By Faisal M. Rahman
Even though most Americans have yet to fully engage in the race, the presidential primary season has already commenced. In the Republican camp, former President Donald Trump has seized a commanding lead over his rivals, with many of them essentially adopting his positions and displaying significant deference toward him.
Conversely, within the Democratic ranks, it is increasingly apparent that President Joe Biden may not be inspiring the level of enthusiasm necessary to garner the votes required for a second term in office.
Votes are often influenced more by perceptions than by qualifications or achievements. Impressive legislative victories, such as comprehensive infrastructure rebuilding programs, the lowest unemployment rate in years, successful management of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the reversal of real wage decline – collectively referred to as “Bidenomics” by the president – have had little impact on Biden’s approval ratings.
Among the numerous challenges and the prevailing hushed discussions on the Democratic side, Biden’s age has emerged as a genuine concern for voters. Furthermore, his running mate, Vice President Kamala Harris, has yet to demonstrate achievements commensurate with her current position, let alone a seamless transition to the presidency.
With Biden visibly aging, as noted by many observers, a point may arise where seeking a replacement becomes the only viable option. For the American people, Harris does not evoke comparisons to figures like Lyndon Johnson or even Gerald Ford.
There is little doubt that among all the contenders and hopefuls, among the Democrats and Republicans (including Trump), Biden is the most experienced of all. But let us not forget that the burdens of the presidency ages even the most healthy and vigorous persons – just look at the “before and after photographs” of three recent Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.
It is evident that, over the past 32 months, the demands of the presidency have taken a toll on Biden. He is less steady on his feet, wanders away from one topic to another, and sometimes appears to be unsure of where he is physically. These would be considered normal for an 82-year-old, but Biden is the President of the United States and wishes to continue for another four years. Even his most vocal public supporters privately concede that the president, if reelected, could die in office during his second term. Unfortunately, the same people are apprehensive and skeptical about the qualities and abilities of Vice President Harris to be the next president.
When circumstances necessitated Vice Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford to assume the presidency, they brought with them proven records of accomplishment. Both serving vice presidents were well-known to the public with clear policy positions and appeared ready to take the mantle of the presidency from Day One.
There was no fear of uncertainty; in fact, it was quite the opposite. After President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson provided a reassuring presence, drawing on his experience as Senate Majority Leader. Ford, on the other hand, was a welcome figure following the nightmare of Watergate and the unprecedented resignation of Nixon. People recognized Ford for his years of service as a congressman and House Minority Leader.
On the contrary, Vice President Harris remains an unfamiliar figure to most Americans, except for her occasional presence in high-profile events. She achieved relatively little during her prominent role in addressing the southern border crisis, which saw a massive influx of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers.
Her task was to collaborate with Mexico and Latin American countries to develop an economic plan aimed at creating job opportunities within those nations. Mexico, which benefited significantly from “near-shoring” following the COVID-19 supply chain crisis, serves as a prime example. The number of undocumented Mexican immigrants has notably decreased, while figures have risen for countries like Colombia and Venezuela.
When Biden served as vice president, he was a frequent presence on Capitol Hill, diligently working to secure support for President Obama’s legislative agenda. He enjoyed widespread popularity and trust among Senators and House Members from both political parties.
In contrast, Vice President Kamala Harris does not possess the same reputation as a consensus-builder and respected figure among her former legislative colleagues. If anything, she often elicits a level of hostility reminiscent of the reception Hillary Clinton received.
With the almost certain expectation of a Biden-Harris team facing defeat in 2024, it is time for President Biden to take a statesman-like action.
He should announce his intention to step down after this term and set in motion the process for an open primary to select his successor. Harris was not the preferred choice of any candidate in the Democratic primaries in 2020, and she lacks a strong claim to be her party’s automatic nominee in 2024.
An open primary process would showcase a multitude of highly qualified Democratic party figures, among them Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan. Furthermore, it may also bring forth candidates akin to figures like Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, who the nation has yet to discover
Democratic party candidates must also reach out to mainstream Americans who may not necessarily align with various interest groups and causes that the party has embraced. Some of these interest groups are in direct conflict with each other.
For instance, black pastors, who hold significant influence among average African American voters, may oppose the idea of teaching LGBT beliefs as normal to elementary school children. Hispanics primarily seek opportunities and favor meritocracy. The vast majority of white Americans, especially those over the age of 40, often perceive little alignment between their own interests and the Democratic party platform.
In the end, the tragedy of the current political process and the country is the lack of participation by younger people. The youth, who will be most affected by many of the legislations and policies in the present, must be reintegrated into the mainstream of American politics. To achieve this, they need to be inspired, and this necessitates that the stage be vacated by septuagenarians like Biden and Trump, as well as those who adhere to their politics.
This cannot be expected from the narcissistic Donald Trump, who has effectively taken control of the Republican party that once counted Abraham Lincoln among its ranks. It’s challenging to reconcile the current state with a party that once produced leaders like George H.W. Bush, who committed to being the “Environment President,” or Ronald Reagan, who embodied a sense of decency.
It’s even more challenging to imagine that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established during Richard Nixon’s tenure and that George W. Bush is the most admired American president in Africa for his efforts to combat the spread of AIDS on the continent.
It is, therefore, imperative for President Joe Biden to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans and rescue the Democratic Party from the risk of a substantial defeat. He should announce his retirement at the conclusion of his current term and initiate the nomination process.
If Vice President Kamala Harris genuinely seeks to earn the trust of her party and, ultimately, that of the majority of Americans, she should participate in the primary process alongside her fellow Democrats. This statesman-like action should be taken by President Biden now for the sake of the country, not solely to secure a Democratic Party victory in November 2024.
(Faisal M Rahman, Ph.D. is a Professor and Founding Dean of the Graham School of Management at the Saint Xavier University in Chicago.)