Joe Biden’s fitness for the presidency was thrust to the centre of the 2024 White House race after Robert Hur, the special counsel investigating his handling of classified documents, issued a report on Thursday citing troubling memory lapses Biden experienced while being interviewed during the probe last year.
The assessment of Biden’s mental confusion — which triggered an angry response from him at a hastily arranged press conference on Thursday night — overshadowed the report’s conclusion, which was that the justice department would not issue criminal charges against the president.
But it points to age — Biden is 81 — as the president’s biggest vulnerability heading into a likely rematch for the White House against Donald Trump, who is 77, handing a political gift to Republicans.
It has also reopened questions of whether Democrats should move quickly to find a different presidential candidate — a gamble, but also a thought that the White House has been unable to extinguish.
How damaged is Biden?
Biden is entering his re-election year with the worst approval ratings of any incumbent president in recent history. National polling averages also show him trailing Trump in a general election match-up.
Concerns about his age are rampant across the electorate, even among Democrats — and the Hur report offers some independent validation of the concerns. Images, videos and memes of Biden’s gaffes and stiff gait have become commonplace on social media, and they are likely to proliferate even more now.
Even so, Biden’s political strengths have been underestimated in the past — an element of his political renown that helped consolidate Democrat support for his re-election campaign up to now.
He has delivered a strong economic recovery and industrial policies and rebuilt US alliances. And with the exception of a split with the left over Israel, Biden has ideologically satisfied the progressive and moderate wings of his party.
Most importantly for Democrats, Biden has been a winner. After the 2020 presidential victory, he led the party to a stronger performance than expected in the 2022 midterm elections — when his approval ratings were also low and concerns about his age were already a factor. His success so far is a big reason why there have been no significant internal challenges to his renomination.
Could there still be a change?
Biden has shown no inclination to ditch his re-election bid. But if he did, the most notable precedent would be that of Lyndon Johnson in 1968, who ducked out in March and left rival Democrats battling for the nomination in an open field.
Hubert Humphrey, his vice-president, squared off against Robert F Kennedy until Kennedy’s assassination in June. Humphrey was nominated during a riot-stricken convention in Chicago, and then lost to Richard Nixon in the general election.
This year’s Democratic convention will also be in Chicago — an echo of the 1968 race that has not gone unnoticed.
But unless Biden decides himself to drop out, the path to switching horses would be challenging. He has the full backing of the Democratic National Committee, and a joint fundraising pact with the party which gives him a massive advantage. By mid-March he is likely to have locked up enough pledged delegates from the Democratic primaries to win the nomination in Chicago in August.
In Chicago, the groundswell of concern among Democrats would have to be so overwhelming that even Biden’s own delegates felt they needed to switch votes.
After the convention, it would be almost impossible for a new Democratic presidential contender to replace him on the ballot — unless he was incapacitated.
Does anyone want to step up?
Few candidates have been willing to challenge Biden, except Dean Phillips, a congressman from Minnesota, who has barely registered in polls and has been crushed in the early Democratic primaries.
The question is whether more viable Democratic candidates might be willing to pick up the baton. Vice-president Kamala Harris would be Biden’s most natural successor, but her approval ratings are also low. State governors such as Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Andy Beshear of Kentucky, or even Gavin Newsom of California would also be possible contenders.
But mounting a presidential campaign at this point — late, for American elections cycles that last more than a year — would be a huge gamble. These candidates may be better waiting until the 2028 race to decide whether to bid for the White House.
And while polls show that Americans yearn for someone other than Biden, there is not overwhelming evidence that any of these governors would perform better against Trump.
What about a third-party challenge?
Biden’s vulnerability on age, combined with Trump’s own unpopularity, should theoretically open up a big lane for a third-party candidate. Robert F Kennedy Jr — son of the 1968 candidate — has already launched an independent bid, and Jill Stein and Cornel West have mounted their own campaigns from the left. They might tilt the vote, but are unlikely to prevent one of Biden or Trump winning the race.
The bigger wild card for 2024 would be a centrist ticket backed by the “No Labels” movement, comprising moderates from both parties. The group has not picked its candidates, but among the names being floated is Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from West Virginia.
Nikki Haley, Trump’s Republican rival, has repeatedly attacked Trump and Biden for being too old and mentally unfit for the presidency. But she has so far ruled out an independent bid. “I’m a Republican,” she told The Wall Street Journal this week. “A Republican primary is where Republicans run.”
So what can Biden do?
The big difficulty for Biden is that his age is a fact he cannot change. He and his aides claim the worries about his mental acuity are unfair, and point out that Trump is only a few years behind him — and also prone to mental lapses. After the January 6 2021 attack on the US Capitol, some Trump cabinet members even privately discussed invoking the constitution’s 25th amendment to remove him from office because he was unfit.
But Biden’s strategy so far — dismissing and deriding questions about his mental fitness — has not been effective. One change in approach could be to conduct more interviews, town hall meetings and press conferences, rather than scripted remarks and brief exchanges with reporters. But this is a risk — as his gaffes during Thursday night’s press conference showed, when he mistook the president of Egypt for the leader of Mexico.
Another option might be to deliver a more serious speech about how he handles his age and how it relates to the presidency, like his predecessors John F Kennedy sought to break the taboo about Catholicism and the presidency, and Barack Obama confronted race.
Otherwise, he will hope that US voters will again set aside their concerns about his age and vote for him in November, as the more stable and reasonable alternative to Trump, another elderly man.