Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. He is the author of “Lincoln and the Fight for Peace.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Halfway through his first term and on the eve of his second State of the Union, we can start to see the outlines of how President Joe Biden is going to be judged in the eyes of history — and ask whether his legacy is likely to be strengthened or weakened if he runs for a second term.
Conventional wisdom seems to be congealing around the idea that Biden will run for reelection. Normally, this would be a given. All the inertia pulls in that direction — the sense of purpose and power and prestige are not given up easily, either by a president or his senior staff. But there are still good reasons for Biden to consider bowing out on his own terms with his reputation as a consequential president intact.
This is not an easy call. It requires weighing the risks and rewards of pursuing reelection for a man who would be 86 at the end of his second term while considering the historic trend of second terms ending in disappointment. But just judging by his accomplishments to date, Biden has earned a shot at renomination. He has already established himself as a consequential president in his first two years — defying the odds and expectations.
He took office in a time of national crisis, with a divisive predecessor who lied about the 2020 election results, spurring an attack on our Capitol, in the middle of a pandemic that has killed more than a million Americans. Objectively, the United States is in far better shape two years into Biden’s administration than it was when he took office.
Of course, Biden has not healed our political divisions — no one could — and he has had his share of stumbles and minor scandals, leading to an underwater approval rating. But in relatively short order, he has restored personal decency to the Oval Office and presided over a solid record of legislative accomplishments that rivals any modern American president.
Biden helped cobble together a bipartisan coalition of senators to pass the largest infrastructure bill in our nation’s history — a goal that multiple presidents had promised and failed to achieve. He successfully pushed for the bipartisan passage of a major American industrial policy known as the CHIPs Act, focused on investment in high-tech research and development to counter China’s rise. And he capped it off with a massive, Democratic-backed investment to combat climate change while giving Medicare the power to negotiate the prices of some prescription drugs, paid for by a 15% minimum tax on corporate profits.
On the economic front, more than half a million new jobs were added to the economy in January alone, bringing Biden’s total to almost 11 million, with the lowest unemployment rate since before man landed on the moon, despite stubbornly high inflation. Main Street growth is outpacing Wall Street for the first time in decades — while deficits have been cut in half under Biden, but remain above pre-pandemic levels.
On foreign policy, America’s image on the world stage has rebounded under President Biden, according to surveys conducted by Pew Research in 2021 and 2022. Biden has earned credit for warning a world in denial about the danger of a Russian invasion in Ukraine and then corralling sustained allied support for Kyiv.
Under this longtime believer in multilateral institutions, NATO is stronger and more united than any time since the Cold War and could be on the verge of expansion with the inclusion of Finland and Sweden. Determination to counter China’s expansionist ambitions has continued despite what conservatives’ campaigns have claimed? — but with more of a focus on steady results and less bellicose rhetoric. The chaotic and tragic Afghanistan withdrawal is the obvious low point of Biden’s foreign policy record, with the Taliban returning to its brutal fundamentalist form.
Add to that the fact that the 2022 midterms were the most successful of any Democratic president in a quarter century. Instead of the traditional shellacking, Democrats gained a seat in the Senate and only narrowly lost the House. Independent voters actually swung toward the incumbent party — something unheard of in recent decades. Yes, this can be seen as primarily a rejection of Trump-backed election-deniers’ extremism, but it still happened on Biden’s watch, despite his underwater job approval rating and stubbornly high inflation rates at the time.
So why not just build on this record of success and run for a second term? Well, there are two intertwining factors that should weigh heavily on the White House: the fact that Biden is already America’s oldest president and the fact that second terms are usually defined by disappointments and outright disasters.
Let’s take on the age question, first. Republican slurs that Biden is mentally impaired are fear-mongering politics of the variety that said President Barack Obama couldn’t speak effectively without a teleprompter. But it is fair to point out that age takes a toll – especially in the gilded pressure cooker of the presidency. Biden is, of course, America’s oldest executive and he does not have the physical vigor we traditionally expect from presidents. And while there are many different ways to be 75 or 80, there are few 85-year-olds who are as mentally crisp as they were even a decade before.
Now, add the historical likelihood that scandals and mistakes compound in a second term. The record isn’t great, from Richard Nixon’s resignation to Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal to Bill Clinton’s impeachment to George W. Bush’s Katrina chaos. The recovery of classified documents at Biden’s home and office are a reminder of how scandals can sideswipe an administration on a random Tuesday and leave it playing defense — and the House Republican investigations into the business practices of his son Hunter Biden promise more scrutiny on family finances — and those are the known unknowns we can anticipate.
But let’s be real — a big part of the reluctance to bow out is about giving up the advantage of incumbency. Only 11 presidents have failed to win reelection. Democrats are rational in not wanting to give away this power. If Biden didn’t run, it would open the floodgates for a messy Democratic primary contest with no obvious frontrunner. Trump’s candidacy is ironically one of the chief arguments for Biden staying in the game — he would have the clear edge in a rematch that most Americans do not want to see. But if the GOP has the discipline to nominate a younger and less damaged candidate, Biden could be weakened by the contrast.
With all that to weigh, consider the alternative: Biden’s reputation might be enhanced in history’s eyes if he were to bow out on his own terms after four years. He would be a Cincinnatus figure, voluntarily giving up political power to focus on long-term policy — a revolutionary act in contrast to his predecessor’s sick willingness to overturn an election to stay in power. Stepping away from power would provide an indelible example of democratic values in action, putting country over party while passing a torch to a new generation to lead the nation, which was one of his core campaign pitches when he first ran for the presidency.
Whether or not Biden runs for reelection, there are still big things he could get done in his remaining two years — even with a Republican House of Representatives. He could propose comprehensive immigration reform that begins with strengthening border security first. He could build on bipartisan support for algorithm reforms that protect children online and stop the amplification of extremist groups and conspiracy theories. There is renewed focus on the need for police reform and reinvestment. Finally, he could champion civics education, creating a baseline of common understanding of our democratic republic while defusing the culture wars playing out in our schools.
The temptations to run for reelection are strong and understandable. But viewing this decision with a sense of historic perspective might inspire Biden and his family to look past the gravitational pull of the office and more toward his place in presidential rankings.