close behind. Their concern isn’t surprising. Biden has always been given to gaffes and malapropisms, but there is a painful suspense in watching him speak now, like seeing someone wobble on a tightrope. (Some of his misspeaking can be explained by the stutter he overcame as a child, but not all.) His staff often seems to be keeping him out of view; as the Times reported, he’s participated “in fewer than half as many news conferences or interviews as recent predecessors.”
Certainly, there’s something nice about a president who doesn’t torment the country with his vampiric thirst for attention. And by most accounts, Biden is still sharp and engaged in performing the behind-the-scenes duties of his office. But by receding so far into the background, he forfeits the ability to set the public agenda.
You can’t spin away a bad economy, but you can draw attention to its bright spots, like a 3.6% unemployment rate. Americans overwhelmingly sympathize with Ukraine, and with a rousing enough message, some might be willing to accept the pain of high gas prices as the cost of standing up to Vladimir Putin. To rally them, however, it’s not enough for the administration to repeat the phrase “Putin’s price hike.” Like the rest of us, the White House had ample notice of the Supreme Court’s intention to overturn Roe v. Wade, but it somehow wasn’t ready with an immediate executive order and public relations blitz.
There’s a problem here that goes beyond a shortage of presidential speeches and media appearances, or even Biden himself. We are ruled by a gerontocracy. Biden is 79. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is 82. The House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, is 83. The Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, is 71. Often, it’s not clear if they grasp how broken this country is.
They built their careers in institutions that worked, more or less, and they seem to expect them to start working again. They give every impression of seeing this moment, when the gears of government have seized and one party openly schemes against democracy, as an interregnum rather than a tipping point. Biden’s Democratic critics come from different places on the political spectrum — some are infuriated by his centrism, others worried by his listlessness. What links most of them is desperation for leaders who show urgency and ingenuity.
If there’s one consolation in Biden’s age, it’s that he can step aside without conceding failure. There’s no shame in not running for president in your 80s. He emerged from semiretirement to save the country from a second Trump term, and for that we all owe him a great debt. But now we need someone who can stand up to the still-roiling forces of Trumpism.
There are plenty of possibilities: If Vice President Kamala Harris’ approval ratings remain underwater, Democrats have a number of charismatic governors and senators they can turn to. Biden said, during the 2020 campaign, that he wanted to be a “bridge” to a new generation of Democrats. Soon it will be time to cross it.
Michelle Goldberg is a columnist for The New York Times.