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Why (and How) Biden Should Decline to Run Again

The optimistic case for Joe Biden stepping away and setting up an open democratic primary in 2024.
September 6, 2022
Why (and How) Biden Should Decline to Run Again
(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

President Biden’s approval rating is on the rise. He has now signed more consequential legislation, with slimmer margins and in less time, than any president in recent history. Inflation is down, gas prices are way down, and Democratic voter enthusiasm is up.

Meanwhile Biden’s most likely 2024 opponent is the focus of multiple criminal investigations. This potential challenger is a defeated U.S. president who chose to steal top secret documents and threaten our national security, after inspiring a deadly insurrection and trying to steal an election.

So it’s time for Biden to hang it up. Really.

In early 2023 Biden should announce that he will leave the White House in January 2025 without running for a second term. With meaningful legislative accomplishments on gun reform, bold climate action, and lowering prescription drug prices—plus a legacy of fighting to preserve democracy here and abroad—Biden is already a successful one-term president.

And better than any other sitting president in living memory, Biden is perfectly positioned to pass the torch to the next generation of leaders in his party.

Which is what he should do.

Biden is already our oldest president. He won’t get any less tired during the next two years. And while his popularity could conceivably get better, his body and mind probably won’t.

What is likely is that Republicans will win control of the House of Representatives this November. Probably by a smaller margin than originally anticipated—but this won’t stop them from spending most of 2023 and 2024 pursuing Biden’s son Hunter in what promises to be an exceptionally painful chapter for a family that has already experienced an exceptional share of pain.

Fairly or not, most Democrats want to move on from Biden. A July New York Times/Siena poll found that just 26 percent of Democratic voters wanted Biden to be nominated again. For young Democrats the numbers were even worse: 94 percent of Democrats under the age of 30 opposed the idea of a Biden reelection campaign.

Some elected Democrats, sensing this attitude, have begun inching away from the idea of Biden ’24. Reps. Dean Phillips and Angie Craig and Sen. Joe Manchin have refused to answer questions about supporting a Biden re-election campaign.

This debate will burst into the open after the midterms no matter what the result. So Democrats should quietly make it clear to the White House now that waiting too long to make the decision could injure the party’s chances of holding the presidency.

Biden should bless a spirited, open contest for the 2024 nomination that invites the entire Democratic coalition to engage in the process of repositioning the party for the future. That would be a very hard call to make. Harder still is that Biden should not endorse his vice president in such a race.

Joe Biden has always been loyal to a fault and undoubtedly he would feel a tremendous amount of loyalty to Kamala Harris. But two things should give him pause: (1) Her 20 months in office have not been successful, even by vice presidential standards. And (2) having Biden endorsing her would do Harris no favors in the long term, because if she can’t win the nomination on her own, then she probably wouldn’t stand much of a chance against Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis.

The best chance Democrats would have to hold the White House would be to let Democratic voters pick the next nominee. Recall that in 2016, Barack Obama passed over Biden to anoint Hillary Clinton. Her subsequent coronation, nearly derailed by Bernie Sanders, did not prepare her for the fight against Trump.

Relinquishing incumbency is a risk. There’s no doubt about that. There’s a reason sitting presidents are hard to beat. They have universal name ID. Everything they do is front-page news. They fly around on Air Force One. Also, sometimes primaries divide the party, rather than energizing it. (There’s a reason that the first task of every new president is to avoid a primary challenge come re-election time.)

But these are not normal times and Biden is the last American president from the Baby Boom generation. He is, by definition, standing at the generational changing of the guard. He could lean into that by celebrating the new Democratic party that is already emerging as the other Boomers in Democratic leadership positions—Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders, Jim Clyburn, Steny Hoyer, Chuck Schumer—begin standing aside.

Joe Biden is an optimist so he’d probably appreciate the glass-half-full scenario: that the Democratic party can unite after a robust primary that engages every part of its coalition. The nominee who emerges from such a debate would campaign against Trump (or his MAGA heir) to take the country in a new direction, making it both a change election and a referendum on Trumpism. Going back to a geriatric criminal madman loser who works harder for Vladimir Putin than us? Nobody wants that t-shirt. And even if the GOP nominee isn’t Trump but a mini-Trump, Democrats can still campaign as change agents against the MAGA movement and their authoritarian socialists.

Democrats competing for the nomination should meet three criteria: They must be younger, competent, and appeal to a broad coalition of Americans including in the Midwest.

Socialists need not apply because—sorry— they cannot win the Electoral College. The median voter, across the country, is a white person in their fifties without a college degree. Far-left progressives aren’t going to reach 50 percent in the Rust Belt. Period.

The landscape, since Biden bested Sanders for the nomination in 2020, has grown worse for the left. Centrist Democrats lost House seats to Republicans in surprise defeats in 2020. Mid-cycle elections and polling have shown Hispanic voters fleeing the Democratic party and there has been erosion among non-college-educated black voters as well.

A new Morning Consult poll of 8.6 million voters since 2017 found that fewer voters now identify as liberal. The data, according to Morning Consult, found “Democratic voters drifted toward the middle and Republican voters shifted further to the right.” The analysis finds that “the left is losing the battle for the minds of the American electorate.”

It is widely expected that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Gov. Gavin Newsom, Gov. J.B. Pritzker, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer are planning to run if Biden does not. Who in that group checks all three boxes?

There are other potential candidates who might meet the criteria: Gov. Jared Polis, Gov. Andy Beshear, former Gov. Steve Bullock, Sen. Mark Kelly, Sen. Raphael Warnock, Sen. Jon Ossoff, and Sen. Sherrod Brown. And Donald Trump winning the presidency has made it more than reasonable for House members to run for the presidency too. So why not Reps. Mikie Sherrill, Elissa Slotkin, or Abigail Spanberger, to name a few? Should Reps. Tim Ryan and/or Val Demings win their Senate races, they too would be compelling contenders.

Any Democrat who wants to succeed Biden will have to reckon with the lessons from the last twelve months, and the scars from the Build Back Better bummer. The failure of a larger social welfare agenda, police reform, and voting rights, prioritized by the base, didn’t prevent Biden from being a successful president. Instead, his accomplishments have largely resulted from the kind of cooperation with Republicans that many on the left thought was impossible. Biden has demonstrated that fighting extremists and protecting democracy do not preclude working with willing Republicans to find bipartisan solutions.

Had Biden, like Trump, focused solely on his base and indulged partisan grievances he could not have enacted infrastructure, veterans health care, critical semiconductor manufacturing, and long-sought new gun controls. Nor could he hope for an amended Electoral Count Act and legislation to codify the right to same-sex marriage as well—measures he could soon sign into law.

As they begin a new era and evolve as a party, Democrats can also learn from Biden that, when it comes to leadership, decency matters and patience pays off.

Biden was gracious when Clinton, chosen by Obama, lost to Trump in 2016. He was attacked by Harris during their 2020 primary, but chose her as his running mate. He rescued the nation from a second term of Trump and has made history by uniting the West against Vladimir Putin, seating the first black woman on the Supreme Court, and creating nearly five times as many jobs as the last three GOP administrations combined.

For the first time in American history, we have a president who can walk away from re-election not out of weakness, but because of his successes. And Democrats could capitalize on this by kickstarting the transition to the next generation from a position of strength, without having to go into the wilderness to rebuild.

The Democratic future doesn’t have to wait. It could start now. And Joe Biden could be its godfather.

A.B. Stoddard

A.B. Stoddard is a columnist at The Bulwark. Previously, she was associate editor and columnist at RealClearPolitics.