Joe Biden spent the bulk of his adult life running for president or auditioning to be president. Now he is president, and yet the notion that he might walk away from the job while he still has a choice in the matter remains a source of undimmed speculation rare in the postwar era. No one seriously believed that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, or any president over the past half century would forgo a second term as long as there was the faintest hope of winning one. But Biden is a unique case. Wittingly or not, he gave rise to the prospect of bowing out after four years when he described himself during the 2020 campaign as a “bridge” to a younger generation of political leaders.
He’s 78, after all, older than Ronald Reagan when he left the White House after two terms. You don’t need to buy into Trump’s cartoon portrait of Biden as enfeebled and infirm to suspect that the rigors of office could push him into one-and-done territory. “I worry that he may not, for health reasons, be able to continue serving until 2024,” John Maa, a Democratic national-finance-committee member who is a surgeon, told me. “As a doctor, I do have some concerns about the relentless daily stress and anxiety for someone his age.” Or, as a former Biden campaign adviser told me, “That job sucks the life out of you if you’re 30 years younger than he is.”
Answering a question at his first formal news conference, Biden said his “expectation” is that he’ll run again—an elastic formulation that’s strong enough to stave off perceptions of him as a lame duck while squishy enough that if he does decide to head back to Wilmington, Delaware, in 2024, he won’t be seen as having misled anyone. (In the spring of 2008, it’s worth remembering, Senator Biden told the press that he had “made it clear” to the Democratic presidential candidates he didn’t want to be vice president.) “This is a president who, if you think of his life history, is more aware than most of how little you can plan your life ahead,” Michael Beschloss, who was among a group of historians who met with Biden in the East Room last month, told me. “He is not someone who thinks, as some politicians do, that you can map out what you’ll be doing five years or nine years from now.”
Whatever path Biden takes, he’s governing in a style that serves his interests: He’s going big, and he’s going big right away. He knows he can’t depend on Democrats retaining control of Congress over four years; the incumbent president’s party typically loses seats in midterm elections. So, this fleeting moment when his approval rating is high may be his best—and only—window to leave an enduring imprint. He’s already passed a nearly $2 trillion package meant to give an immediate jolt to the economy and relief to households stricken by the pandemic.
Now he’s pushing to enact another multitrillion-dollar package shorthanded as an “infrastructure bill,” but that in scope and ambition rivals the transformative initiatives that came from Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. Among many projects, the bill promises to bring high-speed internet to the one-third of Americans living in rural households who don’t have it—a parallel to New Deal legislation that brought electricity to isolated farms. Embedded in the plan is a racial-justice dimension that harkens back to Johnson’s War on Poverty. Biden pledges to replace lead pipes that have befouled drinking water in minority communities and reconnect neighborhoods that have been cut off by freeways, such as the elevated stretch of Interstate 10 that upended life in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans.
Moving quickly and thinking expansively suits Biden’s needs under any scenario. If he goes home after one term, he’ll have created a legacy for himself and an enviable record for his successor to trumpet. One House Democrat told me that he believes Biden is “going for broke because he’s not running again.” Should Biden seek a second term, he’ll be able to protect programs that are going to need plenty of tending. Trump’s unstinting efforts to unravel Obama’s agenda shows what can happen when one party loses the White House to the other. What would be the expiration date on Biden’s planned Civilian Climate Corps (echoes of Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps) if the 47th presidency was in the caring hands of Ted Cruz?
Having come so far, Biden may be in no hurry to vacate the office he’s coveted for so long. “He wants to govern for eight years,” Wade Randlett, a Democratic fundraiser and Biden supporter, told me. “He spent 50 years with his nose pressed against the glass and eight years really, really close to the presidency. Now he’s got it.” A president is also surrounded by a massive apparatus that can compensate for many of the infirmities that come with age. Assuming he needs it. “He’s a very young 78 years old. He really is,” Jon Cooper, a longtime Biden backer, told me. The job of Biden’s staff is to plan that he’s running again and leave him optimally positioned to win. That is how Biden’s political operation is proceeding. The Democratic National Committee, now headed by a Biden pick, the former South Carolina senate candidate Jaime Harrison, sent out a fundraising solicitation last week offering those who have raised $500,000 a “guaranteed 2024 Convention Package.”