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Biden shouldn't rule out a second term if he wins (opinion)

CNN logo CNN 8/15/2020 Opinion by Lincoln Mitchell
Joe Biden wearing a suit and tie: Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event at the William "Hicks" Anderson Community Center in Wilmington, Delaware, on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) © Andrew Harnik/AP Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event at the William "Hicks" Anderson Community Center in Wilmington, Delaware, on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

It has become almost conventional wisdom that if Joseph Biden is elected President this November he will only serve one term and not seek reelection in 2024.

Given Biden's age, this makes intuitive sense. At 77, he is already the oldest person ever to be a major party candidate for President. Although his doctor says he's in good health for a man his age, there is no guarantee that he will remain so for another four years, let alone eight.

This reality framed Biden's decision about choosing a running mate. Because of his age, Biden needed to choose somebody who would be ready to govern right away. This meant that Biden could not consider candidates who may have been dynamic and brilliant but were also younger and inexperienced.

Stacey Abrams, for example, might have been in play for vice president with a younger nominee, but Biden could not have picked somebody with her limited experience. Other candidates whose lack of experience hurt them included Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Biden's eventual choice, Kamala Harris, has the experience and ability to assume the presidency right away if something were to happen to Biden.

Although there may be many good reasons why Biden should only serve one term as President, announcing that decision could badly undermine Biden's presidency. An effective President must be able to cajole, negotiate and even threaten both the legislature and various elements of the executive branch and the bureaucracy.

The ability of any President to do that depends on people in Congress and government believing he will be in power for a few more years.

Once Biden signals that he is definitely not seeking reelection, members of Congress from both parties, as well as others throughout the government, do not need to engage with him as much and have much less reason to fear him.

Additionally, as soon as it is clear that Biden is not seeking reelection, the race to succeed him, particularly within his own party, will begin in earnest. This would create disunity and competition within the Democratic Party at a time when it is essential to unify the party behind the new President's agenda.

If Biden becomes President his success could depend largely on his ability to persuade Congress, the media and the rest of Washington that he is going to seek a second term in office. If he can do that, he will have the full array of tools at his disposal as he seeks to pass what will likely be an ambitious legislative agenda.

This will be particularly important with regards to the Senate, where after the election it is likely that the Democrats will either have a very slim majority or be just a few votes short of that majority.

In either case, Biden will need every vote he can get in the upper chamber. If members of the Senate think the President might be in office for eight years, they will be more vulnerable to whatever political hardball Biden, who knows the Senate well, can play.

Moreover, if even four or five Democratic senators are already focusing on their own possible presidential runs shortly after Biden takes office, squabbling in the Senate will be inevitable and make it more difficult for Biden to get his legislation passed.

The problem facing Biden is the widespread belief that he will be a one-term President, not least because he has all but said that himself. Biden must find a way to change this perception.

The reality of his age makes this difficult. Convincing the American people that an 81-year-old man could plausibly run for president in 2024 would not be easy.

To put this in perspective, when Ronald Reagan was reelected in 1984, he was 69 years old on Election Day and was, at that time, the oldest person ever elected President. Donald Trump was a few months older and had already turned 70 when he was elected in 2016.

While increased life spans and different attitudes about aging between the 1980s and today may play a role, we still question the ability of an older candidate to withstand the rigor of the campaign, let alone the presidency. When Barack Obama was choosing a running mate in 2008, one of the reasons he was drawn to Biden was because it was assumed that Biden would be too old to run in 2016.

Despite his age, it is possible that Biden can run for a second term, but to do this he must manage his presidency extremely well and delegate authority very clearly.

A Biden presidency where he is deeply involved in the day-to-day challenges of governing is not sustainable over eight years. But could work is a two-term presidency where his time is used judiciously, where he is well staffed and where much of his role is mobilizing public opinion, conducting foreign policy only at the highest levels and functioning as a closer when negotiating with Congress.

The model for this from a managerial, although not ideological, perspective would be Reagan (though there were certainly questions about Reagan's mental acuity in his second term).

Biden ultimately could change his mind about running for a second term down the road. However, if he is elected in November, he cannot squander his political power by immediately making himself a lame duck and incentivizing internal attacks on his administration.

Harris brings a lot to the ticket and can help unify the party, but if she is seen as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 2024, Democratic unity will not last long.

If Harris is not expected to run until 2028, other prominent Democrats will not see themselves as in competition from the start of the Biden administration. Otherwise that is precisely what will happen the moment Biden announces he only plans to serve a single term.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Lincoln Mitchell © Courtesy Lincoln Mitchell Lincoln Mitchell

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