Will Biden run again? Should he?

No wonder President Joe Biden has been in an upbeat mood since the Democrats’ best midterm record in their first term in 60 years.

In a second straight election, he achieved his presidency’s primary goal of protecting the nation’s democratic institutions from the Trump threat. And the results relieved him of any immediate party pressure to forego reelection in 2024.

In fact, last weekend’s USA TODAY/Ipsos poll showed the percentage of Democrats who want Biden’s candidacy and believe he would win about 10% since August, although half still opposed his re-election nomination.

As Biden quietly celebrated his 80th birthday last Sunday, the fundamental Democratic dilemma remained: Will it be best for the party — and the country — to re-nominate the nation’s oldest president, even if the alternative is chaos?

Biden’s best argument for running again is that, as in 2020, he feels capable of getting the job done and may be the only Democrat who can beat Donald Trump. But while Trump still dominates the GOP, his better-than-expected performance in 2022 has led more Republicans to openly say it’s time to move on.

Midterm polls showed that a higher percentage of voters opposed another Trump race than a second-term bid by Biden.

The prospect of a 2020 repeat against Trump appears to be revitalizing the president’s thinking. “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative,” he likes to say. Of course, with a burgeoning GOP field, nearly every alternative is younger and possibly more eligible than Trump.

On the other hand, the Democrats see themselves, just like France’s King Louis XV. had correctly predicted more than two centuries ago that his departure would trigger a “flood,” versus the possibility that a post-Biden free-for-all could end their hopes of retaining the presidency.

Both parties view Vice President Kamala Harris, Biden’s natural heir and almost certain to run if he leaves, as a weak candidate who would face difficulties in both a nomination race and the general election.

However, potential rivals must keep in mind that in the increasingly multiracial Democratic Party, it would be difficult to oppose the black, Asian-American and female first vice president. Though Democrats have yet to set their primary calendar, a key early contest will almost certainly be South Carolina again, where more than half of the 2020 primary electorate was black.

And when Harris faces obstacles, so do her potential rivals. For Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, it is the glass ceiling for women that contributed to Hillary Clinton’s defeat. For Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg, it’s an openly gay man with a husband. For California Gov. Gavin Newsom, it’s an image as a trending California liberal. And for the most well-known progressives, it’s not only too far left, but also too old (Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders), too young (New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), too sharp-edged (Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal), or too dark (California Rep. Ro Khanna).

Though Biden would be 86 at the end of a second term, he still seems inclined to seek re-election, as every modern president has. But the nation’s oldest president has left the door ajar when his health deteriorates or when he and his family decide it’s time to end his half-century political career.

“Our intention is to run again,” Biden said at his post-election news conference on Nov. 9. But he said it was “ultimately a family decision” that would be made sometime early next year, although he added: “I think everyone wants me to run.”

Not everyone in public. The outcome polls showed a majority of independents, and nearly half of all Democrats believed Biden should not run again.

But the pre-election expectation of a post-election Democratic mess that focused on Biden’s future has not materialized. Instead, Republicans are plagued by internal strife after falling short of expectations for a “red wave” that would sweep the House, Senate and key governorships.

This mess is giving Democrats and Biden useful breathing space. In contrast, if it persists, the House GOP, which focuses on investigations rather than legislation, can make him look good.

Still, many Democrats expect Biden’s re-election bid would meet opposition from the party’s progressive wing, which defied him in 2020 and has often urged him to act bolder. But its most prominent leader, Sanders, is even older than Biden.

In the meantime, continued good health may be Biden’s best way to allay concerns about his age, along with the occasional video showing him riding a bike. Despite skipping dinner at the end of a long day, Biden last week completed an arduous, week-long trip around the world to conferences in Egypt, Cambodia and Indonesia that showed him he was in control and very much in control.

Still, signs of his age show in his often clumsy gait, verbal stumbles, and sometimes less than vigorous public speaking. A re-election campaign would be both politically and physically challenging.

In 2020, the COVID pandemic allowed Biden to avoid the normally hectic speaking schedule and campaigning from his basement. That will not be possible in 2024.

As for a possible rematch against Trump, Biden insists he feels no pressure for an early decision “no matter what… my predecessor does.”

But the former president’s prospects could ultimately influence Biden’s decision if his primary motivation remains his belief that he has the best chance of keeping the 45th president from becoming the 47th.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers can email him at [email protected]