STATESIDE: What should, and what will, President Biden do?

By Charlie Harper

IT’S Independence Day in the US this morning, the date Americans commemorate their 248th national birthday. But as the US celebrates on its national day with cookouts and fireworks, many minds are distracted by the confused, tumultuous state of the current presidential race.

History may someday record that there has been a more significant presidential debate than the one between Donald Trump and Joe Biden a week ago. But you couldn’t get a lot of support for that proposition today.

That debate was painful to watch. It underlined the awful choice many Americans feel awaits them four months hence on Election Day in November. By some accounts, Trump spewed forth at least 30 outright lies, delivering them with a practised aplomb and no apparent hesitation whatsoever.

But it’s an indication of how poor Biden’s performance was that there has been little attention paid in the national media to Trump’s persistent mendacity. Or to his – and his Republican Party’s – startling lack of policy ideas. The former president offered almost no specific policy suggestions. He was vain, insulting, glib, evasive and – this is the key – energetic and vital.

While Biden was neither vain nor evasive, he looked, as he said the other day at a rally designed to rebuild his crumbling brand, like he was about to fall asleep before a national television audience and millions of voters who were already highly sceptical of his acuity and ability to continue to function as the nation’s chief executive.

There are a lot of visual bits and audio sound bites flooding the internet now, most of them depicting Biden as somnolent and even potentially under the influence of strong sedative medication. For the many Americans who are concerned about his advanced age, and even for the millions of MAGA voters who were selfishly delighted at what they saw, it was a scary, sobering 90 minutes.

Whatever else the debate may have shown, it’s hard to disagree that Biden did himself and his re-election chances a lot of damage a week ago. Now, most Democratic politicians have given up any attempt to spin a positive version of the debate. And a few – not too many, but a few – are starting to publicly declare that Biden should do himself, his legacy and the country a big favour and withdraw from the presidential race.

He should, they say, allow other Democratic candidates to step forward from now until the party convention in Chicago six and one-half weeks from now.

What should Biden do, and what will he do?

This morning, most Democrats probably feel that Biden should gracefully step aside, acknowledging what cannot be any longer denied: That his advanced aged and the evident stress of the job he holds appear to render him unfit to continue in office.

This would be a phenomenal but not unprecedented step for a sitting president. In 1968, Democrat Lyndon Johnson, having succeeded the assassinated John F Kennedy, Jr, five years earlier and having won his first full term as president in a smashing victory over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election, elected to withdraw from the 1968 campaign.

Johnson, never as popular as JFK but nonetheless an acknowledged master of the American political process and guiding force behind most of the landmark civil rights legislation that conservatives are presently trying to undo, was beset in March 1968 by his decision to persist with and even escalate a pointless war in Vietnam that would cost 57,000 Americans their lives.

The country was in turmoil and cities were literally burning after the assassination of iconic civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Here’s part of what LBJ said to the shocked county as he announced his decision:

“With America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day,” he said, “I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office — the Presidency of your country.”

Soon enough, pundits and columnists will exhume this statement and remark that most of Johnson’s words could apply to Biden’s situation today. The president, they will say, should follow LBJ’s heroic example and emulate his course of action.

 Maybe they are right. Certainly, America’s future is under challenge right here at home. In addition to attempting to erode the civil rights protections enacted under LBJ, conservatives continue to worry aloud about the future and efficacy of Medicare and other hallmarks of the Democratic-inspired Great Society launched by Kennedy and adroitly continued by Johnson.

And America’s and the world’s hopes for peace are also certainly in the balance every day. This is true not just in Ukraine and Gaza, urgent and compelling as both of those continuing conflicts remain. It is fair to wonder which other flashpoint will erupt into headline-making strife next.

Will President Xi and China decide this is the perfect time to make good on a generation’s worth of threats and actually invade and overwhelm the stubbornly independent island of Taiwan? What if Venezuelan President Maduro sees a chance to annex neighbouring Guyana’s promising oil and gas deposits? There are potential dangers lurking all over the globe.

If Johnson felt overwhelmed in 1968, who would blame Biden if he felt similarly inundated with crises and problems today? Perhaps no one except Biden himself and his family.

A lifelong Democrat and committed liberal was musing about the president and his dilemma earlier this week.

“I don’t disagree that Biden was the only Democrat in 2020 who could beat Trump and repel him and his mobs from our gates,” she said. “And Biden has indisputably racked up a stunning series of legislative accomplishments. So much so that Trump had to order the GOP in Congress to vote against their own position on border security to scuttle an otherwise perfectly acceptable compromise brokered by Biden. Why? Because Trump thought it would deprive him of a reliable campaign issue.

“Trump is who he was as a candidate in 2016 and as he was for four years in the White House. He’s shallow, impulsive, self-centred, disrespectful of most American institutions. He is indeed unfit for the office he seeks.

“But I don’t think Biden can beat him now.” She slumped in her chair.

Biden supporters cite his ‘Comeback Kid’ persona. On MSNBC on Monday, Mika Brzezinski delivered an eloquent defence of Biden. Reminding viewers of Biden’s history of improbable comebacks and triumphs, often over self-inflicted wounds from verbal gaffes and other missteps, she perhaps inadvertently offered a good explanation for why Biden probably won’t listen to the unsolicited advice of so many of his natural supporters, including the editorial board of the New York Times.

Arguably Biden’s most dramatic comeback occurred just four years ago, when he was left for politically dead after poor finishes in the New Hampshire and Iowa primary elections, only to garner key support from Rep James Clyburn as he swept to a decisive win in South Carolina that propelled him to the White House.

This once-dynamic Delaware senator began actively seeking the presidency almost 40 years ago. He will rely on his self-confidence and history of comebacks and the advice of those closest to him. He will be extraordinarily reluctant to step away from an office he has so long sought and which he is certain he can fill so much better than his opponent.

But as he contemplates his immediate future, Biden must keep in the front of his mind two things. First, any decision to step away from the presidential race needs to be taken almost immediately. If he withdraws, there must be sufficient time for his potential successors in the Democratic Party to sort themselves out so the convention and party can unite behind their new candidate.

There is still time. But soon, there won’t be. It’s unlikely the party will quickly unite behind any one candidate.

Secondly, if Biden remains in the race, he and his family and advisers must acknowledge that there can be no repeat of the debate debacle. Biden and Co must acknowledge his limitations, and orchestrate his future campaign appearances accordingly. Any high school debater would be ashamed of the president’s performance last week. There can be no repeat.


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