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The Age of Biden
Should he run again?
There is no ignoring the whispers, murmurs, and public chattering. They are getting louder across the political spectrum — Republicans more strident and Democrats more anxious. President Biden’s age will be a major issue in the upcoming presidential campaign. It already is. It is dominating headlines and has become an obsession with pollsters.
Questions about whether Biden is up to the job of president — physically and cognitively, currently and in the future — are no longer confined to reactionary media echo chambers that have hammered on the matter for years. The mainstream press now covers Biden, from his overseas diplomatic trips to his campaign strategy, through the lens of stamina, health, and mental acuity. And now, perhaps unsurprisingly, a majority of Americans highlight Biden’s age as a concern. As the poll data grows more ominous, many senior Democrats are increasingly quoted as being worried, as well. Some of them will even go on the record.
One can legitimately wonder how much of this preoccupation over Biden’s fitness for the job is a case of the coverage driving the numbers, or the numbers driving the coverage. In other words, how much of the concern among voters is because they are being told they should be concerned?
For a long while, President Biden’s supporters tried to dismiss the narrative just as a Republican talking point. The GOP was aided and abetted by a mainstream press intent on finding critical news stories for an administration that produced little drama otherwise. Democrats saw (and continue to see) a dangerous deja vu of the 2016 election, when Hillary Clinton’s perceived deficits were amplified in a swell of false equivalence that masked the glaring deficiencies of her Republican rival.
We all know how that election went and what followed.
Now, after defeating a twice-impeached president, Biden is likely to face America’s most famous criminal defendant again. With all that is at stake for American democracy, why is the press concentrating so much on a president’s age, when there is no credible evidence of meaningful cognitive decline — and when the leading Republican candidate represents a threat to the Constitution and our nation’s future?
A lot of it may simply be optics. Only the president’s most blinkered supporters would deny that he just feels a lot older in his bearing and speech. Unfortunately, this happens to the best of us. Aging proceeds at a pace that is often uneven and unexpected.
Then there is the pure math. None of us will ever be as young again as we are today. And by the time Biden finished his second term, he would be 86 years old. That’s a big difference from where he is now — and carries a ton of uncertainty.
There’s also the matter of Biden’s vice president, Kamala Harris, who polls even lower than he does. Again, whether the judgment is fair or not, the public doesn’t seem to have much confidence in her leadership. This fact becomes more important because of Biden’s age.
All of these issues are intertwined, and they are unlikely to get better.
What seems to be getting worse for the White House is that the number of respected voices in and around Washington raising concerns about Biden’s age is increasing. A recent addition to these ranks comes from longtime Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. His column didn’t beat around the bush, starting with the headline: “President Biden should not run again in 2024.” Not very subtle.
Ignatius is not a Biden detractor. Quite the contrary. He writes:
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 Ignatius, after writing about Biden’s age and Harris’s unpopularity (and how the two are linked), comes to the conclusion that Biden should not run again, even when one factors in the risks of a wide open primary fight.
Right now, there’s no clear alternative to Biden — no screamingly obvious replacement waiting in the wings. That might be the decider for Biden, that there’s seemingly nobody else. But maybe he will trust in democracy to discover new leadership, “in the arena.”
I hope Biden has this conversation with himself about whether to run, and that he levels with the country about it. It would focus the 2024 campaign. Who is the best person to stop Trump? That was the question when Biden decided to run in 2019, and it’s still the essential test of a Democratic nominee today.
One of the reasons this column has attracted so much attention is that it’s by David Ignatius, not Johnny Newsmax. It is likely that the president himself read it. His campaign is certainly digesting the message and the source.
One can’t help but wonder what President Biden is thinking when he is alone with his deepest thoughts. Like most people his age, he must at least worry about his health and longevity. One also imagines he is frustrated that so many voters are focused on these issues instead of his track record of presidential accomplishment.
There is no credible reporting that Biden’s leadership is erratic or his thinking muddled. And he brings a lot of strengths into the campaign. He is the incumbent. He already beat Trump once. His party outperformed in the 2022 midterms. One could even make the case that his experience (a kinder word for “being old”) is a big part of the success he has had shepherding a bold and progressive agenda through a deeply divided Congress. “If not Biden, then who?” is a question that all Democrats who suggest he step aside should attempt to answer.
But the realm of politics is largely one of instinct. We vote for people we feel can represent us. Some of it may be based on policy positions. But a lot of it is governed by more primal calculations. How does a candidate feel to us through the TV screen, between the lines of the newspaper, and amid the cacophony of social media? It’s a test that Biden will have to pass. Or maybe he can just fail less by these standards than his opponent, which would be enough for reelection.
One can say that this process is unfair, that this is no way to choose a leader. But in the end, political dynamics often are powered by a complicated mixture of inscrutable forces. Those shaping the 2024 campaign are not hard to decipher: democracy, abortion, the economy, Trump, and, fairly or otherwise, Biden’s age.
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