Often there’s a long, pregnant pause while my questioner hopes I will reveal my choice for President of the United States. Ones that know me well will eventually ask. If the conversation goes longer on the subject, one of the most common questions I get goes something like this: “How does a country with so many people (331 million) end up with … these two … as the candidates?” The emphasis on “these two” is always the tone you use when you discover a dead mouse in a cabinet.
I think that is a good question, one that I have thought about a lot lately. Only a small minority of either the Democratic or Republican parties, I believe, would name Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. or Donald John Trump as the candidate that would be their first choice.
For one, by historical standards of the office, both men are ancient. Trump is 74 years old. Biden will be 78 on November 22nd, and if elected, will be the oldest of the 45 people that have been sworn in as president. He would take that record from Trump, who earned it four years ago. By comparison, former president Bill Clinton is now 74, and he has been out of office for almost 20 years.
It would be an easy hot take to say that the U.S. has entered some terminal late-Soviet decline period, an American Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko age. However, no one in the Soviet Union voted for those fossils. I tend to think it says more about the impact of the American Baby Boom Generation, those born between 1946-64, who still make up nearly 20 percent of the population and an even larger percentage of this week’s voters.
This generation has had an outsized influence worldwide and has all of us still subject regularly to the culture and music of their youth six decades past the 1960s – from hippie culture to James Bond and the Rolling Stones. If that were universal with every generation, I would have heard a lot more ragtime and jazz on the radio growing up in the 1980s.
Biden is a member of the so-called Silent Generation, born in 1942 just before the post-World War II Boomer wave. Clinton (1946) was the first Boomer president, followed George W. Bush (1946), Barack Obama (1961), and Trump (1946). America has yet to have a president from a younger generation, although members of my generational cohort, Generation X (1965-80), have been constitutionally eligible for the office for 20 years.
The last of its kind
I believe that this election will be the last of its kind, however, and the election in 2024 will break that generational logjam as the Boomers lose their influence.
Instead of being “the most important election ever”, as the media hyperbolically suggests sometimes, this presidential year is a transitional one. The fact that we are living through a once in a 100-year pandemic, where life is unsettled, and people get to share their fear and neuroses on social media, is making it this election seem more outsized than it is in reality.
If Biden wins, he will do so more because he is the “Not Trump” choice rather than any series of campaign promises he has made. The coronavirus will not disappear; the federal government can only do so much and in the matter of health care (and masking and lockdowns) as most of the power resides with individual states and their governors. His response will most likely be the Trump response with better messaging.
Winning the election, essentially, for not being Trump is not much of a mandate for revolutionary change, no matter how massive a Democratic wave might be on election night. Instead, a Biden presidency will likely be a one-term footnote. The odds aren’t high that voters will be fired up to re-elect an 82-year-old Biden for a second term when his mental sharpness is already under some doubt this time around, and there is some concern that he will even finish one term.
As for Trump, if he wins a second and final term, his post-presidential footprint will also be light. There is no governing philosophy with Trump other than his public persona, no “Trumpism” that is likely to survive him after he leaves office. What is remarkable about Trump is that after four years, he still seems to see himself as outside the institution that he runs. Another term probably means more of the same, with a general sense of chaos, a few notable achievements, media angst, and more mean tweets.
This too shall pass
So, who might the future bring in 2024? It probably will not be the vice-presidential picks this year, both late Boomers. Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, is as close to a generic cardboard cutout of a politician as you can find. Biden’s vice-presidential pick, Kamala Harris, dropped out of the Democratic presidential primary while she was polling in single digits in her home state of California. Neither of them would inspire excitement in a party primary.
Instead, it might finally be time for Generation X’s turn and fresh faces in 2024. On the Republican side, Florida governor Ron DeSantis has turned heads in his two years in office after winning in an upset, and being a popular politician from one of the most populated states is an excellent launching pad for a run at the presidency. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley (who was part of the early Trump administration and was able to quit having kept her association with him at arm’s length) will also be names that will be discussed early.
The Democrats would be more a puzzle. Their high-recognition candidates from last time, such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, were unable to dislodge Biden in the primary a year ago and will be 84 and 75, respectively. Perhaps Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, whose star rose during the process, would give it another chance. But the Democratic side has produced obscure winners before. In 1992, an unknown field of candidates produced Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, who went on to win two terms.
Wednesday morning should be our first opportunity to see where it is going. Florida will, most likely, be the first vital state to be called. If Biden wins it, it will be almost impossible for Trump to rebound. The closer the race, complicated by the record of mail-in ballots because of the pandemic (and the possibility of lawsuits during the process), means that we might not be sure of the outcome for days.
Although the presidential ballot gets all the headlines, I voted in the state of Kansas in 36 other races, including a close race that will help decide control of the U.S. Senate, and many other local ones. I will not get much work done the last few days of the week absorbing the state and national results.
As for the presidency, I am comforted by the Persian adage, “This too shall pass.” It is not a change election today, but change is coming.
Scott Abel is a Ph.D. student in media management at the Estonian Business School.
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