Joe Biden is very old. He was very old when he became the Democratic presidential nominee in the summer of 2020. He was even older when he became the oldest president ever to take the oath of office the following January. Now, at age 80—he turns 82 between Election Day and what he hopes to be his second inauguration in 2024—he is, by a considerable distance, the oldest person to ever be president. Think Ronald Reagan was old? He was—but not as old as Biden. (For the record, he was 77 when he left office in 1989 to spend the rest of his days splitting his time between his ranch and Nakatomi Plaza.)
Joe Biden’s first two years in office have been defined by unexpected, unpredictable events: the outbreak of the largest, most destructive armed conflict in Europe since World War II; record inflation; the chaos that followed America’s exit from Afghanistan. Still, as the 2024 presidential race begins to heat up—the GOP presidential primary appears to have begun in earnest last week—there is a general sense among Democrats that the Biden presidency has gone better than expected. Yes, his approval rating has been stubbornly low since the United States pulled out of Afghanistan in August of 2021. But inflation is dipping, a long-predicted recession has yet to materialize, and the administration eked out a string of legislative accomplishments in the back half of last year. Somehow Biden’s presidency is at once a disappointment—there is a palpable sense that more should have been accomplished while the Democrats held narrow majorities in Congress—and yet arguably the most accomplished Democratic tenure in generations. Which may be a low bar, but isn’t nothing.
Still, there’s the nagging matter of the president’s age. Joe Biden is really old! And he is going to keep getting older. As such, there have been a growing number of stories in which Democrats gripe and grumble that Biden’s age is a problem. But these stories really reveal a second, related anxiety: that things would get considerably worse if Biden didn’t run. “Nobody wants to be the one to do something that would undermine the chances of a Democratic victory in 2024,” Minnesota Congressman Dean Phillips told Politico last week. “Yet in quiet rooms the conversation is just the opposite—we could be at a higher risk if this path is cleared.” No one’s saying it out loud, but that “higher risk” is Kamala Harris at the top of the ticket.
As the aforementioned Politico article reveals, much of the discourse surrounding Biden’s age involves anxieties over Harris and her status as the next in line. That this is mostly an unspoken worry is understandable—this is a morbid topic. It’s clear that some Democrats are simply apprehensive about the possibility of Biden either dying or becoming otherwise indisposed during the election, which would leave Harris—a figure many have soured on during her underwhelming spell as vice president—responsible for leading the party to victory. The risk is considerable: The White House—and, by extension, President Trump or to an infinitesimally smaller degree, President DeSantis—is at stake. Simply replacing Harris is hardly an option: It would be an acknowledgment that all was not well in the White House.
But some of these anxious stares are aimed over Harris’s shoulder, toward another source of consternation. The Democratic bench just isn’t that good. It’s possible that a competitive primary would unearth a hidden gem—maybe Whitmer Mania or Pritzker Fever would take hold. But generally speaking, the Democratic field would look similar to the one voters saw in 2020, minus its two most dynamic candidates, octogenarians Biden and Bernie Sanders. No one seems particularly energized by that possibility, for understandable reasons.
Still, were Biden not to run in 2024, it would be highly unlikely that Harris wouldn’t face a competitive primary—Democrats haven’t given much indication that they would clear the field for her to grab the nomination uncontested. They would have the opportunity to select whomever they thought had the best chance to beat Trump or DeSantis—and there’s no guarantee it would be Harris. (Some of the anxiety, per Politico, comes from the sheer exhaustion of dealing with Harris’s online fanbase, who aggressively defend from all slights, real and perceived. These are a real and annoying group of people but the idea that they are a strong enough pressure group to dictate the Democratic nominee for president would make a lot more sense if she hadn’t flamed out of the last party primary so quickly.)
But for all the ways Democrats have tied themselves in knots over the past two years, fretting about Harris and her political acumen, she is probably not as bad a potential nominee as many presume. The public holds her in roughly equal estimation to Biden: Her approval number (about 40 percent) is slightly lower than the president’s, but her disapproval number (about 52 percent) is as well. It’s obviously true that her time spent within a heartbeat of the presidency has not gone as well as Harris might have hoped. She is trapped in a real-life version of the world depicted in Veep: Her policy portfolio is small, she seems to rarely be involved in important decisions, and is often shunted off to insignificant, ribbon-cutting events.
But Harris is hardly the first vice president to struggle in the shadows. Nearly every vice president since the creation of the position has complained about the job incessantly, starting with our first two—Thomas Jefferson and John Adams—and continuing more or less unabated through the historical record. “Being vice president is comparable to a man in a cataleptic fit,” said Woodrow Wilson’s, Thomas Marshall. “He cannot speak; he cannot move; he suffers no pain; he is perfectly conscious of all that goes on, but has no part in it.” The low point of Lyndon Johnson’s political career was his tenure as John F. Kennedy’s vice president, when he was systematically shut out from power. Joe Biden’s eight years as vice president were slightly more active but only just—it is a period in which Biden is as well-remembered as the Camaro-waxing character in The Onion for anything he did. (Probably all would agree they had an easier time than Mike Pence, if only because their running mates did not sic a howling mob upon them.)
But the attendant humiliations of serving as vice president have not hampered a lot of political careers. It is as bad and as useless a job as ever, but it hasn’t been much of a drag on anyone’s long-term political career or performance. Two of the last six presidents served as vice president before winning election—a third, Al Gore, would have, had it not been for an activist Supreme Court that nullified the will of the people. Harris is, to be fair, a clunky politician; it’s unclear what, if anything, she’s passionate about. But that has been true of plenty of vice presidents.
Still, the larger point remains: Democrats are worried about something they can’t do very much about; a problem that they had more than enough time to think over before building the Biden bandwagon in 2020. There were numerous occasions where they could have said no and a number of younger candidates who the party’s elites could have swung behind en masse. Joe Biden is very old. His vice president is not especially inspiring. There is no one waiting in the wings who seems like a sure thing. All of that is stressful but at least it’s predictable. If this is a trap, it’s one that Democrats knew about and walked backward into anyway. Now they have to make the best of what’s around—but there are far worse things to worry about.