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Some truths are self-evident: Joe Biden is too old, but who could possibly replace him?

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By Emma Shortis

It is possible, in politics as in life, for several things to be true at once.

It is true that Donald Trump and his plans for a second presidential administration represent an existential threat to American democracy.

It is true that a media imperative for “balance” in political reporting is further degenerating into a “both sides”, false balance framework that is distorting our sense of what is at stake in this presidential campaign.

It is true that whether we think it fair or not, Biden’s age is going to frame coverage of the election. Just this week, for example, the New York Times ran a story with the headline “Which Is Worse: Biden’s Age or Trump Handing NATO to Putin?”

As others have pointed out, this kind of narrative approach is calcifying. It does not seem to matter, for example, that in his incendiary comments about Biden’s age, special counsel Robert Hur took grossly inappropriate liberties in editorialising. It would not matter if Biden did not make another slip for the entire campaign (which, given what we know about the president, seems unlikely), and it does not matter that these slips may not have anything to do with advancing age.

It is also true that Biden is too old. At 81, he is already too old now, and if he does see out a second term, he will be 86. In the end, that may not affect the outcome of the election – in 2020 and 2022, American voters demonstrated that they saw Trump’s politics as a far greater threat to American democracy, stability and prosperity than Biden’s age.

But that does not change the fact that he is too old. As Fintan O’Toole recently argued, "Biden, fairly or otherwise, is the lightning rod for deep generational discontents and widespread unhappiness at the persistence of an American gerontocracy."

So why, given all these truths, is Biden still – barring any significant changes in the status quo – all but guaranteed the Democratic nomination?

The ‘veep’ problem

In as much as there are any “lessons” from American history, it is generally true that if a president is not running, the vice president gets the first shot at the job. Vice President Harry Truman, for example, succeeded President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and went on to win the 1964 election. Moving closer to the present, examples include Vice President George H.W. Bush’s successful run after President Ronald Reagan’s history-shaping two terms, or Vice President Al Gore’s nomination after he served twice under President Bill Clinton.

The point is, the vice presidency exists precisely for this reason – the VP is second in line for the presidency and so presumably the best choice for leadership after the president. If the president can not or will not run, the VP is all but assured the nomination.

When then-presidential candidate Joe Biden announced Kamala Harris would be his vice-presidential running mate in 2020, he said: "Kamala Harris is the best person to help me take this fight to Trump […] then to lead this nation."

After a hard-fought nomination contest, Biden chose Harris, 20 years his junior and a woman of color, very much in the context of his commitment to act as a generational “bridge” for the Democratic Party.

In her position as vice president and in the context of history, Harris is the obvious successor to Biden.

So why hasn’t Biden built her a bridge?

Without hearing from the president specifically on this point, we can only speculate based on the evidence we have.

The most obvious answer is that Biden, having chosen her as his second, now thinks – for whatever reason – that Harris is not the right candidate for leadership and/or would not win a presidential election. There has been significant negative coverage speculating about Harris’ lack of political nous and appeal. Given what is at stake this year, it seems likely that Biden is simply not willing to risk it all on Harris.

To be fair to the vice president, this may not actually have anything to do with her political abilities.

Harris has already been on the receiving end of vicious, racist attacks from Trump supporters, including death threats. There is a reason so many conspiracy theories coming from the right focus on powerful women and, more often than not, Black women – on Harris, former First Lady Michelle Obama, and even Taylor Swift. In a febrile political environment, were Harris to be the nominee, it is almost certain sections of the American right would explode.

It is entirely possible that the significant risk to Harris herself, and to American political stability more broadly, are factoring into Biden’s decision to run again, despite the overwhelming focus on his age.

As Jill Lepore has argued, while decisions like this are being made ostensibly (and understandably) to mitigate the risk of political violence, they may end up having the effect of justifying or even encouraging it.

Nevertheless, for these reasons and possibly others, it seems as though Biden will not anoint Harris as his successor.

Simply put, if Biden does not choose Harris, he cannot choose anyone else without catastrophically undermining his own administration and authority.

Even hinting he thinks it should be someone other than himself or his vice president would suggest Biden made the wrong choice to begin with – not a risk he is likely to take, despite the stakes.

For want of a better alternative

Whether Biden is unwilling or just feels unable to pass the leadership baton to Harris isn’t really the point. The point is that he won’t do it and is, therefore, stuck.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that circumstances won’t change.

It is entirely possible Biden will change his mind, or become unable to run, or that some other event will force the hand of the Democratic Party.

Practically, it is now too late for another viable candidate to run for the nomination – filing deadlines have mostly already passed, and the challenges of publicity and fundraising are all but insurmountable.

If Biden were to pull out, timing would be crucial, and would likely need to be at or immediately before the Democratic National Convention in August. The best possible scenario in this case is that the contest heads to a brokered convention, in which delegates previously committed to Biden are freed, by him, to vote for another candidate.

Exactly who that candidate might be is an open question, and another likely reason that Biden and the Democrats more broadly are extremely reluctant to go down this path.

Once again, the obvious candidate is Harris. If it isn’t (perhaps for the reasons outlined above), it’s not clear who it could be, or how deep divisions would run. There are several prominent, popular Democrats who might contest, including Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, California Governor Gavin Newsom or Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear.

Historically, the in-fighting that would come with such a contest, even if it were amicable, has not played well for Democrats, and would almost certainly put them on the back foot come November. That’s not an insurmountable challenge, and might even be the right choice given the circumstances, but it would be an enormous political risk for a party generally averse to taking big chances.

Biden has called this election a “battle for the soul of America”. Given the existential stakes of this election, Democrats are left with few good choices.

Some truths are self-evident. That doesn’t make them easier to face.

Emma Shortis is Adjunct Senior Fellow, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.

© The Conversation

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

30 Comments

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Here's my 5 yen worth in this.

Yes, it's true that Biden is getting up there in age. However, no one has ever questioned other leaders, such as the Pope on his age.

Trump (and there's plenty of evidence) has shown a lot of Dementia.

Biden has shown with positive results that he can still do the Job and continues to do it with heart and humility.

Trump hasn't done so much during his term, other than overturning Roe v. Wade and lowered taxes (mostly for his wealthy friends.

Trump is facing many charges and has been found guilty of crimes in different parts of the country.

So, despite Biden's age, he can still do the Job and I wish him luck.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Biden will be debating Nikki, or as some people with senility call her, "Nancy"....

Both indistinguishable

Trump will debating Navarro - in the same cell they share at Leavenworth...

Will never happen.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

The age limit for the president should depend on nothing more than the age limit. Do we want an 80+ president with a nuclear football?

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Biden will be debating Trump, whereas Trump, in his dementia, will be debating Obama.

Lol, oh God, I hope so, unless the Easter bunny comes out to save Biden again.

Biden will be debating Nikki, or as some people with senility call her, "Nancy"....

Trump will debating Navarro - in the same cell they share at Leavenworth...

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Both of them are too old, whilst I will admit Biden has done a good job up until now,

What??? Where??

his stance on Gaza/Israel is appalling, and if re-elected he will carry on doing the same.

Definitely don’t need more of that.

I am so sick and tired of the USA's aggressive warring posture, and it seems to be never ending. But no president ever seems to want to end it, maybe if there were someone like AOC in the mix it could change things. *

AOC?? She might not even be sound next term. No one takes this one seriously

However the age limit for presidency in the USA should be 65yrs old, until 75.

Depends on a few factors, depends on their cognitive and physical abilities.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

Biden will be debating Trump, whereas Trump, in his dementia, will be debating Obama.

Lol, oh God, I hope so, unless the Easter bunny comes out to save Biden again.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

I don't think age is the issue. Biden is clearly slipping and it is scary to watch.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

wallaceToday  01:07 pm JST

Both Trump and Biden are too old for a second term. There needs to be an age limit of 70 when taking office for the first term.

Had President Thomas Jefferson gotten his way, there would be a maximum age of 65 to hold -ANY- public office in the United States. Needless to say, he didn't get his way. Just like Republicans call for term limits but then vote against the bill to impose term limits.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Both of them are too old, whilst I will admit Biden has done a good job up until now, his stance on Gaza/Israel is appalling, and if re-elected he will carry on doing the same. I am so sick and tired of the USA's aggressive warring posture, and it seems to be never ending. But no president ever seems to want to end it, maybe if there were someone like AOC in the mix it could change things. However the age limit for presidency in the USA should be 65yrs old, until 75.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

There are many deep fake photos of Biden and Trump and fake posts on all the social networks.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Special Counsel Hur's 5hour Biden deposition blew the official cover off the Biden cognitive decline. Biden's own DOJ official told the truth, recordings and transcripts were taken. Biden's not running again, cat's out the bag, Biden's will sail off into the sunset soon.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

Biden's one who refuses to take cognitive exam, Trump's passed it easily 

Biden is running a country, the hardest cognitive test there is.

Trump thinks he’s running against Obama…

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Warren Buffet's soon to be 94, going strong! Biden's one who refuses to take cognitive exam, Trump's passed it easily multiple times, easy to see how feeble Biden walking now, rapid decline in his physical health as well.

Trump looks and sounds great, has had no health issues, Biden, TWO brain aneurysm surgeries. Trump's parents lived well into 90's, not Biden's parents. Fitness a must, but experience also critical, no time for training wheels.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

Both Trump and Biden are too old for a second term. There needs to be an age limit of 70 when taking office for the first term.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

NYT poll, 10% of Biden 2020 voters now support Trump, 73% believe he's too old for another term and high prices, crime, global wars & open borders not going away.

Biden is winning by 11 million mate.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Kind of expected this post from someone who does not understand the 9-0 Supreme Court opinion and so who believes the Sup Ct found Trump committed insurrection!!!

The supreme court literally found that Trump engaged in insurrection.

Just sayin'.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

Biden should make Obama his VP. It would be serendipity.

Kind of expected this post from someone who does not understand the 9-0 Supreme Court opinion and so who believes the Sup Ct found Trump committed insurrection!!!

-8 ( +0 / -8 )

Biden should make Obama his VP. It would be serendipity.

5 ( +7 / -2 )

The curtain will come down when he has to have a live debate with Trump.

Biden will be debating Trump, whereas Trump, in his dementia, will be debating Obama.

5 ( +8 / -3 )

Biden, having chosen her as his second, now thinks – for whatever reason – that Harris is not the right candidate for leadership and/or would not win a presidential election.

For whatever reason?

When she's not cackling and excessively giggling at totally inappropriate times, or donating money to bail rioters out of jail (like in 2020; one of the people she helped bail out went on to be arrested for murder) ... she's generating the most nonsensical "word salads" imaginable.

Here are some of her greatest oratory moments:

"We were talking about the significance of the passage of time, right, the significance of the passage of time. So, when you think about it, there is great significance to the passage of time in terms of what we need to do to lay these wires. And there is such great significance to the passage of time when we think about a day in the life of our children."

"We know community banks are in the community, and understand the needs and desires of that community as well as the talent and capacity of community." 

"‘We will assist Jamaica in COVID recovery by assisting in terms of the recovery efforts in Jamaica."

"It’s time for us to do what we have been doing, and that time is every day."

"I do believe that we should have rightly believed, but we certainly believe that certain issues are just settled."

"We've got to take this stuff seriously, as seriously as you are because you have been forced to take this seriously." 

"“Culture is -- it is a reflection of our moment in our time, right? And in present culture is the way we express how we’re feeling about the moment. And we should always find times to express how we feel about the moment that is a reflection of joy, because as you know, it comes in the morning."

"So, I think it’s very important, as you have heard from so many incredible leaders, for us at every moment in time — and certainly this one — to see the moment in time in which we exist and are present, and to be able to contextualize it, to understand where we exist in the history and in the moment as it relates not only to the past but the future.”

"We honor the women who made history throughout history."

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

The curtain will come down when he has to have a live debate with Trump. It will be hard to watch as he fumbles with the cue cards. Anything can happen between now and election day.

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

In the all-too-recent past, it was also self-evident that women did not understand politics...

0 ( +1 / -1 )

quote: It is true that Donald Trump and his plans for a second presidential administration represent an existential threat to American democracy.

No it's not. If he wins the election, that's democracy - or as close as America can get to it with the Presidential system of government and its dictatorial decrees ('executive orders'). Democracy doesn't deliver a 'nice' result. You get whomever the voters vote for. Trump can't ban future elections in America, despite the rhetoric. If the Democrats fail this time, they will get another chance to vote him out. Maybe someone younger next time.

If Biden has a medical issue they will have a reason to switch, but it has to be to someone who will unite the Democrats, pull in the centre, not scare the Republicans, and maybe bag some votes from anti-Trump Republicans. There must be someone. But if there was, surely they would have been platforming them for a couple of years. They were lazy and arrogant putting up Hillary Clinton, and they may now think they are out of options beyond Biden. You can imagine them looking around the room, getting more worried and considering phoning Taylor Swift.

Biden's biggest problem, aside from the obvious one of lasting the course, is Netanyahu and the Gaza death count generating a Vietnam-style protest amongst Democrats. He can do a bit more there, but the tail is now wagging the dog. Some alliances just don't turn out the way you thought they would. Unintended consequences etc.

If the Democrats have a problem with other internal divisions (progressive v centre, feminist v LGBT) then they should have sorted it out. American political parties are barely parties most of the time. They don't appear to have much coherence or policy, making it difficult for them to sell their brand. The Republicans don't have to - they just jump on Trump's bandwagon. It's tougher when you are in government, but the Democrats have had enough time to do stuff, and haven't really done it. Not being Trump was fine for the campaign when he was in power, but the Biden presidency has been unimpressive.

The Democrats haven't formulated and voiced a coherent series of policies across the board, addressing internal disagreements or the big issues in the US. They've been way too focused on trying to put Trump in prison. That was a bad gambit that kept him in the headlines and made America look like a banana republic.

Democrats stand to lose lots if they lose this time, particularly with a Republican Supreme Court (courtesy of Trump's last term). Legal blocks won't work any more. So they really need to get their act together. Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of faith in their ability to do that. So things will be grim globally, the US will pull out of the Paris deal again, the Palestinians and Ukraine will be stuffed and Japan will have to pay the US more protection money.

-7 ( +0 / -7 )

I'm always interested in why people say Biden is too old, but Trump is not, when in fact they are literally the same age with many of the same problems concerning age. Trump is the one whose health has been in free-fall ever since he passed a military physical in 1967 with flying colors only to be stricken down just a year later when he produced a letter for the draft board who drew his number which showed that he had paraplegia from massive bone spurs in both feet. In more modern times, Trump's rapidly deteriorating health has even affected his hobbies such as golfing. When he was still president in 2020, Trump averaged 72 holes of golf per day. Here in 2024, he's barely averaging 9 holes a day. How can he even justify having a club membership at this point? He's over, finished!

8 ( +8 / -0 )

Some truths are self-evident: Joe Biden is too old,

Self-evident indeed, but many on the left think he should stay in the running.

You liked this article? Didn’t think it was biased? Great.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Replacing Biden would make perfect sense as he is obviously in cognitive decline. This however, poses a massive problem for the Democrats. In the most recent polling, Biden was still their best bet to win against Trump in November. He still loses but does better than Harris, Ms Obama or any other replacements. Sad really, they have had 4 years to find someone. Too bad they chose Harris to be Biden's running mate just because she checked the black and female boxes and not the next candidate for President box. Only themselves to blame when the orange clown wins in November.

-5 ( +4 / -9 )

It does not seem to matter, for example, that in his incendiary comments about Biden’s age, special counsel Robert Hur took grossly inappropriate liberties in editorialising.

For a successful prosecution to be undertaken, this prosecutor - any prosecutor - would need to calculate the reasonably forseeable course of a trial against a defendant. One factor that is considered is whether, if charged, a defendant can be considered capable to understanding the nature of the proceedings and capable of assisting in one's defense. If charges are filed, then a court must determine the existence of such competency to stand trial. But if there are already indications that a defendant may NOT be competent, or capable of restoration, then a question of civil commitment arises for that purpose. For a decision over all the above, to be applied towards a famous defendant, let alone a seated POTUS? An explanation over why not to proceed was appropriate.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Some truths are self-evident: Joe Biden is too old,

The worry about being too old, is that one cannot actually do the job. Biden is doing the job excellently.

Trump on the other hand fouled up the job immensely due to his incompetence, and that was before he started his rapid descent into dementia.

4 ( +9 / -5 )

Is it seriously being suggested that Joe Biden, or Donald Trump for that matter, is irreplaceable?

Joe Biden/Donald Trump is the be all and end all, the sharp end, of the US political establishment, the very definition of Presidency, that exhibits great wisdom and ability in directing the affairs of a government.

Good god, Mary and Jesus.  

0 ( +2 / -2 )

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