Last week, as Joe Biden’s reelection campaign was just revving up, I paid a visit to the White House.
Invited to lunch by Biden’s chief of staff, Jeff Zients, I arrived a half hour early. I had interviewed all the living White House chiefs of staff for my book The Gatekeepers—and Zients, 10 weeks into the job, told me he’d read it, twice, and wanted to have a chat.
As I stepped into the West Wing lobby from the parking lot, the narrow corridors were alive with energy and activity, Aaron Sorkin–esque, after years of skeletal attendance due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Staffers clutching clipboards, lanyards flapping, rushed about. On tap that night was a state dinner with the South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol, and on Saturday, the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. In the Situation Room, a National Security Council meeting was underway.
It was also the first full day of Biden’s 2024 reelection campaign. And while waiting for my appointment, sitting on a couch across from the White House Mess, I thought about how, even after a remarkable two-year presidential run, Biden couldn’t seem to catch a break.
Many political insiders, Republican and Democrat alike, have concluded that the president is too old to run again. According to one poll, even 44% of Democratic voters don’t want Biden to run. At 80, Biden’s hopelessly over the hill, some prognosticators insist. (He’d be 82 on election day, and 86 at the end of a second term.)
Why can’t he step aside in favor of a younger, more vigorous candidate? And if he won’t withdraw, why can’t another Democrat challenge the president for the party’s nomination? This wishful thinking about a nominee other than Biden is everywhere, advanced by some of the best political writers and analysts in the business, including Jonathan Alter, Mark Leibovich, Gail Collins, and my fellow Vanity Fair scribe Mark McKinnon.
They should get over it.
Not only is Biden running; his candidacy is by far the best hedge against a possible restoration of Donald Trump. If Trump were to regain the Oval Office, he would be much better equipped to dismantle the guardrails of US democracy than he was the last time. Given that chilling prospect, and despite Biden’s advanced age, his run for a second term is the Democrats’ best hope. There is no feasible plan B.
What’s wrong with the president stepping aside and graciously handing the baton to a younger successor? Plenty—starting with the fact that there is no consensus on who in the world that person would be. Biden’s withdrawal would make Vice President Kamala Harris the front-runner for the nomination, but not for long. She would likely be embroiled immediately in a scrum for the nomination—perhaps going up against California governor Gavin Newsom, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, New Jersey senator Cory Booker, and other eleventh-hour aspirants. Inevitably, the eventual Democratic nominee, bruised and bloodied, would limp into the general election, weakened against an emboldened Trump.
And what if Harris, after Biden’s withdrawal, ended up as the nominee? In the battle to protect women’s reproductive rights, the vice president has begun to find her voice after her first two rocky years. But does any serious observer think she’s prepared to beat Trump in a grueling head-to-head contest—especially given the way her 2020 presidential campaign imploded?
What about a viable Biden opponent in the Democratic primaries? “There has to be one good Challenger X out there from the party’s supposed ‘deep bench,’ right?” wrote Leibovich in The Atlantic. “Someone who is compelling, formidable, and younger than, say, 65.” That person, he argued, should “make a refreshing nuisance of themselves” and fight Biden for the nomination.
But that is a political death wish for the Democrats. History is littered with the bleached bones of incumbent presidents who faced serious primary challengers. Think back to Gerald Ford, who battled California governor Ronald Reagan in the Republican primaries of 1976, and ended up narrowly losing the general election to Democrat Jimmy Carter. Four years later, Carter, weakened by a bitter, rear-guard battle against Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy that lasted all the way to the convention, was routed by none other than Ronald Reagan.
And then there was George H.W. Bush. In 1991, after leading the Gulf War coalition that drove Iraq’s Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, Bush enjoyed an 89% approval rating. A year later he was thrown out of office by the Democratic governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton. A sputtering economy and a third-party candidate, Ross Perot, were factors. But an ugly primary challenge by right-wing populist Pat Buchanan also helped seal Bush’s fate.
Those were my thoughts as I cooled my heels before my lunch. That is, until my reverie was interrupted by Zients’s assistant, who escorted me upstairs to the West Wing reception room. Moments later, Biden’s chief of staff appeared. An entrepreneur who made a fortune in the private sector—and cofounded the Washington, DC, bagel shop chain, Call Your Mother—Zients is known for making government work; before becoming Biden’s first coronavirus response coordinator, he fixed Barack Obama’s glitch-plagued Affordable Care Act website, HealthCare.gov.
Biden’s chief was affable and relaxed as we walked back to his office. Zients, who replaced Ron Klain in February, comes across as almost preternaturally serene—unruffled despite the demands of the second most difficult job in government. (After reading The Gatekeepers just before her husband took the post, Zients’s wife asked him, “Are you sure about this?”)
Sitting at the table in the chief’s corner office, dining on braised chicken from the Navy Mess, Zients talked about his priorities. Our conversation was off the record. But the subjects included the emergency evacuation of Americans from war-wracked Sudan; a looming crisis at the southern border due to the upcoming expiration of Title 42; the pending debt limit discussions. And then there was the widening fissure in US diplomatic relations with China, as well as the ongoing war in Ukraine. And that was all before dessert.
I asked Zients if the president had ever talked about not running for reelection. Biden’s chief agreed later to put this much on the record: “I think his fundamental calculus is that he’s made real progress. There’s a lot more work to do.”
There’s been speculation that Zients, who lacks Klain’s political experience, will concentrate on running the White House—while close Biden advisers Anita Dunn and Jen O’Malley Dillon will call the shots on the reelection. (The campaign manager, Julie Chávez Rodriguez, granddaughter of the legendary labor leader César Chávez, will be based in Wilmington, Delaware.) But Zients can’t avoid being immersed in the campaign. One of the chief of staff’s principal challenges will be managing the tension between campaigning and governing. There will be times when Rodriguez—or Dunn or O’Malley Dillion—may tell the president, for example, that he has to be in Michigan the following week for a critical campaign appearance. But when a political trip conflicts with governing, it will be Zients’s job to say, “No way.”
No one, in my estimation, is more surprised than Biden about a possible rematch with Trump. As I learned while writing The Fight of His Life, my book on the Biden White House, the thing that shocked Biden more than anything else as president was the lasting power of the MAGA movement. He thought it would be in the rearview mirror by now. In 2020, Biden had won by 7 million votes—what used to be called a mandate. Determined to unite the country, the president barely mentioned “the former guy” during his first year.
But Biden gradually realized that Trumpism wasn’t going away. It had to be called out and confronted. On the first anniversary of the January 6 assault on the US Capitol, Biden, standing in the Rotunda, threw down the gauntlet with a fiery speech defending democratic values. And in the 2022 midterm elections, running in opposition to the attack on women’s reproductive rights unleashed by a Trump-appointed Supreme Court majority—and the threat to democracy represented by MAGA extremists—the Democrats scored the best midterm performance (for the party of a sitting president) since FDR’s era.
The defining tests of the Biden presidency, in the eyes of historians, are likely to be threefold: How did the president manage a once-in-a-century health crisis and a crippled economy? How did he meet the challenge of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine? And how did he stand up to the continuing threat to democracy represented by Trump and his MAGA followers.
On the first two tests, Biden gets high marks—though he has yet, as he would put it, to “finish the job.” On the third test, the evidence is clear: Biden has beaten Trump once. Barring a catastrophe, there is little reason to think he won’t do it again.
Biden is no one’s idea of a whippersnapper. But rumors of his impending senility (to rework a phrase of Mark Twain’s) are greatly exaggerated. The president’s inner circle (I spent two years talking to almost all of them) insist that he is mentally sharp. He may sometimes walk like a “zombie” (to borrow a phrase directed at Bill Nighy’s aging character in Living), his gait hobbled by arthritis, but his energy is prodigious; during a flight on Air Force One to Dover Air Base, after multiple summit meetings in Europe, Biden regaled his younger, bleary-eyed staff with stories for six hours straight. His feisty State of the Union speech this year, in which he outwitted GOP hecklers, not to mention a rigorous 10-hour train expedition to war-torn Kyiv in February, belie the notion of “Sleepy Joe.” (Biden’s age seems unlikely to resonate as a liability in comparison to Trump; after all, the ex-president is 76 and considered clinically obese.)
Even in a possible contest against Florida governor Ron DeSantis, 44, experience trumps youth. When Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Biden was uniquely prepared to meet that moment in history, his foreign policy chops honed by his service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and eight years as vice president. Contrast that with the Florida governor’s initial description of the Russia-Ukraine war as a “territorial dispute,” and his much-covered amateur-hour tour of foreign capitals, partly intended to bolster his diplomatic bona fides. On the domestic front, mastery of the Senate helped Biden, against the odds, achieve a legislative record that may well rival Lyndon Johnson’s.
What about that poll showing that 44% of Democrats don’t want Biden to run? Well, it’s one thing to measure Biden against an unnamed Republican—and another if the opponent is Trump. As Biden likes to say, “Don’t judge me against the Almighty; judge me against the alternative.”
There are inherent risks to sticking with Biden, of course. Mitch McConnell, 81, the Senate minority leader, recently fell and hit his head, resulting in his temporary incapacitation. Biden could be one slip-and-fall away from flipping the script. (Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, a GOP candidate, is already intimating that Biden won’t survive a second term—and that a vote for him is really a vote for Harris.) The president will also be at the mercy of what former Clinton White House chief Mack McLarty calls UFOs—unforeseen occurrences. What if the economy spirals into a recession, or China decides to invade Taiwan, or Hunter Biden’s financial imbroglios turn out to involve his father?
But these are reasonable risks weighed against the prospect of an untested candidate locking horns with Biden—or Trump. “In a different world, I wish we didn’t have an 80-year-old president running for reelection,” says Jack Watson, Carter’s final chief of staff. “But that’s not the world we live in. Given all existing circumstances, I think the president is our strongest and best candidate.”
In any case, Biden’s running. And not just because of Trump. Reaching the Oval Office requires reserves of ego and fire in the belly that can’t simply be switched off. As Richard Ben Cramer wrote of presidents in his book What It Takes: The Way to the White House:
Who are these guys?
What are they like?
…What in their backgrounds could give them that huge ambition, that kind of motor, that will and discipline, that faith in themselves?
Whatever it is, Biden has it. And he will not relinquish the presidency lightly.
My lunch with Zients was almost over. My cue to leave came when his assistant handed him a note. Then she said, pointedly: “(Defense Secretary) Lloyd Austin needs to talk with you now.”
On my way to the southwest gate, I recalled something George W. Bush’s White House chief, Andrew Card, once told me: “If anybody tells you they’re leaving the White House voluntarily, they’re probably lying.” Indeed, the last time a president willingly gave up a White House run was in 1968. That was when Lyndon Johnson, hopelessly mired in the Vietnam War and convinced he had only a few more years to live, declined to run again after Senator Eugene McCarthy, the anti-war candidate, finished a strong second in the New Hampshire Democratic primary.
Joe Biden is no LBJ. Then again, he’s 20 years older than Johnson was when the 36th president left the Oval Office for his ranch in Texas. (LBJ died there at the age of 64, in 1973, which would have marked the end of his second term.)
Last week, I asked one of Biden’s senior advisers if he could imagine any circumstances in which the president would step away.
“What would be interesting,” this adviser said, “is if he could snap his fingers and have someone of his choice as president—would he snap his fingers or not?”
“What do you think?” I asked him.
“No,” he said. And then he laughed out loud.
Chris Whipple, a historian and documentary film producer, is the author of The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency and The Fight of His Life: Inside Joe Biden’s White House.