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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

We the People: As Biden turns 80, Democrats eye new generation of leaders

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on his work to rebuild manufacturing in America from the South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 8. Biden turns 80 today.  (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: What is the name of the President of the United States now?

WASHINGTON – As President Joe Biden turns 80 today, the oldest commander-in-chief in U.S. history and de facto leader of the Democrats faces a tough question: Is he the right person to lead his party for another four-year term?

Former President Donald Trump, 76, announced a third White House run on Tuesday, frustrating some Republicans who want to move on from Trump’s erratic leadership style and putting pressure on Biden to make his own decision.

Facing questions from reporters on Nov. 9, Biden jokingly introduced First Lady Jill Biden – “who’s a hell of a lot more popular than I am in the Democratic Party” – before saying he planned to announce a decision on a re-election bid early in 2023.

“All kidding aside, our intention is to run again,” Biden said. “That’s been our intention, regardless of what the outcome of this election was.”

The question is about more than just Biden’s physical and mental fitness, which his allies insist is a nonissue even as polls show a growing number of voters concerned about the president’s mental acuity. With Democrats fresh off an unexpectedly strong showing in the midterm elections despite Biden’s low approval ratings, some in the party are quietly wondering if it’s time for a new standard bearer.

But Tina Podlodowski, chair of the Washington State Democratic Party, said she’s confident Biden still has what it takes to win a second term in the White House.

“I think President Biden has earned the right to make the decision as to whether or not he wants to run again,” said Podlodowski, who has met with the president a half-dozen times over the past two years. “His energy and stamina are definitely there. His smarts are there. So I think that’s his choice to make and Democrats will continue to rally around him if that’s the case.”

Carmela Conroy, chair of the Spokane County Democrats and a retired Foreign Service officer, said she worked indirectly with Biden when he was vice president and saw him display the same kind of steady leadership he has brought to the presidency.

“He provided sort of a steadying as well as a broadening influence to the Obama administration,” she said. “That was what people were looking to him for. Not only the Democratic Party, when they made him their nominee in 2020, but also for the American people generally. It’s like, ‘Give us somebody who knows how government works and can sort of set the ship aright and give us some normalcy.’ And that’s what he’s done.”

When asked whether Biden is still the best Democrat to run for the White House in 2024, Conroy gave a more cautious endorsement.

“Well, we’ll see,” she said. “I mean, he appears to be incredibly fit physically as well as mentally. He’s still making things work. And if that’s still the case two years from now, then why not?”

At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, 82-year-old House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced Thursday she would step down after two decades in party leadership. That prompted her top two deputies – Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, 83, and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, 82 – to follow her lead, clearing the way for a new generation of Democratic leaders in the House.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, 52, Pelosi’s handpicked successor and the current No. 4 House Democrat, announced his candidacy for Democratic leader on Friday. But if Biden chooses not to run for a second term it’s less clear who would succeed him as the Democrats’ candidate for president in 2024.

Vice President Kamala Harris is an obvious contender, but she has faced the usual strictures of the No. 2 job – taking on thankless tasks while trying not to upstage the president – plus an added degree of scrutiny as the first woman, and first person of color, in the office.

Other names thrown about by political prognosticators include Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Rep. Ro Khanna of California and easily a dozen others.

That laundry list of potential candidates reflects both the diversity of a party Biden has managed to stitch together and the fact that Democrats have no singular political star in the mold of former President Barack Obama.

“I think the Democratic Party needs a competent leader that can pull all the strings together of a pretty diverse caucus,” Conroy said. “And if that’s still Joe Biden in two years, that’s who it should continue to be.”

If Biden chooses to run again, no mainstream Democrat is likely to challenge him in a primary, although much could change in the next two years. If he decides to step aside, Podlodowski said she’s confident Democrats will unite against the GOP challenger, whether that’s Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or one of the other Republicans expected to vie for their party’s nomination.

“I think there would be a spirited contest for sure, but no matter who ultimately ends up getting the nomination, they’ll be battle tested through that process,” she said. “And then Democrats will rally behind that person because the specter of a Donald Trump or a Ron DeSantis – or even worse; we’ll see who ends up running on the Republican side – is one that will make the Democrats certainly come together.”