Some truths are self-evident: Joe Biden is too old. But who could possibly replace him?

It is possible, in politics as in life, for several things to be true at once.


  • Emma Shortis

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University

It is true that Donald Trump and his plans for a second presidential administration represent an existential threat to American democracy.

It is true that a media imperative for “balance” in political reporting is further degenerating into a “both sides“, false balance framework that is distorting our sense of what is at stake in this presidential campaign.

It is true that hether we think it fair or not, Biden’s age is going to frame coverage of the election. Just this week, for example, the New York Times ran a story with the headline “Which Is Worse: Biden’s Age or Trump Handing NATO to Putin?”.

As others have pointed out, this kind of narrative approach is calcifying. It does not seem to matter, for example, that in his incendiary comments about Biden’s age, special counsel Robert Hur took grossly inappropriate liberties in editorialising. It would not matter if Biden did not make another slip for the entire campaign (which, given what we know about the president, seems unlikely), and it does not matter that these slips may not have anything to do with advancing age.

It is also true that Biden is too old. At 81, he is already too old now, and if he does see out a second term, he will be 86. In the end, that may not affect the outcome of the election – in 2020 and 2022, American voters demonstrated that they saw Trump’s politics as a far greater threat to American democracy, stability and prosperity than Biden’s age.

But that does not change the fact that he is too old. As Fintan O’Toole recently argued,

Biden, fairly or otherwise, is the lightning rod for deep generational discontents and widespread unhappiness at the persistence of an American gerontocracy.

So why, given all these truths, is Biden still – barring any significant changes in the status quo – all but guaranteed the Democratic nomination?

The ‘veep’ problem

In as much as there are any “lessons” from American history, it is generally true that if a president is not running, the vice president gets the first shot at the job. Vice President Harry Truman, for example, succeeded President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and went on to win the 1964 election. Moving closer to the present, examples include Vice President George H.W. Bush’s successful run after President Ronald Reagan’s history-shaping two terms, or Vice President Al Gore’s nomination after he served twice under President Bill Clinton.

The point is, the vice presidency exists precisely for this reason – the VP is second in line for the presidency and so presumably the best choice for leadership after the president. If the president can not or will not run, the VP is all but assured the nomination.

When then-presidential candidate Joe Biden announced Kamala Harris would be his vice-presidential running mate in 2020, he said:

Kamala Harris is the best person to help me take this fight to Trump […] then to lead this nation.

After a hard-fought nomination contest, Biden chose Harris, 20 years his junior and a woman of colour, very much in the context of his commitment to act as a generational “bridge” for the Democratic Party.

In her position as vice president and in the context of history, Harris is the obvious successor to Biden.

So why hasn’t Biden built her a bridge?

Without hearing from the president specifically on this point, we can only speculate based on the evidence we have.

The most obvious answer is that Biden, having chosen her as his second, now thinks – for whatever reason – that Harris is not the right candidate for leadership and/or would not win a presidential election. There has been significant negative coverage speculating about Harris’ lack of political nous and appeal. Given what is at stake this year, it seems likely that Biden is simply not willing to risk it all on Harris.

To be fair to the vice president, this may not actually have anything to do with her political abilities.

Harris has already been on the receiving end of vicious, racist attacks from Trump supporters, including death threats. There is a reason so many conspiracy theories coming from the right focus on powerful women and, more often than not, Black women – on Harris, former First Lady Michelle Obama, and even Taylor Swift. In a febrile political environment, were Harris to be the nominee, it is almost certain sections of the American right would explode.

It is entirely possible that the significant risk to Harris herself, and to American political stability more broadly, are factoring into Biden’s decision to run again, despite the overwhelming focus on his age.

As Jill Lepore has argued, while decisions like this are being made ostensibly (and understandably) to mitigate the risk of political violence, they may end up having the effect of justifying or even encouraging it.

Nevertheless, for these reasons and possibly others, it seems as though Biden will not anoint Harris as his successor.

Simply put, if Biden does not choose Harris, he cannot choose anyone else without catastrophically undermining his own administration and authority.

Even hinting he thinks it should be someone other than himself or his vice president would suggest Biden made the wrong choice to begin with – not a risk he is likely to take, despite the stakes.

For want of a better alternative

Whether Biden is unwilling or just feels unable to pass the leadership baton to Harris isn’t really the point. The point is that he won’t do it and is, therefore, stuck.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that circumstances won’t change.

It is entirely possible Biden will change his mind, or become unable to run, or that some other event will force the hand of the Democratic Party.

Practically, it is now too late for another viable candidate to run for the nomination – filing deadlines have mostly already passed, and the challenges of publicity and fundraising are all but insurmountable.

If Biden were to pull out, timing would be crucial, and would likely need to be at or immediately before the Democratic National Convention in August. The best possible scenario in this case is that the contest heads to a brokered convention, in which delegates previously committed to Biden are freed, by him, to vote for another candidate.

Exactly who that candidate might be is an open question, and another likely reason that Biden and the Democrats more broadly are extremely reluctant to go down this path.

Once again, the obvious candidate is Harris. If it isn’t (perhaps for the reasons outlined above), it’s not clear who it could be, or how deep divisions would run. There are several prominent, popular Democrats who might contest, including Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, California Governor Gavin Newsom or Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear.

Historically, the in-fighting that would come with such a contest, even if it were amicable, has not played well for Democrats, and would almost certainly put them on the back foot come November. That’s not an insurmountable challenge, and might even be the right choice given the circumstances, but it would be an enormous political risk for a party generally averse to taking big chances.

Biden has called this election a “battle for the soul of America”. Given the existential stakes of this election, Democrats are left with few good choices.

Some truths are self-evident. That doesn’t make them easier to face.

The Conversation

Emma Shortis is Senior Researcher in International and Security Affairs at independent think tank The Australia Institute.

/Courtesy of The Conversation. View in full here.