Left Coast / July 10, 2024

An Open Letter to the President of the United States

There are worse things in life than a comfortable retirement.

Sasha Abramsky

Asian elephants eating bamboo in the wild.


Dear President Biden,

I am sitting on a floating hotel, deep in the jungles of the River Kwai, in Thailand. To be honest, I had hoped to unplug this week, to put aside the messiness of US politics. But your ongoing refusal to confront what have become the catastrophic implications of your presidential candidacy has pushed me to write on my week off.

Mr. President, let me tell you what I did earlier this week. I spent a morning at an elephant sanctuary, a place where majestic old elephants, far past their prime, are eased into retirement—earning their daily bread by letting tourists feed them watermelons and give them mud baths.

There was, I’ll admit, something a bit sad about them—their ears were torn, the males’ tusks had been hacked off, and there was a passivity to them that made me wish they still had the wherewithal to raise a ruckus. But, at the same time, they were safe and were being taken care of in their dotage. There are worse things in life than a comfortable retirement.

Joe, when you got elected in 2020, I wept for joy. In defeating Donald Trump, you had saved the Republic; you had reinvigorated a dream that was in danger of morphing into a permanent nightmare. You had pitted liberalism against intolerance and darkness, optimism against Trump’s American Carnage vision—and you had won. There was little doubt in my mind that you were a genuinely decent, kind, humane, even humble man—everything that Trump and his rancid administration were not. It’s a rarity in the modern political environment that such traits win out over hard-right populism.

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Four years later, you are making me weep again. But this time around, I weep over the arrogance and selfishness you are demonstrating in claiming, despite all evidence to the contrary, that you and only you can prevent Trump’s second ascent to power. I weep because you now so clearly lack the vitality and intellectual agility for the fight—but, while you have lost so much of your political skill set, you seem, somehow, to have preserved just enough wile and orneriness to cling to personal power like a hungry dog tugging on a bone. I weep because in 2020 you rose to the political moment to aggressively confront a terrible political peril, and in 2024 you are instead doing a star turn in your own version of Sunset Boulevard, sinking into a political quicksand of your own making that will destroy your legacy and return Donald Trump to office with an overwhelming mandate.

As I write this, it’s been 12 days now since you made it abundantly clear, in front of a TV audience of 54 million people, that you no longer have what it takes to be either a president or a presidential candidate. Last week I wrote, in the conditional tense, that this performance could result in your losing overwhelmingly in November. This week, the poll numbers seem pretty unambiguous. If you remain the Democratic candidate you will lose overwhelmingly. There are states such as New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Virginia, even New Jersey, for God’s sake, in play now for the Republicans, that a decent Democratic candidate would have locked up months ago.

Each day you refuse to step aside for a new generation is a day of campaigning against Trump lost. The sands are fast slipping through the hourglass, and each defiant statement you make—that one about only God being able to get you to change your mind was a real doozy—and each absurd fundraising letter you send out ridiculing the concerns of those who believe you can no longer win adds to the volume of wasted effort. There are barely 100 days left until the election. The longer you remain the Democratic Party’s candidate, the less chance the Democrats have of holding the White House, holding the Senate, or recapturing the House. You will either step aside too late for it to make a difference, or you will emerge as a nominee so damaged that no one will seriously expect you to win.

I weep, Joe, because of your delusions. Bubbles are strange things to live within, and you and your family seem, now, to have become bubble captives, as delusional in your analysis of power as Louis XIV. L’État, c’est moi.

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Trump has always had the same idea. But he’s never really pretended to be anything other than a narcissist. Self-absorption isn’t just a byproduct for Trump; it’s the whole deal. You, Joe, you sold yourself as something better. You’ve always said that this isn’t about you, that you are fighting for the survival of this beautiful experiment in democracy and pluralism. That is why your grubby determination to hold onto power at all costs, even if it is simply for a short ride to a humbling electoral defeat, is ultimately loathsome.

You say you made a “mistake” in your debate performance against Trump, and you have pledged to do better. But what America saw for 90 minutes on June 27 wasn’t a “mistake”—though, to be fair, you made your share of factual “mistakes” in your hard-to-follow comments—it was a textbook example of the ravages of time, the all-too-predictable consequence of putting up an 81-year-old for reelection to the toughest job on earth. What the world saw was a very old man grasping for basic answers, floundering in presenting his ideas, unable to project himself physically or mentally.

I’m not a doctor and wouldn’t presume to make a diagnosis. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. The public now has the perception that age has gotten the better of you—and that’s a perception pretty much impossible to shake. You could wrestle alligators and come out victorious—the public will still see your frozen face and hear your stumbling, incoherent debate answers. And you will still, in consequence, lose millions of votes from people who otherwise would be voting Democrat in November—citizens who are longing to vote for the Democrats if only the party can present a credible presidential candidate.

There’s no shame in getting old. You’ve had a phenomenal run at the center of power for more than half a century. You won the presidential election in one of the darkest moments in US history, and you have spent the past four years pushing for, and often getting, vital social reforms and public investments. You have placed liberal justices up and down the judicial system. You have done more to address climate change than any other president. You have done more to protect LGBTQ rights than any of your predecessors. You have every right to consider these four years a personal and political triumph.

But there is a tremendous shame in trying to hoodwink the public, in claiming all is right in Bidenworld when that’s clearly not the case, and in putting yourself above the interests of the greater community. Joe, what, for example, was that Parkinson’s expert doing consulting with your physician time and again these past several months? Joe, how does a cold, or jet lag, or staying up late—or any of the other half-baked excuses your team keeps coming up with to explain away your debate disaster—turn you into the confused wreck on display two weeks ago? How does telling your staff that you need more sleep and can’t schedule events past 8 pm put to rest public doubts about your stamina and your mental acuity?

Four years ago, Joe, you became a true American hero in defeating Trump. Now, in your egoistic inability to gracefully leave the stage, you are all but guaranteeing another Trump administration. Each day that you stay on you make it more likely that the worst president in living memory will occupy the White House again come January. At this point, Joe, you are behaving in a more egomaniacal manner than Trump. The vast majority of your own supporters want you to step aside for someone younger. In not listening to them, in daring them to try to force you out, in pitting yourself against not just your political enemies but your erstwhile friends too, you are holding the country’s future to ransom.

Joe, I say this with all due respect: It’s time. The elephants on the River Kwai have found retirement to have its blessings. I’m sure you, too, could find ways, other than permanently hogging the political spotlight, to enjoy your twilight years. You have a choice, and it’s pretty clear: Retire now, and your legacy will be secure. Continue what has become a quixotic campaign for reelection, and you will trigger an electoral defeat of utterly catastrophic dimensions. The stakes—for your own legacy as well as for the public well-being—are simply too high for such a gamble to have legitimacy. Surely, Joe, you don’t want to go down in history as one of America’s most tragic, unsympathetic and, ultimately, hated of figures.

Sasha Abramsky

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Sasha Abramsky

Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s Brain, The American Way of PovertyThe House of 20,000 Books, Jumping at Shadows, and, most recently, Little Wonder: The Fabulous Story of Lottie Dod, the World’s First Female Sports Superstar. Subscribe to The Abramsky Report, a weekly, subscription-based political column, here.

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