It looks like Biden or Bust in 2024 for Democrats

Axios reports that Joe Biden’s reelection effort is already underway, with his team preparing for a divided Congress and refocusing on “diplomatic engagements to emphasize Biden’s statesman role, day trips to swing states and special attention for key Democratic constituencies.”

If the 2022 midterms had turned into the debacle for Democrats that many expected — including myself — it would have done the Democratic Party a favor by forcing them to recognize the electoral weakness of Joe Biden without Donald Trump as a foe for contrast. A midterm wipeout would have forced Democrats to kick-start the process of considering other options.

Those election results are helping obscure the fact that Biden is still in really rough shape by the standard measures. His approval rating is still around 41 percent. The right-track/wrong-direction numbers still look terrible. Americans are still down about the state of the economy and are pessimistic about the future. In conditions like these, Democrats would have gotten thrashed by normal Republican opponents — and when Democrats faced the likes of DeSantis, Marco Rubio, Brian Kemp, Mike DeWine, Chris Sununu, and Kim Reynolds, they did get thrashed.

But the electorate looked at abnormal Republican challengers such as Mehmet Oz, Blake Masters, Don Bolduc, and Tudor Dixon and said, “no thanks.” Biden enjoyed the best midterm cycle for an incumbent president since 2002, and in one fell swoop, severely undermined the arguments for the Democrats who were eyeing a primary challenge in 2024. Even the uber-ambitious California governor Gavin Newsom told Biden on Election Night that he was dropping his interest in running in the next cycle. (At least publicly, and at least for now.)

This means that Democrats will ride or die (metaphorically) with the octogenarian Biden. The soft-campaign notion that Axios describes isn’t quite the “basement campaign” that Biden used in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, but it doesn’t sound like preparation for an all-out relentless campaign anytime soon, either. Biden’s schedule usually features one event a day, and he’s still spending almost every weekend at his home in Delaware. Biden’s Thanksgiving break began on Tuesday, November 22, and other than a brief visit to a firehouse and a call-in to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, he didn’t appear at a public event again until 1:30 p.m. yesterday.

During that firehouse visit, Biden declared that, “The idea we still allow semiautomatic weapons to be purchased is sick. It’s just sick. It has no, no social redeeming value. Zero. None. Not a single, solitary rationale for it except profit for the gun manufacturers.” A few days later, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre had to clarify that Biden meant to say assault weapons, not semiautomatic weapons. (If Democrats feel they are unfairly accused of wanting to ban almost all privately owned firearms, it would help if the president would stop going before the television cameras and expressing a desire to ban almost all privately owned firearms.)

By the time the general election rolls around, Biden will be 81 and approaching 82. The fact that other Democrats won their races in the midterms doesn’t actually change anything about the president’s age, health, and ability to perform his duties — and during the autumn, Biden’s odd behavior and statements added up. (I originally wrote “during the fall” and realized readers might think I was referring to Biden’s bicycle accident.)

Deep in the New York Times’ most recent article about the aging president, the paper cautiously addressed the issue of whether Biden is losing whatever mental edge he once had:

Once people reach 65, the risk of dementia doubles every five years, said Dr. Gill Livingston, a psychiatrist at University College London, who led a commission on dementia in 2020 that was convened by The Lancet, a medical journal. In general, she said, in high-income countries like the United States, dementia will affect 10 percent of people aged 80 to 84 and 20 percent of those aged 85 to 89.

Mr. Biden did not undergo cognitive screening during his last physical, and experts are divided about its necessity for older adults. In 2019, the American Academy of Neurologists recommended annual screenings for those 65 and older because “age itself is a significant risk factor for cognitive decline.” But in 2020, a federal panel of independent experts declined to endorse it, saying there was not enough research to determine the “balance of benefits and harms.”

Several experts say doctors typically perform cognitive screening tests only when there is evidence of a problem; Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, Mr. Biden’s chief medical adviser, who will be 82 on Christmas Eve and will soon retire from federal service, said in an interview that he has never had one.

Right now, Biden’s state of mind adds up to odd gaffes, meandering, self-aggrandizing stories that rarely seem relevant to whatever’s being discussed, spontaneous speculation that the conflict in Ukraine could lead to “Armageddon,” repeated insistence that Beau Biden died in Iraq, and tone-deaf boasts that would turn into genuine political liabilities if Americans hadn’t already gotten into the habit of ignoring them. (“The economy is strong as hell.”)

Most Americans can see and hear those statements and senior moments now, roll their eyes, shrug, and go about their daily lives. The question is whether at some point, these tics, blunders, and memory lapses turn into something more consequential. How did Vladimir Putin interpret Biden’s “minor incursion” remark before the invasion of Ukraine? Do hostile foreign leaders think Biden is too old to effectively respond to their provocations? Could some off-the-cuff Biden statement about the economy freak out the already tumultuous financial markets?

Or have we reached the point where the Biden team’s “administrative state” operates on a form of bureaucratic autopilot, where the president’s decisions are an afterthought and his statements are irrelevant to what the executive branch actually does? Could Biden address the United Nations General Assembly and ramble for 20 minutes about Corn Pop and his exploits as a pool lifeguard in Wilmington, and everyone in the world would just shrug it off as “Biden being Biden”?

In the next two years — and forever after, really — our lives are going to confront what Harold Macmillan called, “Events, my dear boy, events.”

We don’t know how the economy will perform next year and the year after that, but economists project a bumpy ride. For what it’s worth, many economists expect a recession next year — Bloomberg put the odds of one at 100 percent* — and also, for what it’s worth, Mohamed El-Erian is warning this morning that the consensus prediction of a short and shallow recession is uncomfortably reminiscent of the “high inflation will be transitory” consensus prediction. It looks like the U.S. will avoid a massive and potentially crippling rail strike — for now. Our Dominic Pino says we’re witnessing a rare case of Biden defying the will of organized labor.

Beyond our shores, we’re witnessing rare popular uprisings and protests in China and Iran, and we don’t know how or when the Russian invasion of Ukraine is going to end.

We’re likely to have more consequential Supreme Court decisions, and there’s always a chance of an unexpected Supreme Court vacancy or two. And the Covid-19 pandemic should be a lasting lesson that you never know when life will turn upside down, with little warning.

Biden isn’t nimble or quickly adaptive; only in mid 2022 did the media conclude it was safe to cover his habitual indecisiveness and preference for putting off difficult decisions. He’s a standard-issue orator when he’s sticking to the script, and a train wreck when he ad-libs. His vice-presidential selection proved to be a dud. You could argue that even more than Barack Obama, he sticks with cabinet officials who are turning in poor performances, particularly Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

Sure, Biden looks like the safest option for Democrats now — which is not a particularly high bar to clear. But the U.S. is going to be in a different state come autumn of 2024 — maybe a better one, maybe a worse one, or maybe a mix of both. If the almost-82-year-old Biden is stumbling and bumbling on the campaign trail and debate stage in late 2024, Democrats may wish they had examined other options as a presidential nominee when they had the chance.

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