President Joe Biden walks across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Friday, April 21, 2023, as he heads to Marine One to travel to Camp David for the weekend. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Joe Biden is reportedly readying to announce his reelection bid. News reports say that the 80-year-old will declare his 2024 candidacy as soon as this week. If successful, as we all know by now, he would be 86 when his second term ends in January 2029.  

Should Democrats be fearful of this unprecedented reelection bid by an octogenarian, or should they see it as a not ideal situation but one that’s better than the likely alternatives? I think the latter.  

Let’s start with what seems obvious. The presidency is the hardest job in the world, as my fellow Time White House reporter John Dickerson noted in his eponymous book. The office is impossibly demanding because of the growth of the federal government, the dangers of world war, and the treacherous political and media landscape a modern president must navigate. It’s hard to disagree with Leon Panetta, President Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff, who Dickerson quotes as saying: “The modern presidency has gotten out of control.”  

Given this, knowing that Biden’s medical reports have been satisfactory is less than reassuring. Plus, anyone watching Biden can see him aging, as all presidents tend to do in dramatic fashion. This is true from Biden’s gait to the way he speaks. (Granted, he’s always dealt courageously and admirably with a stutter.) Biden’s bid will make his age a central issue even if his opponent on election day is a doughy 77-year-old Donald Trump. Polling shows Americans think Biden’s too old to run for president, and that number will likely rise after grueling GOP attacks.  

But Biden has been able to do the job well, and he’s done it in better physical shape than previous presidents who overcame worse infirmities. In 1944, when Franklin D. Roosevelt sought an unprecedented fourth term, he was only 62 years old, but his health was so bad that he could not attend his nominating convention in Chicago. When inaugurated in January 1945, the ceremony was held at the White House because the president wanted a simple and brief affair during wartime, with no parade. The 556-word address FDR delivered was the shortest inaugural speech since George Washington’s, and the whole ceremony was over in 12 minutes. Onlookers who caught a glimpse of the frail president were taken aback. “I feel dreadful,” former First Lady Edith Wilson, the widow of former President Woodrow Wilson, told labor secretary Frances Perkins. “He looks exactly as my husband did when he went into his decline.” Still, FDR had been well enough to prosecute the war’s end and help secure the peace.  

Ronald Reagan, we now know, was slowing down considerably—perhaps with early onset Alzheimer’s, perhaps not—when he left office in 1989. (Reagan wrote a public letter in 1994 announcing that he’d had the disease. He lived another 10 years.) Yet Reagan, who was reelected at 73 and left office a few days before his 78th birthday, managed to preside over the end of the Cold War and pass significant legislation in his second term, including welfare reform and arms control agreements. Woodrow Wilson was largely incapacitated by a stroke during his last year in office, and had there been a 25th Amendment, it would indeed have been invoked.  

Barring a cataclysmic health decline, Biden will be in better shape in a second term than Reagan, FDR, and certainly Wilson. That may sound like the soft bigotry of low expectations, but it’s where we’re at.  

Can Biden win and stave off the cataclysm of a second Donald Trump term? Polls suggest he can, if only because the qualities that make the New Yorker the likely GOP nominee also make him unacceptable to a plurality of voters in a general election. A new AP-NORC poll shows 53 percent of Americans say they definitely wouldn’t vote for Trump versus 41 percent for Biden. And Biden has a good record to run on—substantial legislative achievements delivered with the most minuscule of majorities. They include the American Rescue Plan Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, The bipartisan infrastructure law, the Inflation Reduction Act, and an unexpected gun safety compromise. When you throw in GDP growth, robust job increases month after month, and delivery of COVID-19 vaccines to all who wanted them, it’s a remarkable record. No one is delighted by how we left Afghanistan. Still, that war is over, and the alternative to the U.S. departure would have been renewed fighting with the Taliban, not the tense ceasefire that preceded our hasty exit. The economy has its woes, but inflation is cooling while the job market remains strong, tech layoffs aside. Biden has a record that’s arguably stronger than what propelled Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to second terms. His job approval at this juncture is an unenviable 42.3 percent, in the FiveThirtyEight average, but that’s higher than where Ronald Reagan was at this point in his first term. Bottom line: While Biden could, of course, lose, there’s lots of reason to believe that he won’t. 

Let’s imagine Biden surprises everyone and chooses not to run. Will what follows be an exciting and energizing debate among fresh faces in the Democratic firmament—the likes of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, Colorado Governor Jared Polis, Senator (and Reverend) Raphael Warnock? Maybe. But it’s at least as likely Vice President Kamala Harris would be the nominee. She starts with the inherent advantage of being the vice president and has already received the votes of over 81 million Americans. Her status as the first female, first Black, and first South Asian vice president will make it hard for any Democrat to challenge her. Her allies warn that attacks on the former senator are tantamount to disrespecting Black women, arguably the base of the Democratic Party. Karen Finney told Tara Palmieri of Puck, “To my mind, I won’t entertain [removing Harris from the ticket]—Black voters would read it as Well, you don’t value what we bring to the table. As Black women, we bring our community out to vote. Are you really going to tell Black voters you’re not interested?” I think Finney’s argument (or warning) would likely hold sway. Harris might lose a nominating contest, but I wouldn’t bet on it.  

If Harris is the nominee, could she prevail over Trump or another Republican? There’s no way to know, but there are reasons to doubt it. George H.W. Bush was the last vice president to go straight from the No. 2 slot to being elected president. Before that, you have to go back to Martin Van Buren. Vice presidents have a tough time reaching the presidency for reasons fair and unfair. They tend to be criticized and have few accomplishments to show in an office that John Nance Garner, FDR’s veep for his first two terms, called a “warm bucket of spit.” (Or piss.) Garner tried to challenge FDR in 1940, and that went nowhere.  

Harris has many great qualities. She is intelligent, charismatic, and interesting. A Black woman doesn’t get to be the attorney general and a U.S. Senator from our most populous state by being inept. But you don’t have to be a Harris detractor to wonder what’s happened during her three years in office. Granted, she was given no-win assignments from the administration—immigration and border security and passing a voting rights bill that couldn’t clear a Senate filibuster. It will be an enduring mystery why Harris, an obvious veep choice in the post-George Floyd environment of 2020, didn’t adopt crime and police reform as signature issues when she became vice president. As a prosecutor and African American, she was uniquely positioned to argue for strengthening law enforcement and promoting justice for minority Americans targeted by the police. For reasons I don’t understand, this bit of casting never happened. 

Democrats should worry that she will lose if Biden is not the nominee and Harris is. The country might elect her over a felonious Trump, but it might not. It might not reelect Biden either, but his chances seem better. Hillary Clinton faced challenges that were sui generis. Still, the 2016 campaign exposed a degree of sexism regarding the presidency that would, I think, make it hard for any Democratic female nominee to win. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think so.  

That leaves Democrats, perhaps reluctantly, with the urgency of delivering a second term for an aging Joe Biden. That’s not an ideal situation, but it could be worse. Since World War II, most presidents have been reelected—Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush. John F. Kennedy likely would have been. To lose, you need to draw a bad hand à la Jimmy Carter, who faced a hostage crisis, Ted Kennedy, and a miserable economy; George H.W. Bush, who endured a recession, Pat Buchanan, and Ross Perot; and Donald Trump, who was his own disaster. Biden has the kind of record that leads to reelection. Yes, his age is unprecedented, but so would losing with his record.  

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Matthew Cooper

Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattizcoop. Matthew Cooper is Executive Editor Digital at the Washington Monthly. He is also a contributing editor of the magazine and a veteran reporter who has covered politics and the White House for Time, The New Republic, Washingtonian, National Journal and many other publications.