It takes so much to get to the White House, you just don’t walk away. Unless circumstances intervene, like they did with Lyndon Johnson in 1968 and Harry Truman in 1952. Both were deeply unpopular presidents and chose to retire, rather than risk possible humiliation with the voters.
In fact, over the past century, only one U.S. president chose to step aside when he had no political or economic reason to, and that was Calvin Coolidge in 1928. Given the booming economy of the Roaring ‘20s, “Silent Cal” almost certainly would have been re-elected.
Two years into his presidency, Joe Biden is in-between. The U.S. economy is doing better than most folks think, but this isn’t the Roaring ’20s. And Biden isn’t in the dumps like Truman or Johnson, whose Gallup poll approval rating among Americans was around 24% and 36%, respectively, when they bowed out.
So Biden can legitimately make a case for seeking re-election in 2024, except for this: age. Biden, 80, already is the oldest U.S. president ever and would be almost 82 on Election Day in 2024. Most Americans — including most Democrats — say they’d prefer someone else. (Meanwhile, a recent CNN/SSRS poll shows that six in 10 Republicans and GOP-leaning independents want their party to nominate someone other than Donald Trump to represent the party in 2024.
But even beyond worries about his age, there are several reasons why Biden shouldn’t run.
The first is that presidents often get into trouble in second terms. Richard Nixon resigned. Ronald Reagan had Iran-Contra, a huge scandal that saw 11 administration staffers indicted. Bill Clinton was impeached.
Then there is this: Second terms are often less economically successful than first terms. That’s according to a study conducted by The Economist, going back to the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09). Why? For the simple reason that “presidents who are elected for a second term are more likely to have had a good first term, making their second term look worse by comparison.” The magazine describes this phenomenon as “survivorship bias.” Yet there have been noteworthy exceptions, including Reagan and Clinton, each of whom presided over robust economies in their second terms.
What about the Biden economy? Republicans say it’s all bad, of course, and inflation (a global phenomenon) has given them plenty of ammo. Yet recent data shows food and energy prices falling 0.5% in December, a hopeful sign that the worst is over.
An objective look at a variety of other data — overall GDP growth, 11 million jobs added, 3.5% unemployment and a federal deficit that has dropped 56% since 2020 —the macro picture is arguably healthier than the so-called conventional wisdom would appear to suggest.
“ Debt is completely bipartisan: It grows under both Democrats and Republicans. ”
What about the federal debt? Politicians and the public have amnesia about this. About one-quarter of the current debt piled up on Donald Trump’s watch — the first two years of which had a Republican-controlled House and Senate — and yet we’re told it’s all Biden’s fault. The fact is the debt is completely bipartisan: It grows under both Democrats and Republicans. Amnesia and hypocrisy make it harder to acknowledge, much less address this and other problems.
Back to Biden. What if he drops a LBJ-type bombshell and announces that he won’t run? A slew of Democrats are waiting in the wings. The top three, according to a Washington Post analysis are U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Vice President Kamala Harris and a relatively new name: Colorado Gov. Jared Polis. Buttigieg and Harris are card-carrying progressives; Polis a bit less so.
This suggests economic proposals that hew to the left on everything from expanded Medicare to immigration. Implementing them won’t be cheap, and could cause trouble in down-ballot races, including the Senate, where 23 of 34 seats up for grabs in 2024 are currently occupied by Democrats and Independents.
But you think that Democrats are the tax and spenders? Republicans, now in control of the House, recently floated the idea of a 30% national sales tax on everything from gas to groceries. The revenue, they claim, would replace both a federal income tax and the Internal Revenue Service, which would be abolished. The GOP proposes to actually expand the federal bureaucracy by creating a giant new government agency, the “Sales Tax Bureau and Excise Tax Bureau.” This has about as much chance of passing as I have of tossing the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl.
Here’s an interesting data point to chew on: Since 1992, Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. And yet there hasn’t been a double-digit margin presidential win in an even longer period — 40 years — since the Reagan landslide of 1984. In our bitterly divided country, there’s no reason to think, at this point, that 2024 will be different. The question is this: Which presidential candidate will be able to win the middle without alienating their party’s far-left or far-right base?