As he turns 80 on Sunday, President Biden, the man of Catholic faith, could reflect on a few lines from the psalmist. “The days of our years are sixty years and ten,” as King James says, unless “by reason of strength they are eighty years.” Other participants in human frailty should give thanks for modern medicine, as well as Mr. Biden’s continued health.
Yet what Mr. Biden needs to ask himself, and preferably soon, is whether in two years from today he really will want “four more years,” as the crowds would chant in 2024. Without be rude, but the job of President of the United States isn’t exactly an early bird special at Denny’s. On his first day in the Oval Office, Mr Biden set the record for the oldest president in history. He will be 82 years old before the next inauguration. He would be 86 at the end of a second term.
During the 2020 campaign, questioning Mr. Biden’s age was treated as terrible media mores. This omerta has begun to break down, however, and a new point of contrast is the end of gerontocracy in the leadership of the Democratic House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 82, says she will step down, as will her No. 2, Steny Hoyer, 83. The next Democratic leader is likely to be Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, 52, who doesn’t remember Sputnik like it was yesterday.
So far, the White House has ignored Mr Biden’s age and pretended 80 was the new 40. “I can’t even follow him!” the press officer Karine Jean-Pierre tweeted this summer, as if enthusiasm could replace credibility. There are, however, leaks about aides protecting Mr Biden’s weekends and fears his shuffling walk could cause him to stumble. A doctor’s note from last year explained, as only a doctor’s note could: “The President’s walking gait is noticeably stiffer and less fluid than it was about a year ago.”
The audience holds their breath every time Mr. Biden speaks. “I want to thank the Prime Minister for Colombia’s leadership,” he said last week in Cambodia. A few days earlier, he had mentioned that Russian forces were “withdrawing from Fallujah”, which was a flashback to the war in Iraq. Last month, he said Democrats campaigning in 2018 “went to 54 states,” two more states than even progressives want to create.
Modern politicians practically live on television, and they all do stupid things, but this defense goes no further. Barack Obama said in 2008 that he had campaigned “in 57 states”. George W. Bush’s verbal slips are easy to underestimate. But Mr. Biden is obviously showing his age, and anyone in doubt should watch 10 minutes of his aggressive 2012 vice-presidential debate with Paul Ryan.
During the 2020 campaign, Mr. Biden was protected by the media. He is now protected by the White House. But there is no way to protect a president when he sits down, one-on-one, with China’s Xi Jinping or Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The world is entering a dangerous period, with thieves on the march. “If I was only 80,” said Jimmy Carter at 94, “I don’t believe I could perform the duties I did when I was president.”
Mr Biden might think he has no choice but to run in 2024 because Donald Trump is doing so, and the Democrats have no obvious popular successor. This is partly Mr. Biden’s fault. He chose his vice president for the wrong reasons, based on identity politics. Kamala Harris’s approval rating is 40%, worse than Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump. If Mr. Biden chooses to retire, the Democratic primary will likely be free-for-all, with Ms. Harris merely a candidate.
But that would be politically sound. The GOP looks set in 2024 for a vigorous argument over whether Mr. Trump, who is now 76, should get another shot at the White House. Democrats need a similar debate over Mr. Biden.
The 1960 election was a generational shift, when John F. Kennedy became the first president born in the 20th century. Ditto for 1992, when the Boomers jostled their elders who had lived through World War II and the Great Depression. Maybe 2024 will be the turn of Generation X. Gavin Newsom is 55 years old. Ron DeSantis is 44 years old.
For everything that has changed since the Psalmist, 80 is still old. Konrad Adenauer served as West German Chancellor until 87, but under unique circumstances, 1949-63. Two years from 2024, voters are already thinking about it. In a recent poll, 68% say Mr. Biden may not be up to another term, and 86% think the presidential threshold should be 75 or younger. Mr. Biden is asking for political trouble if he ignores those numbers, and Democrats owe the country better than trying to rub shoulders with him at sunset.
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