Age Isn’t Biden’s Only Problem

Biden and Harris

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As Democratic Party insiders, pundits, and your high-school friend group debate whether Joe Biden should drop out of the presidential race, the conversation remains tightly focused on the question of his age and fitness. The Keep Joe camp argues that, with enough strong public appearances, the president can prove that he’s still up for the job, and that his disastrous debate performance was an aberration. The Coronate Kamala camp, meanwhile, contends that Biden should step aside and hand the nomination to his younger, more energetic vice president, who, as Biden’s second in command, would presumably fill the role of “Biden, but younger.”

Both arguments suffer from a crucial blind spot: Most Americans don’t seem to want a younger version of Biden, because age is only one of the president’s problems. His other problem is that too many voters think his administration has been a failure. A Biden rejuvenation or a Harris nomination might solve the first problem, but would do little to address the second. If Biden does decide to step out of the race—which so far he insists he will not—the strongest replacement candidate will be one who can distance themselves from the White House’s record.

Even those Democratic insiders who want Biden to drop out generally agree that he has been an effective president. There’s plenty of evidence to support that argument: The U.S. economy is in tremendous shape by both historical and international standards, and Biden has racked up an impressive list of major legislative accomplishments. But what Democratic insiders think of Biden’s job performance won’t matter much in November. What matters is what voters think, and they don’t think Biden has done a very good job at all.

As of this writing, the president’s approval rating sits at 37 percent, the lowest of any president at this point in their first term since George H. W. Bush (who lost his reelection bid). Nearly six in 10 voters say that Biden’s policies have left the country worse off, including a fifth of voters who supported him in 2020, and majorities disapprove of how the administration has handled basically every important issue, including inflation, immigration, and foreign policy. Despite strong headline numbers, Americans feel worse about the economy now than they did 15 years ago, in June 2009, when the economy was in recession and unemployment was 9.5 percent. The administration’s attempts to improve its standing with the public don’t appear to have made a dent.

Some of this disapproval might be a product of Biden’s age. Perhaps his numbers would be better if voters thought he was a strong, capable leader. But the evidence suggests that voters’ pessimism has more to do with macro forces—what the pollster Patrick Ruffini described to me as a “post-COVID inflationary malaise”—than with the individual attributes of their leaders. Incumbents in democracies around the world have been deeply unpopular for the past few years. Many leaders of wealthy nations have even lower approval ratings than Biden; in the past nine months, the ruling parties in the United Kingdom, France, South Africa, the Netherlands, and India have suffered electoral defeats. After years of rising prices and global instability, voters all over the world appear eager for change. Incumbency, long considered an automatic electoral advantage, has become a liability. “The old rules of presidential elections just don’t apply anymore,” the political scientist Lee Drutman told me. “A huge portion of the electorate is deeply dissatisfied with how things are going, and there’s not much politicians in power can do to change their minds.”

Biden appears to be in denial about this fact. In the face of mounting pressure for the president to drop out of the race, his team has scheduled a flurry of live events and interviews in a last-ditch effort to reassure the public that concerns over their boss’s age are overblown. But even if Biden did somehow rediscover the vigor and lucidity of his younger self, he would remain a deeply unpopular president with a deeply unpopular record. “It’s frustrating to all of us that Biden isn’t getting credit for this miraculous presidency,” a veteran Democratic strategist who is close to the White House told me. “But at this point we have to bow to political reality.”

Given the Biden administration’s unpopularity, replacing the president with his younger vice president would be even riskier than it sounds. As Biden’s second in command, Harris would inherit much of her boss’s baggage. Everything that voters currently blame Biden for—high prices, border chaos, the ongoing wars in Gaza and Ukraine—they would likely blame Harris for. Even worse, early in her tenure, Harris was tasked with the thankless job of trying to fix the root causes of America’s migrant influx—a problem that she of course failed to solve and that has since become arguably Democrats’ biggest political vulnerability.

Donald Trump, with his knack for sniffing out political weakness, attacks Biden on prices, immigration, and international disorder every chance he gets. “Under crooked Joe Biden the world is in flames, our border is overrun, inflation is raging,” Trump said at a recent rally. With Harris as the nominee he would hardly have to alter that message—except, perhaps, to add in the accusation that Harris participated in an effort to cover up Biden’s diminished capacity. The Trump campaign is already referring to Harris as Biden’s “border czar” and “enabler in chief.” Instead of prosecuting the case against Trump, Harris could end up spending her hypothetical candidacy playing defense.

If Biden eventually does decide to leave the race, Democrats might be better served by opening the nomination process to challengers who aren’t directly tied to the Biden administration, such as California Governor Gavin Newsom and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Those leaders don’t have the name recognition that Harris does—which probably explains why they are currently a few points behind her in national polls—but they have the benefit of distance from the administration’s record. That dynamic appears to have helped Democrats in recent elections: Democratic congressional candidates outperformed all expectations in the 2022 midterms, and, as the polling expert Nate Silver recently noted in a New York Times op-ed, every single 2024 Democratic Senate candidate is running well ahead of Joe Biden. Meanwhile, even as voters rate the national economy terribly, they view their state and local economies much more positively, suggesting that a politician from outside Washington could run on a stronger economic record.

Which politician, exactly? That remains an unanswered question. Last week, Representative Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina congressman whose endorsement saved Biden’s campaign in 2020, floated the idea of a “mini primary” to decide on Biden’s replacement, should the president drop out of the race. Other experts have subsequently filled in some of the details. Candidates, presumably including Harris, would give speeches, sit for interviews, hold town halls, and debate one another as they made their respective cases for the nomination. This approach would amount to a wager that a yet-to-be-determined younger candidate unburdened by Biden’s low approval ratings would have a better chance to defeat Trump in November.

Supporters of Biden and Harris warn that a mini-primary would tear the party apart, just like the 1968 Democratic National Convention—a chaotic affair held after embattled and unpopular President Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would no longer seek reelection. But they tend not to mention the outcome of that convention: The party nominated Hubert Humphrey, who lost to Richard Nixon in the general election. Humphrey was Johnson’s vice president. He couldn’t quite shed the baggage of the administration he had helped run.

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