There is one big reason why Joe Biden refuses to step aside

Presidents and other politicians used to resign or retire for the good of the country. What's changed?

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published June 30, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump, Kamala Harris and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump, Kamala Harris and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden is running against a man with 34 felony convictions, two impeachments and a historically bungled attempt to manage a pandemic. Even worse, former President Donald Trump is the only president to ever refuse to accept the results of an election if he lost, a petulant and politically perilous practice in which Trump has indulged since before he became president.

An observer might be forgiven for assuming that, as former Trump lawyer Alan Dershowitz told Salon in 2019, the American people would never stand for a president who behaves like Trump. Instead, prior to the first Trump-Biden debate, the current president trailed behind in poll after poll after poll. Even the most optimistic projections gave Biden at best a 50/50 shot of winning — and that was before a debate in which he mumbled, meandered and stared slacked-jawed and vacantly into space. As an 81-year-old man who is by far America's oldest president, Biden had an obligation to dispel concerns about his age. Instead he proved that he either genuinely is too old to be president or was inexcusably incompetent in his preparation.

Given the self-evident disaster that will ensue for democracy if Trump is reelected (as well as the planet, once you factor in Trump's denial of climate change), it still behooves Trump's opponents to do whatever it takes to make sure he loses in November. For that to occur, however, one of two things must happen: Either Biden needs to slay the pride in his soul that chooses self-glorification over patriotism, or Americans need to overcome the ageism that makes so many of them recoil at Biden's obvious advancing years. Neither appears likely to happen — and to understand what ails American politics today, it is useful to examine why.

The former problem — Biden's stubborn insistence on seeking another term despite his weaknesses as a candidate — is part of a troubling pattern. The contours of recent American history are being shaped by the egos that drive powerful leaders to refuse to retire when their time has come. Look at Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, to take a handful of the most conspicuous examples. Our courts are much more conservative, and women's reproductive rights are significantly more restricted, as a result of those politicians' unwillingness to relinquish power. While humans have always been a power-hungry species, the craving has become demonstrably more insatiable in recent years... especially when it comes to presidential politics.

"George Washington set an important precedent for the nation by retiring after two terms so that he wouldn't die in office like a king."

No incumbent president has refused to seek another term in more than half a century since Lyndon Johnson humbly stepped aside in 1968 after his poor showing in the primaries exposed his weaknesses as a candidate. Later Jimmy Carter sought a second term in 1980, despite clear indicators he would lose, and George H. W. Bush made the same choice in 1992. Prior to then, however, it was not uncommon for incumbents who were exhausted, unpopular or both to simply refrain from seeking another term. This list includes John Tyler in 1844, James Polk in 1848, James Buchanan in 1860, Andrew Johnson in 1868, Rutherford Hayes in 1880, Calvin Coolidge in 1928, Harry Truman in 1952 and Johnson in 1968. All decided for various reasons to not seek another term despite being technically eligible candidates (i.e., they were legally allowed to run again and would not have exceeded a total of eight years in office if they had won). Only three incumbents in American history have ever sought their party's renomination and been outright rebuffed: Millard Fillmore in 1852 and Franklin Pierce in 1856 (both elections shortly before the Civil War), and Chester Arthur in 1884 (who was almost renominated despite struggling with a fatal illness, Bright's disease). By contrast, eleven incumbent presidents have sought reelection and lost, more than one-third of them in the last half-century: John Adams in 1800, John Q. Adams in 1828, Martin Van Buren in 1840, Grover Cleveland in 1888, Benjamin Harrison in 1892, William Taft in 1912, Herbert Hoover in 1932, Gerald Ford in 1976, Carter in 1980, Bush in 1992 and Trump in 2020.

This pattern of presidential selfishness even extends to impeachments. Of the three presidents to be impeached in modern history (four if you count Richard Nixon, who would have been impeached had he not resigned first), only one (Nixon) resigned in order to spare America the ordeal of a prolonged trial. The next two presidents to be impeached, Bill Clinton and Trump, stayed in office regardless of the consequences for America. America even had a Supreme Court judge, Abe Fortas, resign because of a financial scandal rather than allow it to impugn the reputation of the court, a concern that does not seem to beset today's allegedly corrupt judges Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

Why? What has changed since the 1970s?

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The answer is semi-psychological. While it is difficult for people who toil at miserable jobs to appreciate, individuals who sincerely enjoy their work do not want to quit for a simple reason: their specific employment is pleasurable to them. In an April article from Fortune, journalist Alicia Adamczyk profiled baby boomers who refuse to leave their jobs because they enjoy working and fear the sense of purposelessness and boredom that often accompanies retirement. A recent Pew poll found the number of Americans who choose to work past the age of 65 has quadrupled since the 1980s. While there is an important caveat to this research — it applies only to Baby Boomers even though some modern politicians (like Biden and McConnell) are actually older than Boomers — it nevertheless sheds light on one reason why Biden won't step aside from seeking a second term when so many of his predecessors did so. He likes the job of president and does not want to give it up.

"Yes, those in positions of power generally (but not always) want to stay in power," said Dr. S. Jay Olshansky, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago who specializes in demographics and gerontology. "President George Washington did not follow this apparent rule – he intentionally gave up power for the good of the country. The question about power does not just apply to political power – it can apply to any position, and it's more about being important, and needed, and valued, than it is about power. As such, this is a reason many people don't want to retire."

"Ageism is real. But today’s 70 is yesterday’s 50, thanks to modern medicine."

Olshansky added, "As long as they can do their job and do it well, and most important of all, they enjoy what they do, they don't want to give it up. Have you ever heard of PIPs? Previously Important People – these are folks that often regret retiring because they lose their personal value post retirement, which is often defined by one's job or position. Some enjoy being a PIP."

There is more to this than psychology, however. Just as Washington famously warned that a demagogue might refuse to relinquish power after losing an election (which did not happen until Trump lost to Biden in 2020), so too did the founding fathers in general worry about politicians choosing to act like royalty. They specifically worried that politicians would view their vocation as a long-term career and ultimately lose touch with the people they are meant to serve.

"George Washington set an important precedent for the nation by retiring after two terms so that he wouldn't die in office like a king," Dr. Jonathan W. White, a professor of American studies at Christopher Newport University, told Salon. "Other founding documents also capture a sense of hostility toward what we would today call career politicians. In the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), for example, George Mason wrote that political leaders should 'be reduced to a private station, [and] return into that body from which they were originally taken' so that they can feel 'the burthens of the people' and be 'restrained from oppression.' In other words, Founders like Mason worried that career politicians would lose touch with what it was like to be an ordinary citizen, so they wanted politicians to have to leave office at fixed times."

White added, "The Anti-Federalists feared that politicians would lose touch with the people."

It is not always a bad thing for politicians to stay in office past the point when their health would seem to make doing so advisable. Harold Holzer, the Jonathan F. Fanton Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College, brought up Franklin Roosevelt's unprecedented (and to this day solitary) fourth presidential campaign in 1944. In that year, Roosevelt sought an additional term even though he knew that he had high blood pressure and came from a long line of men who died early from strokes.

"As an example of people staying perhaps too long—but all for the good: FDR ran for a fourth White House term in 1944 when he knew, or should have known, he could never survive the entire term," Holzer said. "He picked a good vice president [Harry Truman]. And he believed only he could bring the war to a successful conclusion. I think he was right, even though he was a very old 62."

By contrast to non-elderly presidents struggling with serious health maladies — another famous example is Woodrow Wilson, who clung to power for the last year-and-a-half of his second term despite having suffered an incapacitating stroke — there are also political leaders who can serve but are wrongly disparaged due to ageism.

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"Ageism is rearing its ugly head as news stories appear repeatedly with stereotypes of politicians acting in ways that the writers view as associated with decrepitude and decline," Olshansky said. "Most younger people have yet to experience the importance of wisdom that comes with the passage of time, and they may use stereotypes of older people to define everyone that reaches older ages. Many of the most valued members of our society are those that have developed the wisdom and experience that comes with the passage of time."

Olshansky also told Salon that, when he speaks to young students in their early 20s, they almost all say there is nothing desirable about growing older. These prejudices no doubt fuel the perception among many that Biden is simply too old for the job.

"The reason they give is that they associate growing older only with loss, decline, decay, and decrepitude," Olshansky said. "They can't see the many advantages of age because they haven't experienced it yet. If you ask older individuals if they would like to go back in time to their early years, most say they wouldn't mind occupying their younger bodies, but the thought of being insecure, with little life experience, emotional insecurities, an unsettled love life, no job, little or no money, etc. etc., is very unappealing. Older individuals should be thought of as one of society's most precious resources that should be nurtured and valued, not discarded. Younger people should aspire to get there healthy rather than fearing extended survival."

While Olshansky's observations are valid, they do not cancel out the practical concerns about Biden's candidacy. Even if Americans are being prejudiced rather than rational in deeming Biden too old to serve, a strong case can be made that one does not try to force millions to abandon their prejudices — however unfair — when the consequence of them failing to do so is the rise of fascism.

Scores of Democratic pundits are making the case that Biden should drop out. In my opinion, Joe Biden should do what Woodrow Wilson should have done in 1919: Resign. His vice president, Kamala Harris, will automatically become his heir apparent (thus sparing the Democrats a potentially volatile succession scramble). If Americans react to Thursday's debate by simply breaking down the logistics of replacing Biden, however, they will miss a much more important observation.

Long after the 2024 election is part of the history books, America will still face leaders who refuse to retire even when doing so is in the best interest of their nation. If we want to avoid more scenarios like the Trump-Biden debate, we must acknowledge the toxic aspects of our collective psyche that got us there in the first place.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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2024 Presidential Election Ageism Commentary Donald Trump Joe Biden Kamala Harris