President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are each offering a stark glimpse at the political liabilities that have many Americans wishing they had other options in 2024.
Biden, 81, is angrily refuting questions about his age and memory, struggling to lay to rest anxiety among voters that he wouldn’t be capable of serving a full second term.
But far from exploiting the president’s rough patch, Trump offered a stunning display of extremism at the weekend, raising fresh questions over his fitness for the Oval Office.
The comparison between the likely general election opponents helps explain why polls show limited enthusiasm for both men, each of whom is unpopular outside their core constituencies.
Biden would be the more conventional choice because Trump is promising one of the most tumultuous second terms in US history. But as the president’s campaign gathers pace, his troubles are complicating his effort to convince Americans that Trump would destroy American democracy and would shatter the country’s reputation abroad.
Trump is giving every impression that his second term would be even more aberrant than his first, as he vows to use presidential power to exact retribution against his enemies. But he’s nevertheless closely matched with Biden in polling and has a real chance to win.
While a Biden vs. Trump race would be a rematch of 2020, it would not necessarily be the same. The sitting president is four years older, and age questions are even more acute. And Trump is even more radical and unchained than when he left office.
How Biden and Trump are putting their political weaknesses on display
The different liabilities both would bring to the race were on display during the frantic last few days.
In Trump, voters can pick an ex-president facing 91 criminal charges who has been found liable for fraud, sexual battery and defamation in court. Trump, 77, tried to stay in power after losing reelection in 2020. This weekend, Trump sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin over NATO allies and mocked the military service of GOP rival Nikki Haley’s husband.
This week, the ex-president faces a set of court deadlines and hearings that will renew the focus on his seemingly endless threats to the rule of law.
In Biden, voters must decide whether to reelect the oldest president ever, at 81, who is angrily refuting claims of a declining memory following a damning assessment of his faculties by a special counsel.
The president, who warns Trump is a danger to democracy, is visibly aging while mixing up the names of foreign leaders, and polls show overwhelming skepticism among the public about his reelection plans.
The key question voters will face is not whether Biden is fit to serve as commander in chief now, but rather: Will he still be by the end of a second term, when he would be 86?
Multiple polls have shown how little voters like the alternatives they will almost certainly get in the 2024 election. And while partisans may already be locked in, the comparison between the sitting president and the former one, both of whom crave a second term, will be critical in the handful of swing states where a relatively small number of voters will be decisive. The debate over Biden’s age and Trump’s fitness for office help explain why there’s a possibility that several third-party or independent candidates — for instance, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — could have an outsize impact on the destiny of the White House. But while speculation will mount about how either party might thwart a 2020 election replay, practical impediments make the idea of dumping a potential nominee an almost unthinkable scenario.
Over the weekend, Trump showed how his uncontrolled stream of rhetoric and insults can often be politically counterproductive and play into the core narratives of Biden’s campaign.
In a shocking remark at a rally in South Carolina on Saturday, Trump said he would encourage Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to any NATO member country that didn’t meet the alliance’s guidelines for defense spending.
Trump’s comments reveal his view of NATO not as the main driver of peace in Europe for half a century but as a protection racket. His comments are also dangerous, since the alliance’s credibility relies on Russia believing that members would defend an ally that was attacked, in line with Article 5 commitments. Any sense this is false could lead to miscalculations in Moscow. And this is just the latest in a long list of occasions in which the ex-president has appeared to indulge Putin’s goals instead of traditional US national interests.
Biden warned in a statement that his likely opponent was unsuitable to be commander in chief. “Donald Trump’s admission that he intends to give Putin a greenlight for more war and violence, to continue his brutal assault against a free Ukraine, and to expand his aggression to the people of Poland and the Baltic States are appalling and dangerous,” Biden said.
Trump’s defenders insist his comments are merely a ruse to get NATO members — some of whom are still short of their targets — to spend more on defense. Defense spending rose in some cases following Trump’s pressure in his first term — although his ranting about NATO members not paying their “bills” was not the only factor. Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, who was a conventional hawkish conservative when he ran against Trump in 2016, defended the ex-president Sunday. “Donald Trump is not a member of the Council on Foreign Relations,” Rubio said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “He doesn’t talk like a traditional politician, and we’ve already been through this. You would think people would’ve figured it out by now.”
Still, Trump caused alarm in Europe. Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, called his remarks “reckless.” And Trump’s statement will refuel speculation about the odd nature of his relationship with Putin, who is accused of war crimes and has directly targeted civilians in Ukraine. It will also renew fears that Trump would try to pull the US out of NATO if he’s reelected, which would delight Russia.
Trump’s comments also come as his GOP allies, especially in the House, are trying to thwart Biden’s new aid package for Ukraine, a sovereign democracy invaded by the Russian autocrat in the widest European land war since World War II. And the sympathetic interview of Putin last week by Tucker Carlson, the far-right populist broadcaster, only underscores the Trump GOP’s embrace of Putinism.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Former President Donald Trump speaks in Conway, South Carolina, on February 10, 2024.
Trump’s contempt for those who serve in the military — was also highlighted in his South Carolina speech. He asked of Haley’s husband, Michael: “Where is he? He’s gone,” apparently arguing that his rival’s spouse knew her campaign would not do well. Michael Haley is on a yearlong deployment in Africa.
Nikki Haley targeted Trump on X, saying: “Michael is deployed serving our country, something you know nothing about. Someone who continually disrespects the sacrifices of military families has no business being commander in chief.” This is far from the first time that Trump has disparaged the military service of political opponents. He’s still attacking the late Arizona Sen. John McCain after mocking his incarceration and the injuries he sustained when his plane went down and he was tortured during the Vietnam War.
Trump’s conduct was not just typical of the way he has crushed every tradition of presidential decorum. It also offered a potential roadmap to the substance and character of his possible second term.
At the same time, Trump’s weekend eruptions also show why he may be a compromised general-election candidate. They played directly into Biden’s claims that he’s too extreme and too morally challenged to be president again. And Trump’s latest outbursts are politically self-defeating: They took attention away from Biden’s frantic attempts at damage control following special counsel Robert Hur’s devastating assessment of Biden as an “elderly man with a poor memory.” Much has been written about the new, disciplined Trump campaign. But the ex-president is reminding voters of his volatile first term, which included two impeachments.
The White House and Biden’s allies spent the weekend fighting back following a late Thursday news conference at which the president vented about Hur’s findings. The event may have exacerbated Biden’s political problems since he mixed up the presidents of Egypt and Mexico, following several similar occasions last week when he referred to long-dead European leaders with whom he interacted in the 1980s rather their more recent successors.
The acute political problem Biden faces was underscored by a new ABC News/Ipsos poll published Sunday in which 86% of Americans said Biden was too old to serve another term. The figure includes 59% of Americans who think both he and Trump are too old and 27% who think only Biden is too old.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
President Joe Biden speaks at the White House on February 8, 2024.
Here’s Biden’s problem: It’s politically corrosive when a critical narrative takes hold about a president and subsequent events appear to validate it. Every flub or mistake the president makes — after a lifetime of verbal slips and gaffes — now plays into the perception that he’s losing his grip mentally. And his age is a political problem that can’t be fixed. The danger is that voters who see him onstage begin to find it impossible to get past and therefore don’t judge him on his successes as president, his program for a second term or the comparison between him and Trump.
Multiple Democrats have attested to Biden’s mental acuity since Thursday. “I have seen the president twice in the last two weeks,” Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.” The California lawmaker added: “I have had a conversation with him. He’s completely mentally sharp when we were discussing the Middle East.”
But when Biden’s allies are forced to talk about his age, they inevitably draw attention back to the biggest liability for a president who polls show is struggling to create enthusiasm among grassroots Democrats and who may have trouble in reunifying his 2020 coalition, especially when it comes to younger and minority voters.
Many Democrats also believe Trump is getting a pass when it comes to age and mental sharpness. While Biden’s missteps get great attention, Trump’s speeches often degenerate into nonsensical reflections. He recently mixed up Haley and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And while his manic presentation style may look energetic and disguise his age in comparison with Biden’s, he’d also be an octogenarian in the White House if he wins a second term.
The renewed focus on Biden’s age is likely to open another round of speculation about whether he could be replaced on the Democratic ticket. But barring some unforeseen health event or a late decision by Biden to fold his campaign, this is highly unlikely. For all the focus on the president’s liabilities, no younger Democrat, with the exception of his long-shot primary rival Rep. Dean Phillips, has emerged to challenge Biden, perhaps to avoid damaging their own political futures.
Could the Democratic Party pick an alternative candidate at its summer convention? It’s unlikely. Biden controls the infrastructure of the party — his rejigging of the primary calendar to insulate himself from challenges is proof of that. There’s no sign any major party figure is willing to tell him to step aside or to organize any attempt to topple him. Any convention maneuvering would also follow months of primaries in which Democratic voters are likely to massively endorse Biden, so any attempt to topple him would fly in the face of the democratic principles that Democrats say they are trying to preserve. Had Vice President Kamala Harris been a striking success, there would be more pressure on Biden to yield to a younger successor. But her approval ratings are very low. Haley, for instance, sees Harris as such a political liability that she warns voters they could vote for Biden and get Harris as president.
The time for moving on from Trump has also passed. Despite his four indictments, the ex-president’s dominance over Haley and other rivals in early nominating contests has crushed the notion that if only he faced a one-on-one fight, he’d be defeated by anti-Trump forces in the party.
So it’s hard to see any way out of the choice America appears not to want. While there are are stark policy differences between Biden and Trump, the 2024 election could still come down to voters picking between Biden’s perceived declining capabilities and Trump’s wild, anti-democratic and autocratic instincts.