The United States has a problem which would be an interesting question for a political science exam paper, but actually faces the country in real life writes Donald Forbes.

The issue the US faces at the moment goes something like this: what do you do when the president is cognitively dysfunctional – or semi-senile to put it bluntly – and clearly unable to fulfil his office, his vice-president and designated successor is equally incompetent and both have three unpredictable years left to serve in a testing domestic and geopolitical environment?

The performance of both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris has become such a drag on the Democratic Party that a Republican wave threatens to capture the House of Representatives and regain control of the Senate in a year's time.

The constitution offers no easy way out. Biden and Harris were elected for fixed terms. There's a mechanism to remove Biden for unfitness – the 25th amendment – but that would mean replacing him with Harris.

There are signs that Democrats think the way out of their difficulty lies through Harris. This is that she would be bribed to resign the vice-presidency in return for a seat on the Supreme Court. She could save face by saying it was always her real ambition anyway – she's a lawyer by trade and justices are appointed for life – as well as a smart move in an adverse political climate.

For Democrats, this could be a hey presto! moment. Biden would nominate a new VP with genuine presidential credentials – which Harris has never possessed – who could carry him and be an acceptable nominee in 2024 when Biden won't run again, whatever he says to the contrary.

What could be neater? The only issue is the number of moving parts that would need to click for it to work. Harris might dig in, preferring to gamble on becoming the first woman and the second person of colour to become president, no small prize. There is no vacancy on the court so a justice would have to retire to make way for her.

The liberal justice closest to retirement is Stephen Breyer who is 83. Democrats have been pushing him to quit because they are terrified of him dying in office – as Ruth Bader Ginsberg did – at a time when they are unable to impose his successor. They may have only a year to do it before the 2022 midterms.

Donald Trump's replacement of Ginsberg with Amy Coney Barret changed the balance of the court to a 6-3 conservative majority, to the rage of liberals.

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Breyer for his part has shown no inclination to be bullied. Even if he were persuaded to make way, Harris's nomination would have to be approved by her old chums in the Senate where Republicans, who hold half of the seats, have no fond memories of her term among them and could credibly question whether she's of supreme court calibre.

She would need the vote of every Democratic senator and the casting vote of her successor as vice-president to make it onto the court.

Assume that none of this happens and the Democrats remain stuck with Biden and Harris who would arrive at the 2024 Democratic convention as a sitting president should something happen to Joe and would be very hard to dislodge. It's a running nightmare for party strategists.

The problem of the remaining years of Biden's presidency has come into sharp focus since he took office. His deficiencies were evident before he was elected but overlooked in the rush to get Trump out of the White House.

Democrats implied that the administration would have a strong bench to compensate for his inability to meet the demands of the office. It turns out such a bench was a chimera and there were limits to the extent Biden could be kept out of the public eye.

Almost every public appearance from the G7 meeting to COP26 has whittled further from his credibility. There are some tasks only presidents can perform on their own and Biden was obviously on the backfoot in his summits with Russia's Putin and China's Xi, the latter warning him not to meddle in the dispute over Taiwan.

Since he took office, record illegal immigration has swirled across the southern border, Covid vaccination mandates have infuriated a swathe of the country and inflation has returned. Biden astonished the country when he connived with progressives to unleash the FBI against parents whose protests against the political indoctrination of children at school were equated with domestic terrorism.

His nadir was the sudden abandonment of Afghanistan. Biden claimed he alone made the decision but his effort to pose as a decisive president made him sound like a querulous old man out of his depth and oblivious to the reality of what was a catastrophe for Afghans.

Meanwhile, there is still no obvious Democratic deus ex machina to replace either him or Harris.


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