A noble exit: When stepping down is a profound act of service - The Centre for Independent Studies
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A noble exit: When stepping down is a profound act of service

In the grand, gold-leafed halls of American politics, where the only thing older than the Constitution seems to be the people upholding it, President Biden’s penchant for mixing up names, forgetting dates and wearing an amiable but vacant smile has become fodder for both late-night comedians and early-bird pundits.

Dubbed “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” by a Special Federal Prosecutor, the president seems to be navigating the twilight of his tenure with the clarity and direction of a tourist who stubbornly refuses to admit he is lost. He struggles to recall when he was elected vice president, confuses Mexico with Egypt and describes conversations with long-dead world leaders. In a nation that loves its polls as much as its apple pie, the verdict is in. A majority of American voters think it’s time for President Biden to embrace the quiet dignity of retirement.

It’s hard to disagree, but it’s also easy to emphasise. None of us is immune to the whims of time.  As we age, the tapestry of memory, woven with threads of events, facts and emotions, begins to fray at the edges. What is the name of that actor, you know, the one with the famous wife? Who wrote that sad novel? Anniversaries, songs, and the names of the constellations elude us.

In his poem, Forgetting, former American Poet Laureate Billy Collins described what we can all expect. It seems

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbour

decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,

to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

It’s nice to think of our lost memories on an extended holiday, perhaps sipping cocktails on a beach. It reminds us that forgetfulness is not always bad; it can even have advantages. For example, fading memories ensure that we won’t waste our twilight years reliving every minor embarrassment and faux pas. By the time we’re old enough to have such regrets, we can no longer remember what they are.

I am not as old as the President, but I’m already familiar with the more entertaining aspects of forgetfulness. The thrilling quest for my elusive house keys is a daily task that easily rivals the most dramatic political intrigues for its sheer unpredictability and suspense. (Today, I found my keys in the bottom dresser drawer, happily nestled in a rolled-up pair of socks. And somehow, I manage to wake up in the morning with a collection of mysterious bruises, a testament to nocturnal escapades I have no recollection of attending.)

I emphasise with Mr Biden, but I must note a crucial distinction — I am not the President of the United States. When I tuck my spectacles away in some obscure drawer, the fate of the free world doesn’t hang in the balance. It’s quite a different matter when the person at the helm of a mighty country is liable to tuck away the nuclear codes with his car keys in the freezer next to the peas.

To lead an organisation or a country is to serve, and to serve effectively requires not just intention but capability. It demands a deep and often uncomfortable honesty about our limitations. The true mark of leadership is not clinging to power but knowing when it is time to let it go. In the annals of history, the leaders who have chosen to step aside at the right moment often leave a legacy more enduring and respected than those who cling to power until it’s wrested from their grasp. The essence of true leadership lies in knowing when it’s time to step down.

What drives a leader to make this rare and selfless decision? History holds many lessons.

Cincinnatus left his plough to become supreme dictator of Ancient Rome during a military emergency. He voluntarily returned to his farm as soon as peace was restored, his duty fulfilled. George Washington could have been a king in all but name, yet he chose to lay down the power vested in him and retire. This was his way of safeguarding the fledgling democracy he helped birth. Nelson Mandela, after enduring the bitterness of imprisonment and tasting the sweetness of high authority, knew when to step back and let the nation he loved chart its own course with new leadership.

To step down at the right moment is the most profound act of service a leader can offer. It’s a testament to one’s understanding that the true strength of any institution lies in its ability to flourish beyond any single individual. For President Biden, a man who has spent his life in public service, this moment presents an opportunity to exemplify that understanding once more.

As he stands at this crossroads, the President’s next choice could well be his defining legacy—a choice that transcends politics and speaks to the timeless virtue of placing the common good above personal legacy. It’s a chance to demonstrate that the true measure of leadership is not how long one holds onto power but how gracefully one lets it go when the time comes.

The time has come for President Biden to make a noble exit. Not out of defeat or capitulation but as a crowning act of the very service that defines a successful political career. It would be an act of courage and humility that honours the unwritten contract with the electorate—a contract that entrusts leaders not only to govern effectively but also to recognise when the torch must be passed to ensure the nation’s continued strength and stability.

And so, as we all face the comedy of our own forgetful moments—our keys, our glasses, the year we were elected vice president—let’s remember that in these human lapses lies a profound reminder of our shared imperfections. For President Biden, as for each of us, acknowledging these limitations can be the ultimate expression of grace and wisdom, a final service to those we love, and a true testament to the dignity of a life dedicated to the service of others.

Emeritus Professor Steven Schwartz is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies.

Photo by ibrahim hafedh