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American presidents always smile when they pardon a Thanksgiving Day turkey.
The White House tradition – which may have started with Abraham Lincoln in 1863 – invariably provides an opportunity for the president to chuckle for the cameras before everyone heads off for the holiday break.
But if there was a particularly light-footed jocularity about Joe Biden this week as he pardoned turkeys Chocolate and Chip, which had been brought from North Carolina, it was understandable: the now 80-year-old Biden was setting off for a family gathering in Nantucket after having just witnessed Democrats enjoy a midterm election results not bettered in 20 years.
In seeing off a potential “red wave” and managing to hang onto the Senate, despite his low approval rating, a turbulent economy and historical precedence that says parties that occupy the White House tend to take a pounding in this cycle, the midterms may have also acted as the Democrats’ own pardoning of sorts of the president.
His mood was no doubt helped by last week’s announcement from the Department of Justice that a special prosecutor would oversee two probes into Donald Trump, one into the classified documents recovered from his Florida mansion, and the second into alleged efforts to subvert the 2020 election and transition of power.
(Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
For sure, there are still real and legitimate questions as to whether Biden ought to be the party’s nominee for the 2024 presidential contest. There are many who think the party should opt for a younger, more vibrant candidate, just as Democrats in the House prepare for life without Nancy Pelosi as their leader.
But as the implications of what the party managed to do on Nov 8 more fully sink in, it seems the now Octogenarian Biden has put to rest some of the doubts about his ability not only to run a convincing campaign, but to win a second term. Especially if his opponent is Trump.
“I don’t know if it persuaded all of the Democrats that Biden is the guy, but it definitely made the case that Biden stays winning,” Christina Greer, professor of political science at Fordham University, tells The Independent.
“I don’t know if it convinced all of his detractors, but he can say ‘I’ve delivered’ and he’s got the best midterm record in modern history.”
Greer says had it not been for the Democratic seats lost in New York state, the party may have hung on to the House as well.
Either way, there be some people out there – Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan is a name that gets mentioned a lot, though the reelected governor has denied having any further political ambitions at this point – who may be considering launching a primary against Biden.
But Lanae Erickson, senior vice president at Third Way, a centrist think tank based in Washington DC, also thinks the Democrats’ performance up and down the ticket this cycle, has strengthened Biden’s hand, and may at least make any potential primary challengers think long and hard.
“I think that having one of the best historical midterms in a president’s first term in modern history is a pretty good vote of confidence,” she says.
“If things had gone very poorly, there would be a lot more questions about whether Biden was our best chance. I think when you put together the better than expected midterms, and then the immediate announcement of Trump’s [candidacy for 2024] I think that probably clinched things for Biden.”
She adds: “I don’t know if he’s actually made his decision yet. But clearly, he is the only person in the Democratic Party who has proven an ability to beat Donald Trump. And if there’s one thing that Democrats want to do, it is avoid a second Trump presidency.”
All of this assumes Biden himself wants to run again in 2024, something he has always answered with a general “yes” if anyone asked, without giving specifics.
Joe Biden says his late son would want him to run again if he could make lives ‘better’
More recently, his answers have become more definitive, suggesting he is getting ready for the mental, emotional and strategic process he would need to embark on if he is going to make clear to people – especially in his own party – he is running. Any decision would have to be taken in consultation with his wife, Dr Jill Biden, as was his commitment to enter the 2020 race.
As it is, Biden family holidays on Nantucket, for which the president headed off this week, are another American tradition. This year, it is expected as many as 20 members of his extended family will gather on the island off Massachusetts as he gives serious thought to making a second run.
Ahead of the midterms, Biden was asked by interviewer Jonathan Capehart of MSNBC what advice he thought his late son Beau Biden, would have offered on whether or not to run, an issue the president covered in his 2017 memoir, Promise Me, Dad.
“The only reason to be involved in public life is: Can you make life better for other people?” Biden replied.
“Depending on who the opponent is, if they have a view that is so the antithesis of what I believe democracy [is], and I believe is good for average Americans, then, his argument was, ‘Dad, you have an obligation to do something?’”
He said he had not taken the formal decision to announce because to do so would trigger various electoral regulations, the kind of which Trump is now obliged to follow since announcing his own bid last week.
Biden told Capehart that his wife was on board and “my intention is to run again. And we have time to make that decision”.
After the midterm results came in, he was even more forceful.
“All kidding aside, our intention is to run again,” Biden told a press conference. “That’s been our intention, regardless of what the outcome of this election was.”
He added: “But I’m a great respecter of fate, and this is ultimately a family decision. I think everybody wants me to run, but we’re going to have discussions about it. And I don’t feel any hurry one way or another to make that judgment. Today, tomorrow, or whenever, no matter what my predecessor does.”
But even if Biden wants to run again, should he do so?
There have been many well-argued op-eds, and podcast episodes devoted to those who say Biden’s successes in his first term – a record number of legislative bills, major investments for infrastructure and for Covid relief – place him an unusual position for an incumbent president – being someone with nothing to prove.
Maureen Dowd of the New York Times was among those to cogent make the case for Biden to claim this victory of having defeated Trump – a man whose threat to democracy in the eyes of democracy has only grown as a result of the Jan 6 hearings – and step off into the sunset after a long, long life of public service.
“The country really needs to dodge a comeback by Trump or the rise of the odious Ron DeSantis. There is a growing sense in the Democratic Party and in America that this will require new blood,” she wrote this summer, under the headline “Hey, Joe, Don’t Give It a Go”.
“If the president made his plans clear now, it would give Democrats a chance to sort through their “meh” field and leave time for a fresh, inspiring candidate to emerge.”
There are other things for Biden to consider. Polls suggest his personal approval rating lingers around the 40 per cent mark, better than Trump enjoyed when he was president, but not by so much.
And for all the claims by Biden’s closest aides that he has the energy and acumen of a much younger man, he has the looks and manner of someone who is 80. Trump would also have to answer questions about his age, but whether one loves him or loathes him, the former president’s appearances before his supporters go on for more than two hours and bristle with his energy and fizz with his anger.
And if he ends up running against Ron DeSantis, 44, the Yale-educated, Maga-sipping governor of Florida who just scorched to reelection with a 20-point margin but who carries less of Trump’s baggage, the physical contrast will appear even more stark. That might not be fair, but then politics – and especially presidential campaigns have never been about fairness.
“We know Biden says he’s going to run, but we also know there’s not a lot of support for him to run. And there’s even less support for Trump to run. So part of the calculus will depend on if Trump is the Republican candidate and if Democrats can tell a compelling story once again, about Biden’s relative benefits compared to Trump,” says Deana Rohlinger, professor of sociology at Florida State University, located in Tallahassee.
“This would be a harder sell if DeSantis is the candidate. He’s popular within the state he’s been working trying to build his national profile.”
She adds: “I don’t know that he’ll go head to head with Trump. But I also know he feels pretty emboldened because Florida is the centre of the Maga movement right now.”
Donald Trump rasies his fist after annoucing third run for presidency
(Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Capehart, who is also a columnist at the Washington Post, is among those convinced Biden will run again.
He tells The Independent that in the 30 minutes or more he spent speaking to Biden for the fourth time in his career, he became sure of that position because of the energy and excitement Biden displayed.
“He loves what he can do as president, he loves that job,” he says. “It’s hard to put into words, but there’s an excitement and energy there when he talks about what he’s doing, what he has done, and what he wants to do for the American people. And so that’s why I’m 100 per cent convinced he’s going to run.”
What does Capehart say to those who point out Biden would be aged 86 if he were to serve a second term? Before Biden, the oldest president was Ronald Reagan, who was 77 when he left the Oval Office after serving two terms,
“I don’t buy any of this conversation about age. If Donald Trump can run for president again, then Joe Biden should run for reelection as president,” he says.
Capehart says Biden is aware people believe his age is an issue; during the so-called “walk and talk” part of their interview, Biden placed his band on Capehart’s shoulder and said he could not bring himself to say the word “eighty”.
“But if the man is up for doing the job, and wants to do the job, and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, why shouldn’t he run,” he adds.
“Democrats spend a lot of time talking about and wringing their hands over whether he should run for reelection. I say to those Democrats – if you want to guarantee you’ll lose, try to nominate somebody else. Why not focus on the man who is president, rather than focusing on someone else who you hope will be president.”