Editor’s note, April 25, 10 am ET: President Biden has announced his decision to run for reelection. Our original story, published on March 1, follows.
My argument in this piece is simple: Joe Biden, the incumbent president of the United States, should run for reelection.
Just six presidents out of the previous 45 have chosen not to run for reelection. The last two who didn’t, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, were accidental presidents who ascended due to the previous president’s death (though they did each win a general election outright), and both were embroiled in brutal and increasingly unpopular wars at the time they declined to run.
You have to go back to Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880 for a situation that would be analogous to Biden declining to run for reelection — a president who won election in their own right and then chose not to run again — and Hayes had pledged in his 1876 campaign to only serve one term.
So why is “Joe Biden should run for president” even worth saying? For one thing, because less than two years before 2024’s Election Day, he’s not running yet. Politico reported last week that Biden has yet to make a final decision on whether to seek reelection, and while most people in his orbit are absolutely confident he will run eventually, that tiny glimmer of a doubt enables all manner of speculation.
Does that mean anything, anything at all? Probably not! As first lady Jill Biden told the Associated Press last week: “He says he’s not done. How many times does he have to say it for you to believe it?”
Still, the persistence of the “Will he run?” question has a basis in something more solid than the bored speculation of DC reporters. Biden was the oldest person ever elected US president, breaking Donald Trump’s record by over seven years. Because of the linear nature of time, he would break his own record by four years should he be reelected. He would be inaugurated at age 82, and leave office at 86.
There is a non-trivial chance Biden will die in office if reelected. “Using a standard US life table from the Social Security Administration, his survival probability would be 59.1 percent,” S. Jay Olshansky, a professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has written specifically about Biden’s life expectancy, told me in an email.
“However, Biden is likely to be higher than that because of his highly favorable risk profile,” he said. Biden had two brain aneurysms in 1988, when he was 45, but subsequent brain scans have shown no recurrence. He doesn’t smoke or drink, is not diabetic, and has what the White House physician calls “remarkably low” levels of cholesterol.
“Should someone with high odds of dying in office run for president?” is a fair question. “Should someone with elevated odds of undergoing cognitive decline during his term run for president?” is an even better question.
But I think in this case the answer is clearly yes.
Joe Biden has been a pretty good president
The most basic reason for a president to decline reelection is if they’re doing a bad job and are calamitously unpopular — if they’re overseeing a brutal war like Johnson and Truman were, or surging inflation or joblessness, or some other kind of disaster.
Biden is not in the strongest position you can imagine for a president seeking reelection; he’s less popular than the last three presidents to win reelection were at this point. But he’s more popular than Ronald Reagan was at this point, which — given that Reagan went on to win 49 states in 1984 on his way to reelection — tells you a bit about how poor an indicator approval ratings are this far from Election Day.
But Biden is not at all in the position that Johnson or Truman were in. He is not prosecuting a war with US troops; in fact, he ended the war in Afghanistan after 20 crushing years (a move that, somewhat ironically, marked the beginning of a prolonged dip in his approval ratings). And while the way that withdrawal happened left a lot to be desired, nothing like the sight of US troops being slaughtered during the Tet Offensive (as preceded Johnson’s decision not to seek election) is happening now.
Nor, contrary to much speculation, is the US economy in recession. The economy grew at a steady if unspectacular 2.7 percent last quarter; unemployment is the lowest it’s been since 1969 (LBJ’s war was bad for humans but great for jobs in defense industries); inflation is elevated but falling, or at least relatively stable. Wages are rising quickly, especially for less-educated workers in service and manual labor jobs. You have to go back to the dot-com boom of the late ’90s to get a better economic picture than the one Americans are enjoying right now, and this one is arguably more equitable.
Biden deserves a lot of credit for that state of affairs — more than the credit or blame that presidents usually deserve for the state of the economy.
Learning from the overly tepid fiscal stimulus enacted by the Obama administration in response to the 2007-2009 recession, at the start of his term Biden ushered through a massive $1.9 trillion package, the American Rescue Plan, that kept progress on jobs and wages from stalling out as Trump-era measures faded.
The package overshot significantly; he made the opposite mistake that Obama made in 2009. But his was the better direction in which to err: the inflation that resulted, while painful, was less painful than the many years of excess unemployment and depressed demand that resulted after 2009. In the meantime, the measure plunged child poverty to a record low by expanding the child tax credit.
Much has been made of the ways in which moderate Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) frustrated Biden’s grander ambitions. It’s certainly true that Sinema blocked his plans to tax high earners more heavily, and Manchin kept the child tax credit improvements from being made permanent.
But looking at what actually did pass during Biden’s first two years, one gets a different picture. Biden signed the largest investment in R&D and deployment of clean energy in US history into law; the head of the International Energy Agency termed it the world’s most important climate action since the Paris accords.
Separately, Biden signed into law hundreds of billions in new science funding, passed on a bipartisan basis as part of an effort to strengthen semiconductor manufacturing. After the Trump administration’s famous failure to pass an infrastructure bill, Biden did it.
Looking abroad, the administration’s handling of the Ukraine war has been outstanding. Choosing to release intelligence showing Russia’s invasion plans in the weeks leading up to the attack was a masterstroke, denying Russian President Vladimir Putin any ability to claim that Ukraine provoked him. Biden has kept his G7 counterparts aligned in imposing sanctions on Russia, denying it oil revenue, and supplying weapons to Ukraine.
The result is a war that is already vastly more costly than Putin bargained for, without US or NATO troops being dragged into the conflict, and backdoor progress on something US presidents had been fruitlessly pursuing for years: increased European military spending.
Biden does have some notable failures, most importantly the continuing massive death toll of Covid-19. In his first year, he mobilized the largest vaccination campaign in our history to face it, with shots going from coveted and hard-to-access to ubiquitous and available at any pharmacy in a matter of months.
But the Supreme Court’s unwillingness to allow a vaccine mandate for most employers slowed adoption, as did partisan resistance to the shots among conservatives. The emergence of the more transmissible delta and omicron variants meant the disease surged even as vaccines were readily available
While it’s unclear how much the administration could have done to encourage more mitigation steps, like funding for better ventilation systems, Biden once said in a debate with Trump that anyone responsible for 220,000 dead Americans “should not remain as president of the United States of America.” Given that the US Covid death toll currently stands at 1.1 million, it’s fair to say he hasn’t fared much better.
Taking the good with the bad, Biden looks like a fairly successful president, overseeing an unusually good economy without US troops in danger. That’s not normally someone you want stepping aside.
Sidestepping a contested primary and the Kamala Harris problem
Of course, presidential performance is in the eye of the beholder, and perhaps you disagree that voters will look at Biden and see a reasonably successful president. But if you’re a Democrat and care about Democrats winning the election — alternately, if you simply dislike Donald Trump and/or Ron DeSantis and want to minimize the odds they win the election — you should still hope he runs.
Biden is simply the best chance Democrats have in 2024. If he runs, it avoids a heavily contested primary; outside a few gadflies like Marianne Williamson, he is not likely to attract any challengers. That saves literally hundreds of millions of Democratic donor dollars that can then be poured into the general election. And while incumbents’ electoral advantages have attenuated as the country has polarized, if there’s even a modest bump to be gained from incumbency, it will redound to Biden and not to any alternative candidates.
If Biden doesn’t seek reelection, the Democratic nominee will likely be Vice President Kamala Harris. It’s tempting for Democrats to imagine that Harris would lose an open primary to contenders like Govs. J.B. Pritzker (D-IL) or Gavin Newsom (D-CA), or maybe Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) or Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) if they run again, to list four names recently floated in Politico. But I doubt it.
For one thing, the sheer size of the field — there’ll be many more than the four above, if I had to guess — makes it harder for any anti-Harris candidate to break out. For another, she appears to have consolidated support among Black Democratic voters in a way she never did in 2020, when she was just a senator. The most recent polling covering a plausible field (that is, excluding stunt polls that ask about possibilities like Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama running) shows Harris is solidly if not overwhelmingly ahead of the likes of Sanders or Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
Beyond the cost of the primary, the prospect of Harris as nominee should make Democrats nervous. While Trump and Biden are essentially tied in national polls, Trump leads Harris by 4 percentage points in a hypothetical matchup. Polling this far out is at best a hazy guide, but her weaker performance is at least suggestive.
Outside her circle of loyalists, Harris’s reputation has taken a beating since Biden took office. “Even some Democrats whom her own advisers referred reporters to for supportive quotes confided privately that they had lost hope in her,” the New York Times reported in one painful dispatch. A slew of Democratic Party activists told the Washington Post’s Cleve Wootson they doubted her ability to win the presidency, and Biden’s decision to make her the face of his administration’s controversial border policy has not helped matters at all.
It’s not a good sign when people like Obama’s White House counsel Greg Craig are proposing an open primary for the vice presidential job, which would mostly function as a way to get rid of Harris.
The risk of a Biden in decline
There’s another risk of a Biden run worth highlighting here: that he doesn’t die in office, but gradually undergoes cognitive decline serious enough to make him unable to serve.
The particular danger of this situation is that it’s not clear-cut. Biden is either alive or dead; he is not, in a binary way, either impaired or non-impaired. It’s a gradient and the change is gradual. We can agree that he seems fine now, and that if he were to start forgetting his own name or that he’s the president, that would be too far. It’s harder to agree at what point between those extremes he should step aside.
I don’t have an especially satisfying answer here, other than to say that his doctors see no signs of cognitive decline to date, that I subjectively agree, and that thankfully the 25th Amendment provides procedures for Harris to becoming acting president should Biden’s decline worsen dramatically. In an ideal world, this is why you run younger nominees for president. But Biden’s other advantages as a candidate, I think, outweigh the risk of cognitive decline.
Taking together all these factors, the case for Biden running again is simple. Joe Biden has been a pretty good president. He stands a better chance of winning the presidency in 2024 than any other Democrat. Those points alone should suffice.