Column: Hey, Joe, it's OK to call it quits and leave with dignity and pride

President Joe Biden speaks during a presidential debate with Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump, Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
President Biden, seen at last week's debate, has tried to reassure supporters that he'll keep fighting. But should he? (Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

If I were a relative or close confidant of President Biden, I'm pretty sure I’d give him a hug, thank him for his service, and tell him to seriously consider walking away.

I’d tell him that after a life of service, he can pass the torch with pride, with dignity, and with grace.

Someone probably should have done this months ago, out of love or duty, and out of the concern that Biden's health is likely to get worse in coming years.

But we're not very good at this sort of thing — at summoning the courage it takes to confront a loved one or a boss who's in decline and being totally honest about it. To be courteous but firm. I had trouble telling my own father it was time to give up driving. He resisted, unaware of or unwilling to accept the reality of his obvious shakiness behind the wheel, and unwilling to surrender his keys or his pride.

By many accounts, people close to Biden have been aware of a decline but have not pressed him to step aside. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that in "the weeks and months" before last Thursday's presidential debate, "several current and former officials and others who encountered him behind closed doors noticed that he increasingly appeared confused or listless, or would lose the thread of conversations." There are also reports that people are encouraging him to keep going.

There are some analogies to California's Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who died last year at the age of 90 after more than 30 years in office. If there was any inner-circle effort to persuade her to leave the Senate due to her obvious cognitive and physical decline, that effort failed. She died in office after announcing she would not run again.

In some cases, stepping aside is the right thing to do.

This might sound odd to those who’ve followed my Golden State column over the last 28 months. One of my driving principles has been to stand firm against the notion that we’re incapable of contributing as we age, or that our value diminishes.

In recent columns, I’ve been pointing out, with the help of experts, that you can’t diagnose dementia from afar, though many people have tried to do so in Biden’s case, especially after his debate performance.

I’ve also written that whatever the cause of his foggy gaze and occasional meandering phrase (the medical possibilities are numerous), Biden seemed lost and unsteady. He may still have some gas in the tank, but time is working against him. A year from now, or two, or three or four, how will he be?

The world population is aging rapidly, and more people are staying on the job longer — and while the benefits are many, the risks are real. Bodies and minds break down. It's OK, when they do, to punch out and move on.

Since the debate, I’ve been thinking about something USC gerontology professor Caroline Cicero said to me last year, when I wrote about whether Biden or Feinstein should step aside.

“I’m very concerned about ageism in the workplace, but I’m also concerned about people who think they have to work forever,” said Cicero. "Giving people permission to retire is something I think we need to do.”

She picked up on that line of thinking this week.

“In recent decades, society has told us that we can have it all. In a battle against ageism, we tell people they can work as long as they want,” she said. “In a battle to prove ourselves, we tell ourselves we can beat normal slowdowns that come with the passage of time.”

But most of us can't.

Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney, each north of 80, are still holding a tune, and Warren Buffett, at 93, seems to be doing OK. But that's the thing about aging, as I've said before: You can be old at 60 and young at 85.

Biden has obvious strengths, chief among them experience, wisdom, decency, civility and the empathy that comes with crushing loss. It may be that those in his inner circle, knowing what he's made of, can't bring themselves to question his strength and resolve, even in the face of obvious decline. Sure, his family knows him better than we do, but maybe they can't see what we see from afar.

Some of you might be wondering, right about now, that if I'm all about frank discussions on knowing when it's time to go, then how come I'm not bringing the Trump family into this.

I would, but their task is even harder than the Biden family's. What would be the point of saying to a convicted felon who continues to insist he won the 2020 election, "Hey Pop, the fact-checkers are still recovering from the workout you gave them in the last debate"? It takes a bit of humility to see the truth about yourself, and when you begin listing the qualities that define Donald Trump, humility and truth do not make the cut.

Donald Trump raising his right hand as he speaks in front of a blue backdrop with repeated red and light blue CNN logos
Former President Trump, debating Biden last week, would be even less inclined to heed any advice to leave the race. (Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

Biden may be having trouble seeing himself as anything other than what he is now — a public servant at the top of the flow chart. You can't be president of the United States without a healthy ego, and in jobs that people are passionate about — that become their very identity — they often can't imagine what or who else they could be in retirement, provided they can afford to retire, which many cannot.

These people may not be able to imagine that anyone waiting in the wings is as up to the task as they are, and perhaps that's part of Biden's calculation. If he takes the next exit, who would take his place? And is there enough time for Vice President Kamala Harris or any of the other potential last-minute candidates to find traction?

It never should have come to this.

The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg comes to mind as Exhibit A for lessons on the price of stubbornly holding on. She refused to surrender her position as her health faded, and women's reproductive rights suffered a blow as a result.

"I see it with entrepreneurs who created a business and have hard time letting go," said Helen Dennis, who started a support group called Renewment — combining the words "renewal" and "retirement" — 25 years ago for successful women who had trouble imagining the next versions of themselves. The group now includes "teachers, nurses, doctors, several attorneys," all of them leaning on each other as they learn "how to navigate the next chapter."

Work is not life, and life is not work, USC's Cicero once said to me. That must be a foreign concept to a sitting president, but I'm thinking of former President Jimmy Carter as one of the best examples of those who have found ways to contribute after leaving office. He took up a hammer and went to work for Habitat for Humanity — and he won the Nobel Peace Prize for working on peaceful solutions to world conflicts.

"People often fear retirement because they don’t want to be labeled as old, invisible or unimportant," Cicero said. And many of those who are "addicted to routine don’t know how they will spend their time without the rigors of a work schedule," she added — but that "does not mean they need to keep working to have a satisfying later life."

Biden, after his debate stumble, was quickly back on the stump, telling supporters that when you're knocked down, you get back up and keep fighting.

But Father Time, as they say, is the one who's undefeated.

I'd remind Biden that the country and the world have problems neither he nor Trump can fix, and that if he's reelected he will be subjected to four more years of unrelenting judgments about his fitness to hold office.

I'd tell him that, at 81, when you're knocked down, you've earned a rest.

And there's no shame in that.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.