Op/Ed

Editorial: Biden’s age vs. his record

ANGELO LYNN

President Joe Biden’s age has always been a secondary concern, but rarely has it captured the headlines as it has the past few weeks. Biden is a fit 80; he eats well, is trim, is disciplined and exercises daily. He has a speech impediment, always has, that makes him less articulate than many politicians, but his actions and decisions as president these past two and half years have been sharp, thoughtful and successful. 

Trump, on the other hand, is an out-of-shape 77-year-old, who, eats too much junk food, doesn’t exercise, and stays up late with poor sleep habits. While president, Trump’s four years were defined by his chaotic leadership, his nonsensical and uninformed public comments that made him the joke of leaders around the world, his constant stream of lies and misinformation, a foreign policy that alienated many of our closest allies, and a penchant for autocratic behavior that had him buddying up to dictators like Russia’s Vladimir Putin. How quickly America forgets how damaging Trump was to the country’s world status; how his trillion-dollar tax cuts benefitted the wealthiest few but dramatically widened the wage gap and undercut the nation’s ability to invest in its future; and how his daily rhetoric was used not to unite the country but to pit Republicans against Democrats in every conceivable way.

Yet, Biden is the candidate the public thinks is not fit for four more years?

My first thought is this public perception is shallow and could be overcome if Biden staged more public appearances. The worry, however, is that conservative media will take any stutter, slight misstep, or misstated fact and turn it into a film clip for its viewers to watch a hundred times over; which is part of what ails the country. As a group, Republicans watch Fox News and other far-right television shows excessively and to a much greater degree than Democrats or Independents; and all of those stations intentionally focus on and exaggerate blunders that make Biden seem too old and unfit for four more years as president.

As a group, 89% of Republicans think Biden is too old to run for a second term as president, compared to 69% of Democrats and 77% of all Americans. Biden’s record aside, that is a disconcerting public perception.

Which brings us back to this: Can Biden’s solid record overcome a perceived concern.

The answer is unclear. This week, when Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, announced he would not be seeking reelection when his term ends in 2025 (he’s 76 now), and that President Biden and ex-president Trump should step aside as well to let a younger generation of leaders take the reins, age was the talk of the town. Political columnists like the Washington Post’s David Ignatius piled on — graciously and with ample praise but piling on nonetheless — suggesting that while Biden has been one of the most effective presidents in his first term, he should quit while he’s ahead.

Ignatius wrote: Joe Biden launched his candidacy for president in 2019 with the words “we are in the battle for the soul of this nation.” He was right. And though it wasn’t obvious at first to many Democrats, he was the best person to wage that fight. He was a genial but also shrewd campaigner for the restoration of what legislators call “regular order.”

Since then, Biden has had a remarkable string of wins. He defeated President Donald Trump in the 2020 election; he led a Democratic rebuff of Trump’s acolytes in the 2022 midterms; his Justice Department has systematically prosecuted the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection that Trump championed and, now, through special counsel Jack Smith, the department is bringing Trump himself to justice.

What I admire most about President Biden is that in a polarized nation, he has governed from the center out, as he promised in his victory speech. With an unexpectedly steady hand, he passed some of the most important domestic legislation in recent decades. In foreign policy, he managed the delicate balance of helping Ukraine fight Russia without getting America itself into a war. In sum, he has been a successful and effective president.

But I don’t think Biden and Vice President Harris should run for reelection. It’s painful to say that, given my admiration for much of what they have accomplished. But if he and Harris campaign together in 2024, I think Biden risks undoing his greatest achievement — which was stopping Trump.

Ignatius then argues that Biden would carry two big liabilities going into the election: his age, and his running mate, Vice-President Kamala Harris. Harris, he argues, has never gained traction with the public and weakens the ticket, and he makes a good case for Biden and Harris to bow out and open the Democratic primary to others.

But there are weaknesses to his argument. 

Trump, after all is 77, and he is not an articulate speaker. He rambles and he speaks nonsense. In the 2020 presidential debates, Democrats worried that Biden wouldn’t be able to hold his own, but he did more than hold his own and there’s no reason to think his performance this time wouldn’t be as solid. Moreover, Republicans have such low expectations of Biden (because Fox News and other conservative broadcasts have painted such a dim view of him), that his live performances would likely exceed their expectations. More importantly, Biden has a successful record to run on. He has shored up America’s esteem around the world; he has rallied NATO to be stronger and more united than ever before and is effectively combatting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; he has moved to counter China economically and is moving to unite other Asian countries wary of China’s growing political aggressiveness; and Biden’s economic program at home (Bidenomics) is working. If he is able to contain inflation, which has dropped from 9% to 3.5% in the past two years since taking over from Trump’s disastrous last year in office, he will have managed the near-impossible: avoiding a recession while gradually raising interest rates to harness the inflationary pressures caused by the huge influx of federal COVID-related spending. That all takes good managing of an adept cabinet, which Biden was also able to assemble.

Compared to Trump’s four years of chaos, which will be used against him, Biden’s first term has been exemplary.

And it’s Biden’s record that led many Democrats, and apparently the party’s leadership, to suggest Biden has a lock on the nomination and discourage competition.

That doesn’t mean a competitive primary wouldn’t be good for the Democratic Party, and good for Biden. That’s because, sad to say, facts, logic and reason aren’t always enough.

 Ignatius’s argument stands because Biden’s team hasn’t been able to convince the public that his successes are the public’s also, and that his policies are working to enrich the lives of the 90% of Americans who aren’t part of the super-wealthy. Another Democrat might be able to make that argument more effectively.

It could be argued that having an open Democratic primary, which would only work if Biden and Harris encouraged the competition, might not only re-energize the party over the next 9 months, but would answer a question Biden and Harris must surely be asking: Is he the best Democratic candidate to defeat Trump in 2024, and is Harris his strongest partner? 

In the process of answering that question via a competitive primary, American voters would also be seeing the stark differences between the two parties in debate after debate. Surely that’s a match-up Democrats up and down the ticket should relish.

Angelo Lynn

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