Jamelle Bouie | Opinion Columnist
It was clear from an early point that barring some unforeseen circumstance, the 2024 presidential election would be a rematch between Donald Trump and Joe Biden — the first contest with two presidents on the ballot since 1912’s four-way matchup between William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, the upstart Woodrow Wilson and the long-shot socialist Eugene V. Debs. Most Americans, according to several polls conducted this year, say they do not want this.
Most Americans, a recent CBS News survey reports, think a Trump-Biden rematch — which would not be the first presidential rematch in American history — is evidence of a broken political system. But most Americans who plan to vote are nonetheless resigned to casting a ballot for either Biden or Trump next November. This palpable sense of exhaustion is perhaps the reason so many political observers have taken to speculating about a future in which Biden, at least, doesn’t run. David Ignatius wrote last week in The Washington Post that if Biden and Kamala Harris “campaign together in 2024, I think Biden risks undoing his greatest achievement — which was stopping Trump.” Likewise, Eliot Cohen wrote this summer in The Atlantic that Biden “has no business running for president at age 80.”
I find this drumbeat, which has been ongoing since at least 2022 (“Let me put this bluntly: Joe Biden should not run for re-election in 2024,” Mark Leibovich wrote last summer, also in The Atlantic. “He is too old”), to be incredibly strange, to say the least. The basic premise of a voluntary one-term presidency rests on a fundamental misconception of the role of re-election in presidential politics and presidential governance. Re-election — or rather the act of running for re-election — isn’t an unexpected treat or something ancillary to the position. It is one of the ways presidents seek to preserve their influence, whether or not they ultimately win another term of office.
“Among the many hats the president wears, none is more important to his long-term success than that of party leader,” the political scientist James W. Davis writes in a 1992 book on presidential leadership. “Unless he is skilled in the management of party affairs, especially in dealing with members of the coequal legislative branch, the president will not be able to achieve that esteemed place in history reserved for all of our great presidents.” The reason, Davis explains, is that the institutional separation of the executive and the legislature along with the fragmented nature of political authority in the American system — presidents and lawmakers of the same party, even lawmakers within the same state, do not share the same constituencies — results in large and imposing barriers to presidential ambition. But, Davis writes, “while the president faces numerous constraints in our Madisonian system of checks and balances, he nevertheless can, if he has the inclination and leadership drive, use his party ties to lead the nation to new heights.” Crucial to achieving this is the possibility of future power, which is to say, the prospect of re-election.
The promise of a second term, and thus another four years to achieve their political and ideological goals, is a critical incentive that binds lawmakers to the president in the present. This is especially true given the recent trend toward the nationalization of congressional elections, in which public esteem for the incumbent — or lack thereof — shapes the fate of the entire party. Or, as the presidential scholar Clinton Rossiter observed in a 1957 letter addressing a House committee hearing on the potential repeal of what were then recently enacted presidential term limits, “Everything in our history tells us that a president who does not or cannot seek re-election loses much of his grip in his last couple of years.”
In other words, no president wants to be a lame duck. Rossiter, it should be said, opposed the 22nd Amendment — which wrote presidential term limits into the Constitution in 1951 — as a nakedly partisan prohibition “based on the sharp anger of the moment rather than the studied wisdom of a generation.” It was, in his view, an “undisguised insult to the memory of Franklin D. Roosevelt.” There was a notion during the 2020 presidential race that Biden would be a one-term caretaker. “Biden should do the honorable thing and commit to standing aside after the completion of a successful first term,” a CNN op-ed declared. Some of Biden’s advisers even floated the idea that he would essentially step aside after winning election. “According to four people who regularly talk to Biden,” Politico’s Ryan Lizza wrote in 2019, “all of whom asked for anonymity to discuss internal campaign matters, it is virtually inconceivable that he will run for re-election in 2024, when he would be the first octogenarian president.” Even Biden himself said that he viewed himself as a “transition candidate.” Perhaps that was true in the months after he won the nomination. For reasons that should now be obvious, however, it was a fantasy.
There is no faster way to political and policy irrelevance than for a president to tell the nation he plans to step aside. Biden could be an effective, successful president or he could be a one-term, transitional figure. He cannot be both. A president who doesn’t intend to run for re-election is essentially a president who can be safely ignored as a nonentity. No one who wanted to achieve something with the office would make that pledge. Let’s also be honest about the individual in question: the kind of person, like Joe Biden, who plans and plots for a lifetime to become president is going to want to serve as long as the law, and the voting public, will allow. Absent an extraordinary turn of events, Biden will be on the ballot next year.
He wants it, much of the institutional Democratic Party wants it, and there’s no appetite among the men and women who might want to be the next Democratic president to try to take it away from him. Democrats are committed to Biden and there’s no other option, for them, but to see that choice to its conclusion.
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