In retrospect, Joe Biden probably wishes he’d never uttered these words in public. Maybe it was just youthful exuberance: He was, after all, only 77 at the time.
“Look, I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else,” Biden said at a rally in Detroit, one of his last pre-lockdown campaign appearances of the 2020 Democratic primaries. It was early March, and he was flanked by Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and a pair of his former rivals, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker—all members of what Biden would call “an entire generation of leaders” and “the future of this country.”
Few paid much attention to the future president’s remarks at the time. They appeared consistent with a prevailing assumption about his campaign: that Biden was running as an emergency-stopgap option. And once the emergency—Donald Trump—was dealt with, the old pro was expected to make way for that “entire generation.”
“I view myself as a transition candidate,” Biden said during an online fundraiser shortly after he gave his bridge speech, according to The New York Times.
Biden never explicitly said he would serve just one term, but multiple outlets reported that he and his advisers discussed making such a pledge. His allies reinforced the notion, even as Biden himself denied it. “It is virtually inconceivable that he will run for reelection in 2024, when he would be the first octogenarian president,” Politico reported in December 2019, citing four unnamed sources who spoke regularly with Biden.
As it would turn out, the “bridge” declaration proved to be one of Biden’s most memorable utterances of the past four years. The line has been quoted a great deal, especially lately—or hurled at him, usually by someone pointing out that this bridge seems to be stretching on much longer than anyone expected.
Americans are plainly impatient for Biden to retire already, a point hammered home by the preponderance of poll respondents—including Democrats and independents—who say Biden should not be seeking a second term that would begin after his 82nd birthday. Elected Democrats, operatives, and donors keep saying the same in private, while an array of op-ed and cable kibitzers have exhaled a steady barrage on this subject. (The Atlantic has also explored this topic.)
But put aside the usual questions about Biden’s age and fitness to endure another campaign or term. What’s often overlooked in these discussions is the depth of frustration behind this public skittishness. It goes beyond the hand-wringing about possible health catastrophes that could befall the president at the worst possible time (i.e., next October). The displeasure over Biden’s determination to keep going suggests that voters might perceive him as acting selfishly, or that they feel misled by a candidate who ran for president on the pretense of a short-term fix, only to remain ensconced as a long-term proposition.
When Biden ran in 2020, several friends and aides reportedly advised him to come out and say he would serve just one term, because that was understood to be his intent anyway. But he was loath to announce himself as a lame duck earlier than he had to. This was consistent with a Biden decree, dating at least to his days as vice president, when people asked whether he would consider running to succeed Obama. “Nobody in D.C. gains influence by declaring they are playing out the string,” Politico’s Glenn Thrush wrote in a profile of Biden, headlined “Joe Biden in Winter.” That was in 2014.
In politics, Biden would tell people around him, you are either on your way up or on your way down—and there is no reason for a leader of any age to ever deny interest in moving up unless they want to declare themselves irrelevant to the future.
Even so, the 2020 election was less about the future than it was about surviving a ghastly present. Biden came back to do a specific job. “I think it’s really, really important that Donald Trump not be re-elected,” Biden told me during the 2020 campaign, when I asked him why on Earth he was putting himself through another race at his age. “Don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative,” he was always saying.
Biden and his aides didn’t shy from the label of “transition candidate” and typically were noncommittal on the prospect of a second term—right up until Biden transitioned himself into the White House and became much more definitive. “The answer is yes,” Biden said at a news conference in March 2021, the first time he was asked as president whether he would run again in 2024. “My plan is to run for reelection,” he continued. “That’s my expectation.”
In fact, pollsters and focus-group facilitators report that many of their subjects still haven’t fully accepted that Biden decided to run again. “It seems pretty implicit in the way voters talk that they didn’t expect him to be a two-term president,” Sarah Longwell, the Bulwark publisher who has interviewed panels across the political spectrum, told me.
“To insiders, a Trump-Biden rematch is a foregone conclusion,” Ben Tulchin, a Democratic pollster who worked for Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020, told me. But in his own focus groups—mainly of young and Latino voters—Tulchin said voters are not fully buying that, whether out of denial or distaste. “They don’t like being forced to make a choice that they don’t want to make yet,” he said.
Biden has enjoyed perhaps the most triumphant last hurrah in American political history. Also, the longest. Start the clock in August 2008, when Barack Obama first selected him as his running mate. “I want you to view this as the capstone of your career,” Obama told Biden when he offered him the job, according to the eventual vice president. “And not the tombstone,” Biden joked in reply.
Fifteen years later, he might suffer from a general intolerance that voters reserve for high-level government officials who grow old in office. The various freeze-ups and infirmities of Senators Mitch McConnell (81) and Dianne Feinstein (90), respectively, have drawn more sneers than sympathy. The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has come in for a great deal of posthumous scorn, even among her staunchest liberal admirers, for holding on long enough for her health to deteriorate and a Republican president (Trump) to appoint her successor.
By appearances, Biden is in much better health than the examples cited above (especially Ginsburg, who died three years ago). But that does nothing to change the actuarial tables, or Biden’s unpopularity, or Vice President Kamala Harris’s. Nor does it stop anyone from trotting out Biden’s bridge quote and its corollaries from four years ago. The reminders carry a strong suggestion that the terms of the original “deal” have shifted, and that this is much more of Biden than anyone bargained for.
“He has been a solid ‘transitional’ president, but transition requires transit, or a second act,” the journalist Joe Klein observed last week in a Substack column. National Review’s Jim Geraghty recently compared Biden to a relay runner who decides to “keep the baton to himself and attempt another circuit around the track, even though he’s slowing down.”
Fairness demands a few qualifiers and caveats here. Again, Biden never said he would serve just one term. The president has every right to run again, and any serious Democrat is free to primary him. There are solid arguments that Biden still has the best chance of any Democrat to beat Trump, given the power of his incumbency, the possible fractiousness of an open primary, and the uncertainty of whoever an alternative Democratic nominee would be.
But perhaps Biden’s best reason for running again in 2024, or defense against suggestions of a bait and switch, is this: He probably did not expect Trump to still be here. Nor did many of the rest of us. There is no precedent for a defeated one-term president to so easily resume his status as de facto standard-bearer of his party. After the January 6 insurrection, Republicans sounded more than ready to move on. This bipartisan exhale was made possible by Biden—God love ya, Joey! Beating Trump should have been the ultimate “capstone” of his career. Yet three years later, Trump is still here. And so is Biden.
“Politicians who know Biden well say that if he were convinced that Trump were truly vanquished, he would feel he had accomplished his political mission,” the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote in one of the most widely discussed recent entries to the “Please go away, Joe” canon. In other words, meet the new justification, same as the last one. It’s probably as strong a rationale as any for Biden to attempt this.
Except that it’s getting old, and so’s the bridge.