President Biden’s Succession Problem
For many months — since the 2020 campaign — Republicans have tried to portray Joe Biden as being too old to be president, as mentally deficient, as one small step away from death or disability. Democrats do themselves no favors when they let it be known, as they have in recent polling, that they too think he is too old to run again.
Democratic voters should have more respect for Mr. Biden’s record as president and more confidence in the good judgment of the American people. His recent bravura performance at the State of the Union and his trip to Poland and Ukraine should compel even the most skeptical voters to admit that he is up to the job, at least at this moment. This month his doctor reported that Mr. Biden is “healthy,” “vigorous” and “fit” to carry out the duties of president.
His party should show a united front in support of his re-election. But even as we put our faith in Mr. Biden, the questions about his age and physical condition will not go away, and it’s fair for voters to want reassurances and decisions that show the White House will be in solid hands. He should take steps to make those reassurances, but he, Vice President Kamala Harris and the rest of the party should also consider making some bold decisions to address these actuarial concerns and show they are being taken seriously.
Focusing attention on the issue of succession — and spotlighting the strength of the Democratic bench in the process — would be one of the smartest, most persuasive ways of dealing with this dilemma. When considering who should be his running mate in 2024, Mr. Biden would do well to follow what Franklin D. Roosevelt did in 1944: He expressed a preference for certain candidates but turned the choice of his running mate over to the delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Considering the age factor alone, many experts agree that Mr. Biden is much more likely to die within the next decade than a man 10 years younger. He is the oldest man ever sworn into the office. Only four presidents have died of natural causes while in office, and when elected, none of the four were aged, by today’s standards. The last president to die of natural causes while in office was Roosevelt. He was only 63 when he died, 82 days into his fourth term.
Mr. Biden is showing his age. Because he has been active on the national stage for so many decades, his current condition compares unfavorably with memories of his former self. People remember him when he didn’t whisper or mumble, when his gait was not that of someone concerned about tripping or falling.
Those who love Mr. Biden the most dread the inevitable Republican ad that raises the possibility of his not being able to finish a second term and strings together his most embarrassing bobbles and bloopers into a single 30-second thread. It is no betrayal of him for public-spirited Democrats to want to address these issues head-on, and it is a simple denial of reality for him to say, “I don’t believe the polls” that reflect those concerns.
History offers some bracing reminders for Americans about a president’s health and points to the need for a president to take farsighted action to look out for the country and leadership continuity. According to the presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, in the last week of March 1944, “Roosevelt’s health was deteriorating so steadily that he canceled all appointments and confined himself to his bedroom.” His daughter, Anna, arranged for a checkup at Bethesda Naval Hospital, where a young cardiologist, Dr. Howard Bruenn, examined him. The doctor concluded that, if his congestive heart failure was left untreated, the president was unlikely to survive for more than a year.
When Roosevelt’s prognosis came, it was two months before D-Day and less than four months before the Democrats were scheduled to convene in Chicago to renominate him. He knew full well that there was a good chance that the next vice president — whoever that might be — would be called on to lead the nation.
It would be only natural for this thought to pass through Mr. Biden’s mind as he prepares himself for the presidential election of 2024. And he should take a page from Roosevelt’s book by telling his party that he will not dictate who will be his running mate but instead leave it up to the delegates to pick the person who is best equipped to take on that task.
I do not suggest that Mr. Biden’s physical condition today is as dire as Roosevelt’s in 1944. However, the risk of Mr. Biden’s death or disability in his second term is such that the selection of his running mate takes on new urgency.
Another version of the same drama took place in 1956. After Adlai Stevenson defeated Averell Harriman and Lyndon Johnson to win the Democratic nomination for president a second time, he announced he would leave it up to the delegates to choose the V.P. nominee.
In a wild and exciting race for that nomination, young Democrats like Hubert Humphrey and Albert Gore Sr. took a run at it. In the process, another relatively unknown young Democrat — the junior senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy — became an instant star in the Democratic firmament when he led the race on the second ballot. But other candidates withdrew in favor of Senator Estes Kefauver, who then won by acclamation and joined Stevenson on the ticket, which lost to Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon by a landslide in November.
The politics and processes of picking a national ticket are different today. In 1944 and 1956, conventions actually picked the candidates. The uncertainty and disunity were over quickly.
If the party were to give Democratic voters a role in picking the vice-presidential nominee, it would have to rely on the primaries and caucuses to make the decision. As a practical matter, one way of structuring an open race for the nomination would involve creating a way for voters in Democratic primaries and caucuses to select delegates who support specific tickets. The race could take place among Biden-Harris delegates and — to cite some possible contenders — Biden-Amy Klobuchar delegates and Biden-Cory Booker delegates.
It would take time. Divisions in the party would be on display and even deepen. A charismatic candidate like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez might inspire the base and sweep the field. And perhaps most important, the inevitable messiness of the contest would make it appear that the aging president and his team were not in charge. The White House would want neither the appearance nor the reality of losing control of its own party.
There are countervailing considerations.
Without real campaign activity among Democrats in the lead-up to the 2024 election, media coverage of Republican presidential politics will be intense, with regular bashing of Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris, including attacks and conspiracy theories about the president’s age and health. Republican candidates will get billions of dollars of unpaid advertising through coverage, including regular televised debates in which many of them will raise doubt after doubt about his age and draw contrasts with their age, health and fitness. It is already happening.
Allowing Democratic voters to pick the vice-presidential nominee might address the Democrats’ enthusiasm gap. If the status quo continues, no one on the Democratic side will excite or inspire a crowd. Giving Democratic voters a role in choosing the V.P. nominee would inject electricity and drama into an otherwise predictable if not enervating process. It would allow the Democratic Party to showcase a new generation of younger political leaders who would otherwise be doing nothing more than clapping their hands on the sidelines.
Opening up the V.P. nomination would also give the Democratic Party a chance to test-drive candidates of the future. Who does well in debates? Who does well on the hustings? Who can get voters excited and galvanized?
There will be those who see a decision to let Democratic voters pick Mr. Biden’s running mate as being a betrayal of Ms. Harris. That would be a misreading of the situation. Certainly he would be free to express his views about various possible running mates — as did Roosevelt in 1944 — and there is every reason to think that she would win the nomination on her own. There is nothing disloyal about putting the vice president in a position in which she wins the slot and becomes a more and more proven and battle-tested political leader in the process. If she were to prevail in her effort to be renominated, she would certainly be a stronger candidate and a more powerful vice president.
Giving voters a chance to participate in selecting Mr. Biden’s running mate in 2024 would address the issue of age and succession. It would show him to be confident, engaged, unafraid, farsighted and even vital.
Greg Craig is a lawyer who served in the White House under President Bill Clinton and was a White House counsel under President Barack Obama.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.