Democrats Face Leadership Vacuum If Neither Joe Biden or Kamala Harris Run in 2024

President Joe Biden will celebrate his birthday on November 20 when he turns 79 years old, and becomes the first president in U.S. history to be in the Oval Office at that age.

Former President Ronald Reagan was 77 years old at the end of his term in 1989, making Biden the oldest president ever. His age has led to speculation that he may choose not to run for a second term in 2024, despite the fact he's said he expects to run again.

Biden will be 81 years old at the time of the next presidential election, and if he doesn't run, it might seem that Vice President Kamala Harris is an obvious choice for the Democratic nomination.

Former Senator Chris Dodd, a Democrat and friend of the president, appeared to cast doubt on Biden running again in comments to The New York Times.

"I'm hoping the president runs for re-election," Dodd said. "But for whatever reason that might not be the case, it's hard to believe there would be a shortlist without Kamala's name on it. She's the vice president of the United States."

However, Democratic primaries would almost certainly be competitive if Biden bowed out of the race and a Harris candidacy faces its own challenges.

Poll tracker FiveThirtyEight is tracking the vice president's approval based on analysis of a wide range of polls and its own system of pollster ratings.

That analysis shows that Harris had an approval rating of just 36.9 percent as of November 8, while 52 percent of people disapproved of her.

If this level of disapproval continues, Harris may be seen as a losing prospect in 2024 and could even choose not to run for the Democratic presidential nomination of it's open.

If neither Biden or Harris runs for the nomination, it could leave Democrats with a leadership vacuum ahead of a crucial election for the party and the nation.

Newsweek asked political experts to weigh in on whether Biden would seek another term and who the potential candidates could be if Biden declines to run again.

The Age Factor

David A. Bateman, an associate professor of government at Cornell University, told Newsweek that while presidents can generally be expected to run for a second term, Biden's age complicated matters.

"I expect Biden to run again, but that's because I expect that from all presidents who've run and won," Bateman said.

"That said, Biden, like most of the political leadership of this country, is old—he's older than any other president was when they took office. That alone should give pause to what would otherwise be a slam-dunk prediction that he would run again," he said.

Thomas Gift, founding director of University College London's Centre on U.S. Politics, told Newsweek it is hard to imagine Biden giving up the White House after decades working toward the office.

"With Biden about to celebrate his 79th birthday, and with Democrats in a shaky position politically heading into 2022, it's not surprising we'd start to hear more rumors about the president not running for re-election," Gift said.

"Yet while health is always a concern factor—and unforeseen events could certainly occur over the next few years—I'd be surprised if Biden's name isn't on the ballot in 2024. This is a politician, after all, who spent his whole life, and three election cycles, positioning himself for the White House. Now that he's there, it's hard to imagine him relinquishing power voluntarily," he added.

The Trump Card

Another major factor in Biden's decision may be who the Republican Party nominates in 2024, and the current favorite to fill that role is former President Donald Trump.

Trump has repeatedly hinted at another White House run and teased an announcement to follow the 2022 midterm elections. Polls also show the former president could win his party's nomination with ease

David Bateman told Newsweek Biden's decision would be based, in part, on "his potential replacements' popularity and ability, and his assessment of his and their strengths and weaknesses against the most likely Republican candidates."

"I think it is very likely that his decision about whether to run again or not will depend on whether he thinks the GOP candidate would be a serious threat to democracy, as it will certainly be if that candidate is Trump and likely will be even if that candidate isn't Trump; and whether he thinks that he is still the best person to beat that candidate," Bateman said.

"Ego can play a huge role here ," he said. "They all think they're the best candidate."

Thomas Gift also highlighted the role Trump could play in the president's decision.

"Biden bowing out in 2024 seems even less likely if Trump throws his hat in the ring," Gift said. "Biden seems to view himself—perhaps rightly—as the only Democrat capable of defeating Trump."

"So he won't want his legacy to be the man who beat Trump in 2020, only to pave the way for his comeback four years later," he said.

Diminishing Odds

If Biden chooses not to run again, that choice could have serious consequences for the Democrats as they seek a presidential candidate, and the situation could be made even worse if Harris also bows out.

David Bateman told Newsweek that if Biden announces a decision not to run too late "there will be less time for alternatives to organize their own campaigns."

"I think the worst outcome would be a decision that is too late for a primary," Bateman said. "The Democrats would have a candidate who was not chosen by Democratic voters and who wasn't required to build the national campaign infrastructure they'll need for the general election."

"In any case, his not running again would mean that the advantage that incumbent presidents generally enjoy—even Trump was likely buoyed by this—won't accrue to the next Democrat. That already diminishes their odds," he added.

Alternative Candidates

With Biden out of the race, a potential Harris bid seems highly likely but as David Bateman told Newsweek, she has significant disadvantages, including the fact that she's less popular than the president.

"The VP has very little power usually, but Harris has maybe an unfortunate mix of some limited power that is useless for the very difficult responsibilities she's been saddled with," Bateman said.

He said the vice president had "the 'right' portfolios to sink her with Democrats and independents, since things such as the 'crisis' at the border have no easy and probably no humane solution, and things like voting rights aren't likely to pass, and just enough power as the tie-breaking vote in the Senate to attract even more Republican attacks than usual with VPs."

If not Harris, who else could be a likely Democratic nominee? Bateman pointed to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, Senator Cory Booker, and former HUD secretary Julián Castro.

But each potential contender as their drawbacks, Bateman said, with Buttigieg and Harris having "little proven ability to win Democratic votes, though he did a little better on this score," while Abrams "has even less executive experience than Buttigieg and is a lightning rod for racists and their fellow travelers."

Then there are progressive Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who have issues of their own.

"Sanders is older than Biden, and while he inspires more than Harris and Buttigieg, the clarity of his redistributive politics means he has a definite ceiling in a Democratic primary," Bateman said.

He added that Warren has "the same limitations and none of the upsides of having been able to mobilize large numbers of voters or appeal to non-Democrats."

Not a Promising Path

But whoever the candidates might be, if Biden does not run again all the Democratic hopefuls will be "running in the shadow of a sitting president from the same party," according to David Bateman.

"Biden would probably get the political reward for any popular things he does or is credited with, while unpopular things will force the candidates to either distance themselves from him or take the blame alongside him," Bateman said.

"The first divides the party and likely limits a candidate's motivating appeal to partisans, and the second hurts them in the general," he said.

"Not a promising path to victory, but maybe necessary if the president were to decline considerably in health or well-being," he added.

If Biden is not the Democrats' candidate in 2024, there may be a scramble for the nomination that could prove detrimental to the party's chances. Even if Harris chooses to run, there's no guarantee she'll win or that the Democrats will emerge from the primary process in a strong position to contest the election.

Biden and Harris Arrive at Signing Ceremony
US President Joe Biden (L) and US Vice President Kamala Harris arrive during a signing ceremony for H.R. 3684, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC on November 15, 2021. Harris appears a likely contender for the 2024 presidential nomination if Biden declines to run. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images