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Have you ever fallen down the stairs? It’s incredibly embarrassing. You probably pretended that no one saw, blissfully unaware of the coincidental observers unsure whether to laugh or offer you a hand up. Moments later, the world will have moved on.
Not so for Joe Biden. Standards, expectations and norms are different when you’re the President of the United States, the Commander in Chief and possessor of the nuclear codes.
And so we come to the president’s mishap while climbing the stairs to Air Force One – not once, not twice, but three times did the president stumble and hit the floor.
A perfect hat trick of misdemeanours that immediately had conservative America up in arms. For this is a movement that needed little incentive to question Hillary Clinton’s health after she was seen to stumble and be assisted into a car during the presidential election in September 2016. The Biden fall – more of an ascension to inconvenience than a stairway to heaven – has given Republicans and the Trump right all the ammunition they need to question the health of the president.
For context, it is worth remembering that Biden is the oldest person ever to become US president. As a result, his choice of vice-presidential running mate was seen to be arguably more important than ever before. No disrespect to Biden, but at 78 he is no longer sipping from the fountain of youth.
The President and his team should take comfort from the fact that presidents and stairs have often made for an embarrassing combination. In 2015, Trump nearly fell down the stairs leaving the plane after returning to Washington from a golf trip in Florida. In 1975, Gerald Ford fell on a rainy day in Austria.
Rolling his age and stair-gate together shines an opportune spotlight onto Kamala Harris, the woman who would assume office should Biden vacate it. The Vice-President has played something of a subdued role in the administration so far. And there has been no major policy announcement or speech from the President.
In the White House’s defence, their focus has been split between the Covid stimulus legislative back and forth with Capitol Hill, and approving the President’s Cabinet. Having achieved the target of 100 million Covid vaccines administered ahead of schedule, and becoming the President in more than 30 years to have all of their Cabinet secretary nominees confirmed to their posts, it has been a productive fortnight for the White House.
At some point though, the star power of the Vice President will be called upon. Recall how Harris was front and center of major Democratic rallies in Texas at the peak of the presidential election, and then Georgia during the run-off that gifted the Democrats a majority in the Senate.
For a White House and a party that priorities diversity, Joe Biden will value being able to call on the many talents and the background of his Vice-President soon.
The extent to which Biden is willing to share the stage with Harris will depend partially on the question of whether or not the president will seek a second term. No President wants to be outshone and outperformed by their deputy, but if Biden will look to smooth the pass for Harris to assume the Democratic nomination with ease, we can expect to see that process beginning after the mid-terms in 2022.
Harris better appeals to the progressive left than Biden in many respects. Only one of them can rightfully claim to be the future of the Democratic Party, and where Harris’ major strength lies, beyond personal profile, is her track record as Attorney General for California, where she showed an ability to be tough on crime.
America is once again in the midst of mass shootings and violence; such frequent occurrences that we have become almost numb to their regularity. With Trump the overwhelming favourite to win the Republican nomination for the 2024 presidential election, Harris will need that record to call on.
The 45th president will of course try to paint the Democrats as being soft on crime, and in the pocket of Antifa and ‘Black Lives Matter’ protestors. Republicans will resume hard-hitting “defund the police” adverts in swing states across America.
The 2022 midterm elections represent a tough electoral map for the Democrats. It will also be a critical juncture in Joe Biden’s presidency. Assuming that he can weather the worst of the Covid storm, and get vaccines into the arms of Americans, it may be that leading the country into a booming economic recovery is the crowning glory he seeks before handing over to Kamala Harris. A drubbing in the midterms might make that decision for him.
America remains politically polarised almost beyond comprehension. If you already doubted Biden’s mental acuteness, the video of him thrice falling on the stairs has fuelled the most extreme of internet conspiracy theories. With a talented, youthful and energetic vice president waiting in the wings, Biden can ill afford another slip up.