Someone Needs to Take Biden’s Keys

The alternative is too horrible to contemplate.

Joe Biden
Gerald Herbert / AP

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My grandfather was a mortal threat behind the wheel of his Oldsmobile. In imperfect anticipation of yellow lights, he would stop unexpectedly at intersections. He drove 30 miles an hour on the freeway. One day his vision occluded, and he couldn’t see clearly into the distance. Yet he would still occasionally grab the keys, put my grandmother and her clutch of coupons in the passenger seat, and head to the grocery store. We failed to take the keys away at the opportune moment, and then struggled when the risks he posed were unquestionably worse. That’s the nature of families confronting the mortality of a loved one.

The group around President Joe Biden is familial to the core. The newbies in his inner circle have worked for him for 20 years; the veterans have been around since the early ’80s. To his closest advisers, Joe Biden is a figure frozen in time, still the domineering patriarch who dispenses love and throws tantrums. They crave his affection, they navigate his anger, they calibrate their arguments to appeal to his predilections. In the structure that Biden has erected around himself in the White House, he is his own top adviser.

Watching a parent age is inherently difficult. Nobody wants to believe that the most important figure in their life is approaching the end. It’s even harder for staffers whose entire identity is wrapped up in their association with the career of one political figure. To admit his end is to provoke a crisis in their own professional life. If I’m not whispering in Biden’s ear, then what am I?

Aging is nonlinear, which makes it difficult to track. Biden, as anyone who watches cable news knows, has good days and bad days. At moments, he resembles his old self, bristling with feisty energy. Those are the wishful data points that become the basis for comforting stories about how he always pulls through in the end.

And aging accelerates in reaction to events. Campaigns, even one lightly prosecuted, are famously hell on the body. The stress of managing multiple wars turns even youthful aides into sad middle-aged specimens. A child of the Cold War, Joe Biden is consumed with worry about possible nuclear war, not a relaxing thought to have constantly coursing through one’s brain. Biden is a different human being than he was a year ago, because the presidency is the opposite of a hyperbaric chamber.

That makes the failure of the Democratic establishment to take the age question more seriously harder to understand, because the notion of having an 86-year-old president has always defied understanding.

When I talk with aides on the inside, they never question Biden’s governing capacity. Perhaps this is their own wishful thinking. Perhaps they are better able to see how the benefits of experience overwhelm his inability to recall a name. But it’s also the product of a delusion among the Democratic elite about what constitutes effective leadership. Governing competently is different from campaigning competently. The ability to think strategically about China, or to negotiate a complicated piece of bipartisan legislation, is not the limit of politics. It’s not enough to deliver technocratic accomplishments or to prudently manage a chaotic global scene—a politician must also connect with the voters, and convince them that they’re in good hands. And the Biden presidency has always required explaining away the fact that the public wasn’t buying what he was selling, even when the goods seemed particularly attractive.

So here we are, at a very late hour, when changing the nominee would be hard for Democrats, but remains a plausible option. But if there are problems with the Democratic establishment, at least it’s still an establishment, with the capacity to impose its will. And based on every despairing text that I received last night, even from senior members of the administration, many of whom self-medicated their way through the debate with booze, that will is now abundant. (Take it away, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Hakeem Jeffries, Chuck Schumer.)

A courageous politician can seize the first-mover advantage and make the argument that was plain to all viewers last night. Biden aides have always disparaged Kamala Harris sotto voce, undermining the very notion of her potential candidacy. But if she’s not the right candidate to step forward, then it’s imperative that another prominent Democrat immediately fill the void. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate.

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