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Opening Our Minds About Whether Biden Will Really Run Again
He's also behaving exactly the way he would if he WASN'T running
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
I don’t think the press coverage of President Biden’s possible 2024 campaign has been very good. I feel this way because I don’t think he’s going to run, and the press isn’t being very smart or thoughtful about that possibility.
The biggest reason for this problem is that the very idea of a president declining to run in an election he could win is outside the understanding—and the experience-- of most political reporters. One quite sophisticated journalist was literally incredulous when I said recently that I thought Biden ultimately won’t be a candidate.
It’s Been a Long Time
The last two presidents to forego seeking another term for which they were eligible, Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman, had both served more than four years, having succeeded to the presidency after the deaths of their predecessors, and both had, at best, uncertain prospects of re-nomination. The last president who could have counted on re-nomination—as Biden currently can—and opted out was Calvin Coolidge, 95 years ago, and he too was set to serve more than four years, having come to the White House after his predecessor’s death.The last president to be elected to a single term and decline to try for another was Rutherford Hayes in 1880, who had pledged not to run shortly after his disputed election in 1876-77.
So political reporters, who tend to think that anyone who could be elected president must want to be (thus ignoring Colin Powell in the 1990s and Michelle Obama today), treat it almost as a rule that presidents run for re-election. It’s not.
They also observe that Biden is behaving exactly as he would if he had decided to run. That’s largely true (although his recent selection of a largely non-political chief of staff seems to me an exception). But it misses the point. The atrophy in Biden’s perceived influence that would begin immediately after he made himself a lame duck (a construct largely of the press itself) permits no other course. In other words, Biden is also behaving exactly as he would if he had decided to retire in 2025.
In fact, the mounting pressure from speculating political reporters virtually requires Biden to formally announce his candidacy in the next month or two, and I expect that he will do so. But that doesn’t preclude his announcing a reversal of that decision late this summer, which is what I also expect.
It’s Not Just His Age
Age is not the only reason Biden might choose not to run. The other big one goes back to his frequent allusions to why he decided to run in 2020 after not doing so in 2016. In discussing this, Biden invariably refers to the disgrace after Charlottesville in 2017. That’s shorthand for saying he ran to oust Trump, fearing no one else could.
But the threat of Trump 2024 seems to be fading, with at least two major candidates, Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley, already challenging him for the Republican nomination, and more likely. Beyond that, Trump faces up to four possible indictments in the months ahead. While any and all will be met by some furious or cynical spinning that such charges will help him, that’s not a fair summary of what we’ve seen in the last two years, as revelations—and Trump’s obsessive focus on them—weaken him.
The rejoinder from the political press is that Biden has to run because the Democrats have no one else. That’s silly, in my view. In truly open presidential nominating contests—those where a previous national nominee or also-ran doesn’t command the field-- such as the Democrats in 1976, 1988, 1992 and 2004, and the Republicans in 2000 and 2016, a strong candidate invariably emerges from the primaries. Notably, in four of the six examples I just cited, that candidate won. (You will recall them as Presidents Carter, Clinton, Bush43 and Trump.) That the press currently lacks the imagination to envision who the candidate might be doesn’t change the dynamic.
Joe Biden, of course, hasn’t confided in me about this. But, likely other than his wife, I see no evidence he’s confided in anyone else either. As we saw at the State of the Union earlier this month, he has had, at least by the lights of half the country, a pretty successful first two years. Those who thought his half-century pursuit of the presidency had become a joke, and those who thought he wouldn’t be up to the job if he somehow got it, have been proved wrong. Barring unforeseen disaster in the next two years and also barring Trump’s return, Biden has set the foundation for a significant place in this country’s history.
The political press needs to open its collective mind about whether his running for a second term is as inevitable as it seems to them.
The full statement from the taciturn Coolidge in August 1927 read, “I do not choose to run for president in 1928.”
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