Considering Biden’s age and stumbles, what’s the back-up plan?
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Washington: It was meant to be a show of stamina but after 26 minutes, Joe Biden’s latest moment on the world stage ended with 12 words that reinforced one of his biggest political liabilities: his age.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m going to go to bed,” the US president said as he wrapped up an answer about why he hadn’t spoken to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Tired: Joe Biden’s four-day Asia trip made him quip at a news conference: “I don’t know about you, but I’m going to bed”.Credit: AP
To be fair, Biden was on his third day of a whirlwind trip to Asia spanning India, where he attended the latest G20 summit, and Vietnam, where the two nations unveiled a new strategic partnership designed to counter China’s aggression in the region.
But the trip had another objective, too: to show that he remains up to the task of being a commander-in-chief and a globe-trotting leader of the free world as he seeks another term in office.
Declaring he needed a nap after taking five questions – and his spokeswoman abruptly cutting off a rambling answer as Oscars-style elevator music guided him off the stage – didn’t exactly instil confidence in the 80-year-old Democrat.
Joe Biden waves to children after a military welcome ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Sunday.Credit: AP
With 14 months until the next election, Biden faces serious headwinds as the campaign heats up.
His approval rating has been hovering in the low 40s to late 30s for months despite his administration’s economic and legislative achievements, and most polls have him virtually tied with the twice-impeached, four-times-indicted Donald Trump.
Biden’s son Hunter is facing a string of legal woes that could result in the president himself being the subject of an impeachment inquiry by House Republicans into his family’s business dealings.
And questions persist about something Biden simply cannot change – his age – and his broader ability to do his job in the longer term.
This has given Republicans a renewed point of attack taking aim at Vice President Kamala Harris, who is even less popular than Biden and would effectively be the next in line if Biden was unable to serve another four-year term.
Kamala Harris and Joe Biden Credit: AP
“A vote for Joe Biden is a vote for Kamala Harris,” said former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, who opened up her campaign for the Republican presidential nomination by calling for mental competency tests for political candidates over the age of 75.
“There is no way Joe Biden is going to finish his term. I think Kamala Harris is going to be the next president and that should send a chill up every American’s spine.”
Successive polls show poor perceptions of the president aren’t just coming from Republicans either, but increasingly from the Democratic-aligned voters the party needs on election day in November 2024.
According to a CNN/SRRS poll released last week, for example, seven out of 10 Democrats say the party should nominate someone other than Biden to run next year – up from 54 per cent in March.
Overall, only 28 per cent of Americans say he inspires confidence or has the stamina and sharpness to serve effectively as president, while 76 per cent of Americans are seriously concerned his age might negatively affect his current level of physical and mental competence and his ability to serve out another four years if reelected.
The caveat, of course, is that much can happen between now and election day, and polls are merely a snapshot of a moment in time.
But for anyone who has spent years reporting on Biden or observing his career, there’s no escaping the fact that he’s slowing down.
He’s started using modified stairs to access his plane after health concerns were raised following a number of stumbles. He occasionally muddies his facts or appears confused: from mixing up Ukraine for Iraq or calling Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi the leader of China; to abruptly walking off-stage at a White House ceremony for a veteran soldier before proceedings formally ended.
US President Joe Biden is helped up after falling.Credit: AP
And while Biden has never been big on brevity, his tendency to ramble has given opponents plenty of fodder to perpetuate the narrative of a man in cognitive decline.
The latest example took place during his Hanoi press conference at the weekend, when he invoked actor John Wayne – whose last movie was half a century ago – in a bizarre and long-winded riff about climate deniers being “lying, dog-faced pony soldiers”.
Not surprisingly, the social media response was swift and severe.
“If he’s completely incoherent now, imagine five years from now,” tweeted Tom Elliot, the founder of news website Grabien.
Supporters and those who have dealt with Biden up close insist he remains sharp and intellectually engaged. Some Democratic strategists also say that many of the concerns surrounding his age are overblown and that Biden has plenty of time to improve his numbers.
Among them is Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, Jim Messina, who put out a 22-page memo last week arguing that Biden “is in a better position than most people realise” thanks to achievements such as lowering prescription prices, historic infrastructure investment, and bipartisan gun safety regulation.
But if re-elected, Biden – who is already America’s oldest president – would take office at 82 years old. By the time he serves out a second term, he would be 86. In view of his age, and the subsequent impact on his approval ratings, what’s the back-up plan?
“No one is going to discuss a back-up plan publicly, and he’s going to have to show signs of dementia or something before Democrats would move in the direction of substituting an incumbent candidate,” says veteran election strategist Larry Sabato.
California Governor Gavin Newsom, for example, has long been talked about as a future presidential candidate for Democrats, along with Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg, but both have been at pains to lay any speculation to rest about their long-term ambitions.
Kindred spirits on climate. California Governor Gavin Newsom and Australian ambassador to the US Kevin Rudd last month.Credit: AP
Harris, too, has also made clear recently that she is ready to take over if necessary, but in an interview with AP last week added: “Joe Biden is going to be fine, so that is not going to come to fruition.”
Sabato says Biden is “very old and everybody knows it, so other things will just have to take the fore.
“Democrats will have to do more to sell their achievements. He’s got to talk about Trump’s disastrous first term from his perspective. And he’s got to highlight Trump’s indictment because it’s a very serious subject. In the end, people will make up their own minds.”
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