It looks as if this will be the week: in the coming days, Joe Biden is expected to announce, to no-one’s surprise, that he will be a candidate for re-election next year as president. Aged 80, he is already the oldest person to hold the job; if he wins again and serves a full term, he will be 86 on leaving office.
Back in 1980, when Ronald Reagan won the presidency at the then-record age of 69, pundits mostly assured their audiences that he would be a one-term president. In fact, he ran again and won in a landslide, although there were clear signs that his powers were fading by the end of his second term.
So in 2016, when Hillary Clinton (then aged 69) faced off against Donald Trump (70), there was no such assumption. Sure enough, Trump ran again in 2020, and is now running a third time. No first-term president has declined the opportunity to seek re-election since Chester Arthur in 1884.
Nonetheless, and even with today’s increased life expectancy, there’s no doubt that Biden’s age will be an issue. A younger, dynamic Republican opponent – for example, a Ron DeSantis (aged 44) or a Tim Scott (57) – could offer a striking contrast, as could potentially a Democrat primary challenger. But the latter seems unlikely (anti-vaxer Robert Kennedy and mystic Marianne Williamson are the only ones to step forward so far), and the chance of the former also seems to be diminishing.
Faced with what looks like a promising opportunity, the Republicans are heading towards again shooting themselves in the foot (or perhaps somewhere more fatal) by nominating Trump, who has been doing all he can to become even less electable than he was when he lost to Biden last time by seven million votes. This morning’s betting odds have him at two to one on; DeSantis at 11-4 is the only other option given a serious chance (Nikki Haley is next at 22-1).
We noted last month how DeSantis’s momentum seemed to have stalled, returning Trump to favoritism. That trend has accelerated since, despite – or possibly because of – his arrest three weeks ago on charges of falsifying records to cover up payments of hush money. The graph at Maxim Lott and John Stossel’s betting aggregator is especially remarkable, showing the implied probability of his nomination trebling since the beginning of the year.
But there’s a long way to go. No-one gets to vote on the candidates until the Iowa caucuses, still nine months away. It’s true that even at this stage the polls are normally quite a good indicator, but Trump, to state the obvious, is not a normal candidate. It’s still possible for something, such as his indictment on much more serious charges than those already filed in New York, to break through the insouciance of Republican voters.
It might not happen, and even if it does it doesn’t follow that DeSantis will be the beneficiary. His strategy is based on Trumpism without Trump, not necessarily an easy sell: why go for the copy when you can have the real thing? As David Brooks argued last month, it might make more sense for Trump’s rivals to rally behind someone who offers clearer differentiation, such as Scott or Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin.
Biden is vulnerable on many fronts, but they are not the fronts that Trump wants to talk about. He has no interest in pursuing the president on inflation or infrastructure or foreign policy – he only wants to talk about himself and his imaginary grievances. On that basis, Biden appears to have his measure.
Perhaps this week’s announcement will concentrate the minds of the Republican leaders and set off a serious anti-Trump push. Or perhaps they will again fail the test, and Trump will take the party down with him.
PS (Wednesday 11.30am): Biden did indeed make it official with an announcement overnight. Meanwhile, Jon Chait has a good piece on the bursting of the DeSantis bubble, where he argues that DeSantis’s themes go over the heads of most Republican voters:
Many of his moves seem consumed with grievances that are only intelligible to those steeped in state-of-the-art right-wing social analysis. Does the average Republican care about DeSantis’s plans to wrest control of a tiny liberal-arts college’s curriculum? Are they interested, or even supportive, of his manic crusade to stop Disney from supposedly grooming children with insidious left-wing propaganda that the average parent cannot detect?
2 thoughts on “Biden one more time?”
Chester Arthur didn’t decline re-election; he lost a closely fought convention to James Blaine (the latter winning the nomination at his third attempt).
It’s unsurprising that Biden would seek a second term, given he’s been running for president for half a lifetime. Though with 2024 shaping up to be a Democratic year, one wonders if the longer term interests of the party would be better served with a baton change this time, rather than in 2028.
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Thanks David! The reference I consulted (which admittedly was only Wikipedia) told me that Arthur made only a “token effort” at the convention, so I took that to be effectively declining the opportunity. If you don’t count Arthur, the last one was Rutherford Hayes in 1880.
As to changing the baton, yes, you could well be right. But political parties have a habit of putting off tough decisions like that for longer than they should.
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