Could Joe Biden be the most consequential American president of our times?
Speculation over US President Joe Biden’s intention to run for office again is reaching fever pitch. Biden is, reportedly, on the verge of announcing he will indeed seek reelection. Opinion pieces are being churned out at a rapid clip. Polls are being commissioned with a feverish intensity.
Much of the focus is on one apparently simple question: is the 80-year-old Biden too old to run for reelection in 2024? He would be 82 at the start of a second term, and 86 by the time he left office.
Nikki Haley, the former UN ambassador and South Carolina governor, sought to fire up the Republican Party’s base after announcing her presidential campaign earlier this month, making the not-so-subtle proposal that politicians aged over 75 submit to mandatory cognitive testing.
The president’s age is, clearly, a matter of concern. But the intensity of the questioning over this issue is striking. It would be easy to believe this is the most pressing question for American politics right now.
Meanwhile, only last week, the dangerously influential Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor-Greene tweeted the United States needed a “national divorce” between red and blue states.
Just over two years ago, Donald Trump, the former president, incited an insurrection that very nearly succeeded. Today, his followers are openly invoking the spectre of secession.
Is Biden’s age really the dominant question?
The relentless focus on Biden’s age is indicative of an uncomfortable reality. The vast bulk of the American media establishment is incapable of grasping the true significance and dangers of the current political moment.
As Biden contemplates a re-election campaign, he is grappling with a potentially catastrophic breakdown in democracy facilitated by a group of fanatical and influential Republicans that explicitly believe in minority authoritarian government based on racist disenfranchisement.
At the same time, the United States is experiencing an uneven social, economic and environmental fracturing caused by decades of destructive deregulation. The country now appears grounded in policy inertia from an increasingly gridlocked Congress.
And internationally, Biden inherited the legacy of a failed imperial project in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, which the policy establishment in the US remains unable and unwilling to think beyond.
Some observers have described this as a state of “polycrisis”, a series of disparate but interacting systemic shocks that are upending assumptions and challenging old certainties.
The most pertinent question is not Biden’s age. It is whether Biden is capable of negotiating the extraordinary ruptures in American politics. And if he is not, who is?
Biden’s place in history
In his first term, Biden has demonstrated his grasp of the pressing needs of the moment. And he has quietly established himself to be the most consequential president of our times.
The office of the US presidency personalises power to such an extent that it is often presumed it is presidents and their individual traits (such as age) that determine the course of events. But the truth is, whatever power a president has at their disposal, they remain constrained by the circumstances inherited from their predecessor and current economic and political realities. Presidencies will forever be bound by events beyond their control.
Fundamentally, what defines a presidential tenure is not the particular personality or priorities of a president, but whether they rise to the needs of the moment.
In another era, Abraham Lincoln may have been too colloquial or cerebral for national office (he was a paradoxical man). Outside the specific circumstances of the Great Depression and the second world war, Franklin Roosevelt’s patrician air may have grated too harshly on the electorate to claim a place in history. Jimmy Carter could have been lauded for his moral presidency across two terms.
The current state of the American republic means that what this president does, and what he is able to achieve, is quite simply more consequential than any other post-war president.
Viewed against the broad sweep of American history, Biden’s self-appointed task is not to win reelection. It is not to win partisan points against his opponents. In a strict sense, it is not even to accumulate a record of legislative accomplishment.
The task he has been set by this moment is the rescue and repair of American democracy.
Read more: Biden's first 100 days show a president in a hurry and willing to be bold
Biden demonstrates an awareness of this position that is rare among presidents. He has already expended considerable effort in consulting with leading historians to place his administration in the context of American history – particularly his efforts to enact large-scale reform amid crisis.
The effect of this is evident in his administration’s legislative record. Through the climate-focused Inflation Reduction Act (the largest piece of climate spending in US history), to protecting marriage equality and providing student debt relief, the Biden administration has sought to make meaningful reform without risking further instability.
Whether he succeeds in this approach – and that remains an open question – Biden is already presiding over tectonic shifts in American history. And he is all too aware of the consequences of failure.
It is within this context that Biden must determine if he will run.
A reminder of better times
There is a simple and uncomfortable reality for Democrats: no one else has as effectively demonstrated their awareness of the needs of the moment as Biden – and they are unlikely to get the chance to do so in the immediate term.
Biden has a singular capacity to communicate the seriousness of the threat to US democracy to swathes of the American public that might otherwise be disengaged or feel disenfranchised. And he does it from behind the presidential seal.
Biden may be returning lacklustre opinion poll results, but the one time the resonance of his message was put to the test was at the midterm elections. Then, Biden demonstrated a grasp of the national mood that most pundits and political professionals missed. It turns out many Americans continue to care deeply about the state of their democracy and the maintenance of institutional protections for basic rights.
Read more: Midterm election results reflect the hodgepodge of US voters, not the endorsement or repudiation of a candidate’s or party’s agenda
Biden can seem like a relic from a different age. He ambles, and he is visibly frailer than he used to be. He reminisces a lot about the good old days. He is easy to dismiss.
But he also represents something more. He represents tradition, a form of politics that is not trapped in constant, partisan trench warfare on every issue. He reminds people of a time when things got done. From a distance, we can dismiss this as misguided nostalgia. But there is nothing nostalgic in millions of Americans wishing for a government that actually governs.
Biden may be from a different time. But against the odds, the president may have found his moment.
This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Emma Shortis, RMIT University and Liam Byrne, The University of Melbourne.
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Emma Shortis is a member of the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network.
Liam Byrne does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.