Biden Must Resign

Joe Biden must resign the presidency. The last person to do so was Richard Nixon, who left in disgrace after abusing the powers of his office. Nixon had to resign because he led an assault on American democracy. Biden must resign for the opposite reason: to give American democracy its best chance of surviving.

The American right has spent every day since Biden was nominated in 2020 presenting him as an incompetent, doddering old fool, incapable of discharging the responsibilities of the office. Biden’s task at the first presidential debate, on Thursday, was to dismiss those allegations as mere smears, as he did in 2020. Instead, he confirmed that he has aged dramatically over the past four years. Biden was very old to begin with, and at the debate he appeared far more  visibly diminished than he has in the past.

Subsequent reporting has confirmed that Biden’s condition is worse than Democrats had been willing to publicly admit. Yesterday, The New York Times reported that “in the weeks and months before President Biden’s politically devastating performance on the debate stage in Atlanta, several current and former officials and others who encountered him behind closed doors noticed that he increasingly appeared confused or listless, or would lose the thread of conversations.” Similar claims have been reported elsewhere.

Now perhaps it really was just a bad night, and Biden remains as sharp as he was in 2020. If that’s the case, then he should be able to make the kind of public appearances necessary to quell these complaints. If he proves himself capable of doing so, I’ll happily acknowledge error. But after a week of disastrous coverage about his mental fitness, he has not. That is unavoidably ominous.

Biden was behind in the polls prior to the debate. A strong performance might have calmed fears about his age rather than confirming them, and although it remains early, polls taken after the debate show his support softening. As the political scientist Lee Drutman writes, “Biden’s debate performance has, of course, cemented the number one concern that most voters have about re-electing him: he is way too old to be president. Once a negative impression sets in, it takes much more work to dislodge that impression.”

The Trumpified Supreme Court’s decision on Monday granting imperial powers to any president unscrupulous enough to use them has raised the stakes of the election tremendously, and they were already too high. As it stands, Donald Trump’s advisers are already indicating that a Trump victory in November would result in not the inauguration of a president but the coronation of a caesar. If Trump wins, he will have the presidency Nixon wanted, one in which nothing the president does is illegal. Kevin Roberts, the president of the Heritage Foundation, which aspires to staff a future Trump administration, has made clear that the MAGA right contemplates using this newfound imperial power to employ political violence against its opposition. “We are in the process of the second American Revolution, which will remain bloodless if the left allows it to be,” Roberts told the far-right network Real America News. Trump’s supporters seem less to wish to govern than to rule indefinitely by force, and they believe that the Court has given them its blessing.

For that reason, Democratic Representative Lloyd Doggett of Texas on Tuesday called for Biden to withdraw from the race. But that is insufficient. If Biden is incapable of campaigning because of his deterioration, he is also not capable of being president. And if he is incapable of being president, then he should resign and allow Vice President Kamala Harris to take the oath of office.

Whoever holds the office should be in full control of their faculties. It does no good to point out that Trump was deranged but energetic at the debate, that he rambles incoherently, that he is a criminal, an authoritarian, and a racist. It is obviously, incontestably true that a senile president with a competent and ethical staff would be preferable to an authoritarian one who wants to fill his administration with guys who sound like school-shooter manifestos. But unfortunately Trump is propped up by a cult of personality whose members will not abandon him no matter what he does, and if Biden is unfit to debate and campaign, then he is also not fit to govern.

The earlier Biden resigns, the faster the Democratic Party can move to reunite behind the new nominee and concentrate its efforts on keeping Trump from returning to the White House. Harris would become the party’s presumptive nominee, enjoying the prestige and advantages of incumbency. She is also the only candidate who can legally access the financial war chest the Biden campaign has amassed. As Brian Beutler writes, “it’s impossible to identify the most prudent path forward with certainty.” There is no clear way to know if Harris is a politically riskier option than Biden. But if Biden’s mental state is as bad as it appeared at the debate, then there is no other choice.

Some Democrats fear the prospect of a Harris candidacy—perhaps even enough to wish for Biden to hang on until the election, despite the dangers. They worry that she will only exacerbate the appeal of Trump’s implicit promise to restore racial and gender hierarchies. Indeed, Trump’s brain trust designed his 2016 campaign around the belief that the recent Republican nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney had failed to mobilize demoralized white voters because they had not been overtly racist enough, and that the path to victory lay through deliberate racial polarization.

Given Biden’s condition, the Trump campaign will try to stoke irrational fears about a potential Harris presidency anyway. And the hypothetical, driven as it is by lurid right-wing fantasies, will necessarily be worse than the reality. That is, Harris can begin to defuse apocalyptic right-wing arguments against her—that she is some kind of left-wing radical who will render the country unrecognizable—by governing wisely for the remainder of the term. The strongest rebuttal to the racist caricatures of Barack Obama was always his own public conduct. Besides, as The New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie notes, passing over Harris with a brokered convention or some other process would also risk demobilizing key Democratic constituencies by confirming the worst caricatures of the party: that since Obama, the party is content to have ethnic minorities as foot soldiers, surrogates, and subordinates, but not as leaders.

If Biden merely steps aside as the nominee, then the Trump campaign can play on racist fears of what a Harris presidency might bring, in a dark echo of the lurid 19th-century warnings of “Negro domination.” The phrase “DEI president” will be on Fox News faster than the Millenium Falcon can do the Kessel Run. But if Harris has actually governed the country—albeit for a short time—then those warnings become less believable. Americans will be able to judge her intentions for themselves. In picking a running mate, Harris should follow Obama’s example when he chose Biden, and select a moderate who can help assuage the inevitable smear campaign she will face, charging that she is a closet radical. Harris, by her own example, is best positioned to defuse any race-baiting in which the Trump campaign engages. Although a new vice president would have to be confirmed by the House and Senate, rendering her choice vulnerable to Republican obstruction, the Senate rules can be altered to eliminate the chance to filibuster such a choice. The House is a bigger risk, given the GOP majority’s fealty to Trump.

Biden’s inner circle will probably feel that this is all deeply unfair to him. After all, the president’s domestic-policy success has been underappreciated. Wages are up, unemployment is low, manufacturing is increasing, the economy has been growing for four years, and the alternative-energy industry that may mitigate the impact of climate change and divest America from its dependence on fossil fuels is booming. Biden has been an enthusiastic supporter and protector of organized labor. The United States had the strongest post-pandemic economic recovery of any Western nation, and although the supply shock that followed the pandemic induced a period of painful inflation, even that has begun to subside, with wages outpacing inflation.

If the basis of Trumpism were simply economic rather than social and political, Biden would be something close to the president Trumpist intellectuals said they wanted. He has put money in the pockets of low-wage workers, revitalized American industry, and, thanks to recent agreements with Mexico, stemmed a rise in illegal immigration that has been the subject of hysterical right-wing propaganda. Even crime is down dramatically from the Trump era. But Trumpism is about offering status, hierarchy, and domination to its rank-and-file voters in exchange for an upward redistribution of power and income to its elites, and that is not what Biden is offering.

I understand that many liberals and Democrats feel that the political press has been out to destroy Biden. I’ve observed that newsrooms have moved right in framing and tone since 2020, likely a reaction to the common criticism that they were too harsh on Trump and too supportive of the protests that followed George Floyd’s death. The coverage incentives have also shifted—the Biden era has been bad for the media business, but panicked, highly educated liberals are loyal readers, subscribers, and sharers. But more than that, there’s the simple bias toward novelty: Compared with Biden’s apparent deterioration, Trumpist criminality and authoritarianism is old news. These incentives, which have shaped the negative coverage of the Biden presidency, will not entirely change if Harris assumes the office; she will face her own gantlet of negative coverage and harsh scrutiny, some of which is a necessary part of running for president.

But the simple fact remains that if one believes Biden cannot campaign or debate successfully, then he cannot run the country presently. The Constitution contemplates a scenario in which someone would need to take the place of a president who is so diminished, and that someone is the vice president. Biden should step aside from both the campaign and the presidency, and allow Harris to take her best shot at saving the country from those who would destroy it.

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