NIALL FERGUSON: I urged Biden to run for President in 2016, now I implore him to do the smart thing and retire
It is late February 2024 and President Joe Biden is addressing the nation. Just a few weeks previously, he has performed poorly in the Democratic presidential primary in South Carolina — with a shocking number of defections to the maverick anti-vaccine candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Viewers are expecting an update on foreign policy. The news is currently dominated by the unexpected success of the Russian winter offensive in Ukraine. But it’s his sign-off that takes the world by surprise.
‘With America’s future under challenge right here at home . . . I do not believe I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office. . . Accordingly I shall not seek, and will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.’
It could happen because something very like it has happened before — in March 1968, when Lyndon Johnson announced his decision not to run for re-election.
Johnson was not an old man — he was 59 — but he had been plagued by health problems since suffering a serious heart attack in 1955.
Even so, it was a hard decision and Johnson might have changed his mind if he had performed better in the New Hampshire primary two weeks earlier.
It is late February 2024 and President Joe Biden is addressing the nation. Just a few weeks previously, he has performed poorly in the Democratic presidential primary in South Carolina — with a shocking number of defections to the maverick anti-vaccine candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr
This week, he left the Brazilian President Lula da Silva (far right) visibly frustrated when he wandered offstage at the United Nations without shaking hands
Why do I think Joe Biden will follow LBJ’s example? First, as with LBJ, for health reasons. Biden was born on November 20, 1942. He will be 81 by the time of the next election, and 82 by the time he’s sworn in if he wins. The next-oldest U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, left the White House in 1989 when he was 77.
Everyone has seen the clips of Biden falling off a bike near his Delaware beach house last year or tripping over a sandbag at the Air Force Academy commencement a few months ago.
This week, he left the Brazilian President Lula da Silva visibly frustrated when he wandered offstage at the United Nations without shaking hands. Earlier, Biden had stumbled into the Brazilian flag and nearly knocked it over.
READ MORE: Biden LEADS Trump in New Hampshire poll – but just 35% think he can complete a second term and dissatisfaction remains high for BOTH
I have met Joe Biden on multiple occasions over the years. I urged him to run for President in 2016, when he would have performed better than Hillary Clinton. The last time we were together — on St Patrick’s Day, 2018, in the second year of Donald Trump’s presidency — we joked about what might have been.
Biden has aged precipitously since then. An August survey from Associated Press/NORC found that 77 per cent of Americans, including 69 per cent of Democrats, think he is too old for another four-year term.
Nearly three quarters of respondents to a poll published earlier this month by the Wall Street Journal said the same.
Biden’s age is a major reason why he and Trump are neck and neck in the most recent polls, even though Trump faces four criminal indictments. Indeed, the polling average published by RealClearPolitics puts Trump narrowly ahead at 45.1 per cent versus 44.6.
Whichever way you dice the polling data, Biden is in a weak position. His net approval rating is minus 12 per cent. At this stage in his presidency, Trump was on minus 11.6 per cent. With 42 per cent approval, Joe Biden is currently better off than Jimmy Carter in 1979, but in a similar position to Gerald Ford and much worse off than George H. W. Bush at the same stage. All of them failed to secure re-election.
Considering how strong the U.S. economy currently looks, an amazing share of Americans — 64 per cent — think the country is on the ‘wrong track’ compared with 57 per cent at this stage in Trump’s presidency.
And then there’s the problem with Biden junior. Since 2018, the Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigations, and Internal Revenue Service have been investigating Hunter Biden’s tax affairs, drug use, foreign business dealings, and gun purchases.
On October 3, the President’s son will be arraigned in person at a Delaware federal court on three criminal counts: of possessing a gun in 2018, while he was an illegal drug user, and lying in order to buy it. Hunter’s lawyers have indicated he will plead not guilty.
Next week, the House of Representatives Oversight Committee will hold its first impeachment inquiry hearing, the goal of which will be to establish the extent of the President’s involvement in his son’s somewhat murky business dealings, notably in Ukraine and China. The White House has called the hearing a ‘political stunt’.
Biden has aged precipitously since then. An August survey from Associated Press/NORC found that 77 per cent of Americans, including 69 per cent of Democrats, think he is too old for another four-year term
At a time when Americans’ trust in politicians is at a low point, the Hunter Biden story hurts his father politically by inviting the response: ‘All politicians are crooks, so why worry about Trump’s misdemeanours?’
The worse the polling gets for Biden, the more Democrats talk privately about the need for a Plan B. After all, they backed Joe Biden in 2020 precisely to avoid a second Trump term.
And, as the case of Lyndon Johnson shows, it would not be the first time a president has bowed out of a re-election race. In fact, a total of six presidents have voluntarily forgone a run for a second term: James Polk in 1848, James Buchanan in 1860, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880, Calvin Coolidge in 1928, Harry Truman in 1952, and LBJ in 1968.
Both Truman and Johnson waited until the primaries had begun before making their decision. Both were presiding over unpopular wars — in Korea and Vietnam, respectively.
Today, by contrast, Biden has already said he is running next year; the war in Ukraine isn’t being fought by Americans; and it’s much harder for a late change of plan because of the complexity of the modern primary system. To be on Democratic primary ballots, candidates must meet all 50 states’ ballot access deadlines, which range from October 2023 (for early states such as Nevada) to March 2024.
READ MORE: Biden gives Kamala ANOTHER job: President taps VP to run the first ever federal gun violence prevention office
That poses a problem for mainstream Democrats, none of whom wishes to seem disloyal to Biden. Two less serious challengers, Robert Kennedy and self-help author Marianne Williamson, are already running against Biden. But others are holding back.
There would be less of a headache if Vice President Kamala Harris were either popular or competent, but she is neither. Her approval rating is, in fact, slightly lower than Biden’s. Yet Biden is adamant that he will not dump her from the ticket, although he certainly has the option to do that. If he dropped out after the primaries had begun, she would be hard to dislodge.
If Biden drops out before the primaries begin, however, then California Governor Gavin Newsom or Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro would both be stronger contenders than Harris.
Other Democrats who might run include Governor J. B. Pritzker of Illinois, who certainly has the money to finance a presidential campaign, and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy.
My money is on Newsom. For those unfamiliar with the tall, lean, and good-looking Newsom, 55, it’s worth watching his interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity three months ago. True, in Newsom’s time as governor since 2019 (and before that as lieutenant governor from 2011), California has sunk deeper into social difficulties.
Yet Newsom — who was briefly married to Kimberly Guilfoyle, later an adviser to Donald Trump — shows every sign of being ready to pivot to the political centre. And he could beat Trump simply by being young and presentable.
Newsom’s problem is that only Joe Biden can decide on whether or not he should follow Lyndon Johnson’s example. He is still the President, after all. And even a president in his dotage takes orders from nobody.
The first Democratic presidential primary election in South Carolina is on February 3. The Democratic convention is August 19-22. At some point between now and the latter date, my hunch is that Sleepy Joe will make way for Slick Gavin. But first Biden has to wake up to the fact that otherwise Donald Trump is going to win.
That, too, has been done before — by Grover Cleveland, who served two non-consecutive terms in the 1880s and 1890s. The more Democrats imagine Trump repeating that feat, the greater the pressure on Biden to do one last smart thing. Retire.
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