What if Joe Biden stays?


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Second terms have rarely been successful endeavours in recent American presidential history. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton saw their re-election afterglow quickly dissipate in the face of scandal — Iran-Contra for Reagan, Monica Lewinsky for Clinton — while George W Bush had his ground down by an unwinnable war in Iraq. 

Even Barack Obama, whose second term was tarnished neither by scandal nor war, found it nearly impossible to repeat the legislative triumphs of his first amid increasingly hysterical partisan warfare.

And it’s fair to say that those were the most “successful” two-term presidencies of the modern era. Lyndon Johnson was so overwhelmed by Vietnam that he decided to forgo re-election in 1968. The less said about Richard Nixon’s second term the better.

All of which should be a cautionary tale to Joe Biden and the team around him as they ferociously battle to retain his spot atop the Democratic presidential ticket after his disastrous debate performance. Even if we were to take their arguments at face value — that the president remains at the top of his game and can still beat Donald Trump in November — what could they imagine a second Biden term would look like given the events of the past two weeks? 

It goes without saying that any trust built up over his first four years in office is now irreparably damaged. How can anyone, be they legislative leaders on Capitol Hill or foreign dignitaries in faraway capitals, take what his administration says at face value when so many of them feel betrayed by the White House’s long-repeated insistence that the president’s wellbeing was unchanged?

Once trust is lost in an officeholder, that elusive attribute known as political capital begins to collapse. A second-term president, by definition a lame duck, already returns to office with this draining away. One that is re-elected with much of the political and geopolitical establishment believing they have been misled on something as fundamental as mental acuity is starting from an even deeper hole.

There was a moment during the post-debate furore of the past two weeks that put this point in stark relief. On July 4, with most of America distracted by fireworks, Biden held a 30-minute call with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister whom the White House is increasingly frustrated with. A senior administration official said the two men discussed Biden’s three-phase peace plan for Israel’s war in Gaza, and insisted “the conversation was detailed, going through the text of the agreement”.

It was hard to hear those words without thinking back to just a week earlier, when the president seemed unable to even remember the second and third phases of his own plan. Can Netanyahu — or any other world leader, for that matter — really take Biden seriously as a mediator on such momentous matters?

Defenders of Biden will argue that such assessments are unfair, that the president has an admirable record of galvanising allies in Ukraine and maintaining pressure on Netanyahu. Besides, some have argued, he has a strong team to manage crises. But politics is a contact sport, and his team must now grapple with a new reality: allies and foes alike will inevitably take Biden’s health into account. 

If the past two weeks are any indication, we already know what a second Biden term would look like. Any public appearance will be subjected to forensic examination for gaps in the president’s memory. Any effort to shield him from the public or the press will be met with a ferocious backlash — which could then force him to do even more public appearances, inevitably restarting the hand-wringing over his competence should a slip-up occur. And this for a politician who was gaffe-prone in the best of times.

Policy initiatives will be overshadowed by questions over who is pulling the president’s strings. Calls for regular cognitive and neurological tests will become a regular part of the political discourse. A second presidential term that was already burdened with the political disadvantages that faced Biden’s predecessors will be incalculably more difficult because of questions about his age. 

This, then, is what Biden loyalists are fighting for. It seems one of the most poisoned chalices ever on offer to a politician and his retinue. Perhaps they are right that Trump’s demagoguery and unpopularity will convince voters to back Biden regardless of doubts about his age. But is this really the presidency they wanted? Shouldn’t they be asking themselves that very question before they continue their campaign? 

peter.spiegel@ft.com



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