Joe Biden was expected to be a one-term president. Why doesn’t he want to step aside?

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jul5,2024
When Joe Biden campaigned to be the Democratic nominee for president four years ago, he promised to be a “bridge” to future leaders.
Then 77 years old, Biden’s age was a concern but many expected him to only serve one term.
“Look, I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else,” CNN reported Biden saying in 2020 while campaigning to be the nominee.
“There’s an entire generation of leaders you saw stand behind me. They are the future of this country.”
Anonymous sources told American political news site Politico the year before that it was “virtually inconceivable” Biden would run for re-election in 2024.
Biden, now 81 years old, never publicly said he would only serve one term, but Democrats also selected Biden as the nominee back in 2020 because they thought he had the best chance of beating Republican Donald Trump, who was then president.

In the aftermath of Biden’s “shocking” performance against Trump during the first presidential debate of the 2024 US election last week, many Democrats are concerned this is no longer the case.

But Biden appears to have no intention of exiting the race.
He is “absolutely not” pulling out of the White House race, his spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said on Wednesday (local time).

“The president is clear-eyed and he is staying in the race,” she told reporters.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden standing at opposite podiums.

US President Joe Biden (right) has told reporters via his press secretary he is “absolutely not” pulling out of the 2024 election, despite his debate performance against Republican candidate Donald Trump (left) causing concern among some Democrats. Source: Getty / Justin Sullivan

In a call with campaign and party staffers, Biden insisted he wasn’t going anywhere. Democratic governors on Wednesday continued to support him following an emergency meeting at the White House.

“I screwed up. I made a mistake. That’s 90 minutes on stage. Look at what I’ve done in three and a half years,” Biden told Wisconsin’s Civic Media radio program.

Despite increasing calls for him to step aside, some experts believe it’s unlikely Biden will go.

It’s very uncommon for a president to only serve one term

Bruce Wolpe, senior fellow of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said there was no doubt Biden’s debate performance was a “catastrophe”.
“I’ve been watching presidential debates since Kennedy and Nixon, and I haven’t seen anything like it before — no one has,” Wolpe told SBS News earlier this week.
Despite the poor performance, Wolpe does not see the president taking himself off the field even though there were indications in 2020 that he would only serve one term.
Wolpe said one of the reasons Biden never confirmed he would not run for a second term was because he would have been seen as a “lame duck” president without political capital.

“Why should Congress work with you? Why should you be able to get anything done?”

Joe Biden speaking in front of a microphone. A large American flag is behind him.

According to experts, it’s possible Joe Biden did not confirm he would only serve one term when running for election in 2020 as he did not want to be seen as a “lame duck” president. Source: AAP / Manuel Balce Ceneta

Even in the area of foreign policy, Wolpe pointed to decisions on Ukrainian aid, as being “more powerful as the act of a continuing president than someone who’s in the last months of office”.

“So he never reached the point where he wanted to give it up.”
Wolpe said there had also been no challengers to Biden’s leadership and no leaders of the House of Representatives or the Senate, members of cabinet or state governors, had asked him to leave.
“The leadership of the party [has been] behind him all the way, and they believe, and rightly so, he’s been a terrific president from their point of view.

“So it has been [Biden’s] desire and intent [combined with] the concurrence of Democratic leaders in Washington and across the country. We never got to [a] moment of urgency.”

The leadership of the party [has been] behind him all the way, and they believe, and rightly so, he’s been a terrific president from their point of view.

Bruce Wolpe, US Studies Centre

Professor of US politics at the US Studies Centre, Brendon O’Connor, said it was very uncommon for a president to just want to serve one term, particularly in the modern era.
“If a presidential candidate wins the election for your party, they’re pretty much guaranteed to be the party’s candidate for a second term,” he said.
He said that person may also start to believe they’re the only one who can run the country.
“He seems to have some strong sense that only he is capable of solving certain problems,” he said.

In the case of the Hamas-Israel war in Gaza, O’Connor said Biden had expressed strong support for Israel despite advisers wanting a more moderate position.

If a presidential candidate wins the election for your party, they’re pretty much guaranteed to be the party’s candidate for a second term.

Brendon O’Connor, US Studies Centre

“This kind of stubbornness which we can see [in] Biden at the moment maybe, is not going to serve America very well, it’s not going to serve the Democratic party very well, and it’s not going to possibly serve the interests of American democracy that well,” O’Connor said.
“There was a sense with Biden when he was elected in 2020 that he would only serve one term because of his age.
“But I think the trappings of office, the sense of wanting to defeat Trump again, that he believes he is doing a good job, led to Biden probably losing perspective on how aged he’s become, on how the public perceives him as rather frail.”
O’Connor agrees last week’s debate was “dreadful” and “shocking to watch”.

“I think the devastating problem is it reinforces a very strong, existing narrative that Biden is just too old for the job.”

Can Joe Biden still win the election?

Wolpe believes Biden thinks he can still win the election.
“If you become president you believe in yourself really strongly, and he absolutely believes in himself,” he said.
Even with his physical lapses, Wolpe believes there’s no doubt Biden’s mind is clear.

“He knows what he’s doing and can execute the job, so he believes he can win.”

But Wolpe said the path to victory is not clear with him as the candidate and he does not think Biden can win cleanly on his own efforts.
He believes the result may lie in whether something happens to Donald Trump to change the relative standing of the two candidates.
“Something is going to have to happen to Trump to take him down — some outrage that he commits or some physical event not unlike what Biden experienced last week,” Wolpe said.
“If you listen to Trump’s speeches or watch his rallies, he is more erratic than ever.

“At some point, there will be some focus on, ‘Is he really up to be president? Is he really fit for office?'”

Donald Trump speaks to supporters

Biden’s presidential chances could hinge on Donald Trump’s performance over the coming months. Source: AP / Alex Brandon

Wolpe believes the election result will come down to undecided voters, adding that the biggest drag on Biden’s vote is the economy, as the US is dealing with high inflation and interest rates.

But he also noted that Trump’s views were often not supported by the mainstream. In contrast to Trump, most Americans were supportive of abortion rights and some level of gun control.
The result could ultimately hinge on turnout because it’s not compulsory for Americans to vote.
“If he’s not generating numbers, enthusiasm, will Biden voters vote for Biden? Every Trump voter is going to vote for [Trump], they are all going to turn out,” Wolpe said.

“So this is a turnout election, and that is what really will decide who wins and who loses.”

Changing to a different candidate could be riskier

Even if Biden did step aside, the path to victory for a different candidate is also not clear, Wolpe says, and he believes it could be riskier than sticking with Biden.
He said the principal risk was tied to Kamala Harris, who is the vice president and Biden’s most obvious successor.
If Biden took himself out of the race, Wolpe said Harris would likely declare herself a candidate for the job, but she is not a popular figure.
“My personal view on Kamala Harris is she’s very much underestimated, and is doing a far better job than public perception,” he said. “She’s not held in the highest regard by a lot of people.”
But Wolpe acknowledged Harris was the first black woman vice president in American history.

“If she’s denied the nomination of her party, that is a real problem with about a third of the Democratic vote,” he said.

US vice president Kamala Harris wearing a blue blazer and blue top.

Kamala Harris made history as the US’ first woman vice president. It could be problematic for the Democrats if she was not endorsed as the presidential candidate if Joe Biden withdraws. Source: AAP / Ronda Churchill/AP

The other problem is the large number of capable candidates who could be interested in the job, such as governors Gavin Newsom in California and Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, as well as several popular senators.

The process of making a choice could fracture the party, and Wolpe said deciding on a new candidate at the Democratic National Convention in August would be “pretty ugly” and not the show of democracy some might imagine it to be.

Even if this could be sorted out, and a candidate was decided on, Wolpe said there was also the risk of scandal emerging during the campaign if they had not been vetted properly.

If [Kamala Harris is] denied the nomination of her party, that is a real problem with about a third of the Democratic vote.

Bruce Wolpe, US Studies Centre

O’Connor did not agree and said he thought sticking with Biden would be more risky.
While it’s possible Biden could still beat Trump, O’Connor said it would be a “hell of a risk” and Biden’s debate performance could be exactly the sort of thing that pushes undecided voters towards Trump.
“Those of us who worry very deeply about an elected Donald Trump back in the presidency want to see Biden go,” he said.

“We want to see a much more vibrant candidate, not just because they may have a better chance of winning the election but Trump’s lies … need to be rebutted.”

We want to see a much more vibrant candidate, not just because they may have a better chance of winning the election but Trump’s lies … need to be rebutted.

Brendon O’Connor, US Studies Centre

O’Connor said there would be many more possibilities for Biden to stumble again, such as during a second debate with Trump. Biden is also expected to sit down with ABC News on Friday (local time) for his first television interview since last week’s debate.

“Replacing [Biden] is going to be risky, getting the right person is going to be important,” O’Connor said. “But I think more risky is sending Biden out into the election for the rest of the year.”

Biden is likely to remain the candidate

O’Connor believes Biden would step aside if he could be convinced it was the right thing to do, pointing to his decision to pull out of previous presidential contests in 1988 and 2008.
“There’s a history of him recognising that he’s not going to win … and [that] the best thing is to step aside, for him and the party.”
But O’Connor believes it’s more likely Biden will hang on to the nomination.
“Forcing Biden out, it’s very difficult and would be very controversial,” he said.
“The path of least resistance at the convention in August will be to try to put a brave face on this and surround Biden with lots of fast-talking and smooth surrogates, and remind people that they’re electing an administration, they’re supporting a party, not just an individual.
“But this is going to be one hell of a sales job from here on in.”
O’Connor said pressure was undoubtedly building in the Democratic party to replace Biden, and hopefully this would be successful.
If at some point it was necessary to change nominees, Wolpe said it would be unprecedented.

“We haven’t lost a nominee this close to an election before so it would be truly new territory.”

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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