Politics / July 1, 2024

Dear Ron Klain: We Need To Talk About Joe

To preserve President Biden’s legacy, the party has to find another candidate

Jeet Heer
President Joe Biden hugs his outgoing Chief of Staff, Ron Klain, during an event to welcome his new Chief of Staff, Jeffrey Zients, in the East Room of the White House on February 1, 2023.(Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images)

Dear Ron Klain,

I’ll be frank: I’m writing to you as a way to reach your former boss, Joe Biden, whom you served with true loyalty and administrative excellence when you were White House chief of staff from 2021 to 2023. Being president is at the best of times an isolating job—but that has been even more true of Biden, whose schedule and access to visitors has been tightly controlled by a protective staff. One of the many good qualities you had as chief of staff is that you yourself didn’t succumb to the isolation of the White House. You were notable for keeping the lines of communication open to all wings of the party, from blue dogs like Senator Joe Manchin to Democratic Socialists like Bernie Sanders. Every wing of the party felt genuinely listened to, and this made possible a legislative record greater than that of any Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson: lower health care and drug costs, much-need infrastructure spending, and the beginnings of a Green New Deal that could save humanity itself. Both you and President Biden have much to be proud of.

After Thursday’s disastrous debate, Biden is even more isolated than before, just as he faces the momentous decision of whether to continue his campaign. As reporting from Axios and The New York Times makes clear, Biden at this crucial juncture is relying on a very small coterie of people he personally trusts: his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, his sister Valarie Biden, longtime friend Ted Kaufman, and a few trusted advisers. You belong to this small select group that Biden turns to in a moment of crisis. You should use the trust you’ve earned wisely.

This country faces a crisis which could not be more acute. Donald Trump is again the Republican nominee and he enjoys a stubborn lead over Biden in polls. A second Trump presidency would be a disaster for American democracy, perhaps even terminal. Trump plans to rule like an autocrat, complete with retribution against his political enemies, a politicization of the civil service, mass deportation of migrants, and a rollback of civil rights.

Yet, with all that at stake, Biden’s performance in the debate was mortifying: His halting, uncertain voice and forgetfulness reinforced all the gnawing doubts voters have had that he is too old to be president. In the wake of the disaster, the Biden campaign tried to reassure voters by sending out polls showing the race is still competitive even as Biden trails. But a closer inspection reveals these polls themselves show that Biden’s age—something no amount of spin can change—is his great handicap. As Rolling Stone notes, a 538/Ipsos poll cited by the Biden campaign “found that after the debate, only 20 percent of likely voters said that Biden has the mental fitness to be president, and 15 percent said he has the physical fitness to be president. Nearly 60 percent of likely voters said Biden has ‘poor’ or ‘terrible’ mental or physical fitness.”

Nor is the public’s perception on this matter likely to grow more favorable to Biden. Under the strain of the campaign, we’ll surely see more verbal flubs. Moreover, now that this has become a campaign issue, the floodgates have opened and there are now a steady stream of embarrassing stories from aides and people who have met Biden, including from European officials in his travels abroad.

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According to Axios, “From 10am to 4pm, Biden is dependably engaged—and many of his public events in front of cameras are held within those hours. Outside of that time range or while traveling abroad, Biden is more likely to have verbal miscues and become fatigued.” Some donors are mad at Biden’s staff for daring to allow the president to conduct a debate late at night (from 9 to 10:30 pm). But a president who can’t speak coherently at 9 pm is surely not one that voters would want to take the fabled 3 am phone call about an international crisis.

This is, to put it mildly, very distressing. Stories like this will only continue to leak out, a steady drip-drip-drip for the next four months, demoralizing Democratic Party voters and making it impossible for Biden to win back crucial independent voters.

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Here’s the most likely scenario right now if Biden stays as the Democratic party nominee: He’ll lose and with a demoralized party also drag down congressional Democrats. Trump will return to the White House with a trifecta. He’ll be in a position to implement the full bore attack on democracy and civil service independence detailed in Project 2025. American democracy will be permanently diminished. He’ll also likely be able to appoint another two or three young right-wing Supreme Court judges to replace Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas or others. The demoralized Democratic Party will shatter and splinter, and along with it the hopes of even the degree of resistance we saw from 2017 to 2021. Joe Biden’s legacy will turn to ashes—as will yours, Barack Obama’s, and everyone who tried to convince millions of Americans to deny the evidence of their own eyes and ears. Biden himself will be remembered (or cursed) as one of the worst presidents in American history.

As a student of history, you’ll remember the previous president from Pennsylvania, James Buchanan, rightly reviled for the way his missteps paved the way for the Civil War. Do you want Biden to be remembered as a comparable figure?

The only way to preserve Biden’s legacy—which is real and substantial enough to make him one of the best presidents since Franklin Roosevelt—is for Biden to drop out. As things stand, the only path that has any democratic legitimacy and would also allow the party to keep the money it has collected from donors is for Biden to resign and for Kamala Harris to both serve as president and be the party’s nominee.

According to Axios, Biden’s inner circle (whom they inaccurately call “the oligarchy”) is opposed to this move:

If Biden stays in, it’s for the same reason he decided to run again. He and the oligarchy believe he has a much better chance of beating former President Trump than Vice President Harris does.

Biden allies have played out the scenarios and see little chance of anyone besides Harris winning the nomination if he stepped aside.

Is the Democratic Party going to deny the nomination to the first woman, the first Black American, and the first South Asian American to be elected V.P.? Hard to see.

These allies privately think Harris would struggle to pull moderate and swing voters, and would enhance Trump’s chances.

I don’t know how you stand on these issues. I’ll note that recent polling now shows Harris is polling equivalent to Biden. Both lag Trump—but the crucial difference is that Harris has room to grow. She can campaign energetically and raise enthusiasm. Biden still has support, but not much enthusiasm from voters, most of whom will be voting for him reluctantly out of fear of Trump. That sort of demoralized voting base could be lethal even in a close election, let alone one where you have to make up ground.

Joe Biden knows you and trusts you. You can speak to him even as he has shut out much of the world—including members of his own party. You can tell him the truth: that Biden has to resign and let a more youthful and vital politician lead the campaign. What is at stake here is not just Biden’s legacy but the fate of the nation—and perhaps the world.

Jeet Heer

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Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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