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Why Biden’s Age Is An Unavoidable Conversation

“Human history is littered with good leaders who stayed too long,” one reader argues.

Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Jordan Gale / The New York Times / Redux

Welcome to Up for Debate. Each week, Conor Friedersdorf rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week I asked readers to opine on whether Democrats should stick with Joe Biden in 2024 or replace him with a younger nominee. As always, your responses were wonderfully diverse, but I want to begin with one form of common response and then offer a brief rejoinder to it.

Replies have been edited for length and clarity.

Here’s Susan, though I could have chosen other examples of the same basic take. She wrote:

Please stop asking the question about Democrats supporting Biden!! The question itself inserts unnecessary doubts about him and his ability to do his job. He has ALREADY DEMONSTRATED through landmark legislation his ability to GET THINGS DONE! If you care about this country, which I believe The Atlantic does, stop giving opportunities to the Republicans who care only about their power and their donors and their jobs even if it brings our democracy down!!! Instead, focus on the damage the Republicans have done and are doing not only to this country but internationally!!! They are gaining in making attempts to create autocracy. I revere and thank the Fourth Estate. It is our greatest hope in saving democracy. Thank you for all your fine journalism.

I want to be clear about two things.

(1) Though members of the press do sometimes inject questions into public discourse that wouldn’t otherwise be prominent, for better or worse, this is not one of those times. In an opinion poll conducted last month, Democratic primary voters were asked, “Would you like a Democratic candidate to challenge Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination in 2024?” Fifty-nine percent answered “yes” and 36 percent answered “no.” When a sample of all voters was asked about Joe Biden’s age, 74 percent said that they have major or moderate concerns that he does not have the mental or physical health to be president for a second term. TJ wrote in: “The Republican front-runner, former president Donald Trump, is just a few years younger. No one seems to be asking your question about his candidacy … It’s almost as if the media are trying to gin up rumor and rancor. Do better. PLEASE.” In fact, pollsters asked the same question about Donald Trump. Just 47 percent of respondents had major or moderate concerns about his age. Like it or not (I don’t), millions of Americans are more worried about Biden’s age. It isn’t the fault of the press when you disagree with aspects of public opinion.

(2) Regardless of public opinion, I think of my job as informing you as best I can. What separates journalists from activists and propagandists is that journalists use truth, not results, as their lodestar––and if journalism is to retain any influence, that approach must be conserved.

Now on with your thoughts. John supports the incumbent on the merits:

I did not have high expectations for Joe Biden, but supported him to get rid of Donald Trump. He has exceeded my expectations in every way. We’ve needed another FDR ever since the Reagan disaster, and finally we seem to be close. Listening to the so-called liberal press ignore his accomplishments, denigrate him, and repeat every right-wing talking point in the interest of “balance” has been discouraging, but some of the progressives waiting in the wings give me hope. Still, it is too early to replace him. Let him get the good work done.

Marilyn is even rosier on Biden:

This should not even be a question: of course they should support Biden. In the first two years of his presidency, he helped solar and wind investments, got the infrastructure bill, CHIPS, and Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) passed. Concerns about his age should be superseded by the years of experience and relationships he brings to the job and his still-apparent vigor; anything else is ageism. It feels as though the GOP efforts to ruin his reputation have infiltrated the thinking of Democrats who should be trumpeting his successes loudly, early, and often.

But Judy thinks old age is a drag on the Democratic ticket at a moment when the party needs to win at all costs:

I don’t want to waste space listing the obvious reasons why President Biden’s age should preclude him from running again. Most people understand that 80 (and 77) are just too old to maintain the general good health, energy, vigor, and resilience required for the job of president of the United States. It’s time for the older generation (I’m [a member] myself) to hand over leadership to younger people, while still able to provide guidance and wisdom.

I have the utmost respect for Joe Biden as president and as a person. He’s an honorable, intelligent, empathetic man who works hard, understands complex policy matters, respects the rule of law, and cares about people. If he were even 70 I’d support a second term. However, 2024 is an election year with enormous implications for the future, and the Democrats need to eliminate all obvious obstacles to winning. Poll after poll tell us that a majority of voters think Biden’s age is a deterrent to a second term. If Biden were to announce his retirement now, explaining that he loves his job but wants to put country first and hand over leadership to a younger person, we could celebrate his service and properly honor him. It would be an opportunity to outline his successes and he would leave with a fine legacy as a long-serving senator, a two-term vice president, and a one-term president who saved us from a disastrous alternative. He could offer valuable guidance and support to a new candidate to carry on his agenda.

That seems like a no-brainer, win-win situation. So why are the clear preferences of the (Democratic) public being ignored? Are the Democratic Party leaders convinced that there is something shameful or embarrassing in voluntarily stepping aside after one term? Do they really believe that there are no viable candidates available, but that some will magically appear by 2028 (actually 2025, when the next cycle will really begin)?

I certainly don’t want to see a chaotic, nasty primary battle. We have no time for that sideshow. My wishful thinking is for the Democrats to organize so that just three or four people run in a primary. No candidate over 62. No don’t-have-a-chance-but-love attention-pols. No self-funded-billionaire vanity candidates. Yes, this part is fantasy, but one can dream.

Jaleelah makes a pragmatic progressive’s case for retaining Biden:

Clearly, Biden does not plan to step aside. That fact is very important to this question. Pundits like to dream of a field of new candidates energizing American voters to deliver a landslide Democratic victory. I have no problem with these dreams. But I do strongly doubt that a challenger would improve the party’s chances of success. My opinions on Biden have changed: He now has an objectively good track record in office. He passed the IRA and CHIPS. That’s quite a departure from the previous bipartisan consensus that climate change should be fought with big speeches and empty international agreements. He has avoided slip-ups and health scares much more successfully than his Republican opponents. Importantly, he now presides over a much more prosperous country than the one he took over. The labour market is stronger. Jobs that previously paid minimum wage now pay much more. Inflation has chilled out.

The argument against Biden claims to stand on two legs: polls and age. I do not think it stands at all. Polls show that a narrow majority disapproves of Biden. I believe this is because people have much more black-and-white views of politicians than they did in the past. Biden certainly upholds policies that I see as objectively evil. If you asked me the binary question of whether I approved or disapproved, I would probably choose the latter. But I still believe he has performed better than at least 3/5 of the men who came before him, and took office in the midst of a much more challenging situation than most of his recent predecessors. I suspect that years of constantly being bombarded with Important Bad News conditioned a lot of Americans who previously looked at presidents holistically to share my outlook. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. It just makes “approve/disapprove” polls a bad metric for deciding whether a president is electable.

Then there’s his age. I generally accept that age and mental fitness are meaningful. I do not accept that the mental difference between a 78-year-old and an 82-year-old is unfathomably large. People have spoken at length about Biden’s age, but none of their promised aneurysms and embarrassing international incidents have come to fruition. Biden seems a lot more mentally fit than the younger, fresher Republican candidates promising to dismantle the entire government. He seems a lot less embarrassing than Ron DeSantis.

It is noticeable and under-reported that American progressives have largely stopped calling for challengers. The reason is simply: Biden has listened to and implemented the “new ideas” they pushed for. Most calls for challengers no longer want those challengers to bring never-before-tried proposals to the table; they want younger challengers who will return the party to its centrist recent past. (The choice of “centrist” over “conservative” is intentionally charitable.) But their arguments about Biden’s electability do not hold water, and their certainty that a super moderate candidate can win in America is misplaced. The Democrats will not face a moderate, they will face a demagogue. They need their young, passionate base more than ever. Returning to tradition (what a silly way to describe ousting an incumbent president) is the wrong move.

Maureen has no doubts:

What no one has talked or written about in the media is the reality that Biden has surrounded himself with people who are competent. I suspect that the president does have some mental weaknesses but I believe the people around him will continue to steer the ship in a good direction. And, I would vote for a Biden administration over that other guy even if Biden had a stroke!

Henrietta urges Democrats to heed past performance:

Joe Biden is a big-time winner and never was defeated in a national government election. He won his first election for the Senate in 1972 and went on to win his Senate seat six more times. He won as Obama’s vice president two times. Then he won his primary in 2020 and went on to win about a million more votes than his opponent. And this opponent is likely to be his adversary in 2024. Sure, people think he’s old and he is. But is he too old? It’s political suicide to think of replacing a candidate with his history.

The vice president should take one for the team and for the American people. She should find a good reason to make an honorable decline of the nomination in 2024. The outcome of this election is too risky to take a chance on someone with such low poll ratings. Find a personable, well-qualified governor or someone on that level and nominate him or her as Joe Biden’s vice president. That’s the way to make Joe Biden’s age a no-problem. As long as people know that if, God forbid, Biden should have a time when he won’t be able to fulfill his duties, there will be a strong Democrat ready to take over immediately, Biden will be able to ignore any questions about his age.

Multiple other readers suggested that Biden should run for reelection while replacing Kamala Harris as VP. Some cast that impulse as racist. Here’s Lucretia:

Of course Democrats should stick with Biden! Who else would they vote for? I suspect most of the fuss about Biden’s age is because if he died, a Black woman would become president. Horrors!

Ed warns that Biden is overstaying his welcome but is fine with a Kamala Harris 2024 run:

Human history is littered with good leaders who stayed too long. Why do you think we have the saying “quit while you’re ahead”? Biden did what we wanted: He beat Don the Con. Now is the “time to pass the torch.” The best plan would be for Biden to step down now and let Kamala Harris run as an incumbent against whoever the Republicans might nominate. Although Kamala is not my first choice to be president, she certainly is capable and qualified, and has the necessary experience as vice president.

And Errol, after my own heart, is glad to be out of Afghanistan and wants four more years of a low-drama White House:

Democrats should stick with Biden for this reason: He did what I thought was impossible and made politics boring again. I can kick up my feet and enjoy my days and nights without being inundated with Biden’s latest speech or attention-grabbing hot take. He’s careful not to come out and refute or endorse whatever wacky things the left or right have to say at any given moment. Biden is old, yes, but guess what? Jimmy Carter’s still alive. And I don’t care if he flubs a line or two on some occasions––if people on the inside say he’s doing just fine handling the main duties of the presidency, that’s good enough for me. He got us out of Afghanistan. It was messy and awful, but it was done when so many before had just hand-waved and procrastinated. Unemployment is low, we have the respect of other Western nations again, and, I can’t stress this enough, I’m so glad that I can ignore the president. Let him run again and give me four more years of not waking up in the morning wondering what the president said.

I, too, love ignoring the president (save for the Corn Pop speech).