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Mile End Institute

'Youth is no guarantee of brilliance': Assessing Joe Biden's appeal

As President Biden celebrates his 80th birthday, Tom Chidwick considers the major achievements of the first two years of his presidency, his continued political appeal as an octogenarian, and the value of 'knowhow'. 

Photo of Joe Biden at the White House, released on his 80th birthday on 20 November 2022
Estimated Reading Time: 3-5 minutes.

In the first volume of his memoirs, A Promised Land, Barack Obama reflects on a week’s holiday to Hawaii, shortly after he tied up the Democratic presidential nomination in June 2008. In addition to splashing in the ocean and being buried in the sand by his daughters, the then-junior senator from Illinois was tasked with selecting a running mate.

Despite his close friendship and political affiliation with Governor Tim Kaine, Obama decided against having ‘two relatively young, inexperienced, and liberal civil-rights attorneys’ on one ticket, opting instead for the veteran Delawarean Senator, Joe Biden. As Obama told supporters outside the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, in August 2008, Biden—who, at just 65, was touted as a ‘veteran leader’ and compared to Lyndon Johnson—is a ‘rare mix’ who has ‘brought change to Washington’ while his ‘heart and values have remained firmly rooted in the middle class’.

In A Promised Land, Obama identifies that if the public believe him to be ‘temperamentally cool and collected, measured in how I used my words’, Biden is ‘all warmth, a man without inhibitions, happy to share whatever popped into his head’ and someone who ‘genuinely enjoyed people’. Someone who both Democrats and Republicans believed to be ‘decent, honest, and loyal’ who ‘cared about ordinary people’ and could be trusted when things got tough – all of which helped Biden’s supporters present him as the antidote to four years of Donald Trump’s presidency.

While Biden’s lifelong and once crippling stutter as well as his lack of discipline in front of a microphone earned him a reputation for what Obama called ‘unnecessary controversies’, Biden excels at long-form reflective interviews and Town Hall meetings. His memoir, Promise Me, Dad, which chronicles his eldest son’s death from brain cancer, the last days of the Obama administration, and his decision not to run in 2016, is a rich and instructive insight into Biden’s character and, as Vanity Fair noted, his ‘congenitally jollity and irrepressible candour’.

While Gabriel Debenedetti’s recent book, The Long Alliance, suggests that the two had an ‘imperfect union’ and were not ‘close buddies in the way that many people might expect based on the way that they talk about it publicly’, Obama’s once-in-a-generation appeal with the public and Biden’s political versatility was a potent combination. Commentators have suggested that their reunion in Pennsylvania and Nevada in this month’s midterm elections may have helped swing those remarkably tight races in John Fetterman and Catherine Cortez Masto’s favour, which in turn confirmed that the Democrats will keep control of the Senate.

Five years after Obama left the White House, speculation is rife about the future of Joe Biden’s presidency, despite his substantial legislative achievements, having achieved a rare Democratic trifecta—controlling the White House, Senate, and the House of Representatives at once—and having retained the Senate and narrowly missing out on a majority in the House earlier this month.

While Republicans now have control of the House—with Biden himself telling reporters at the ASEAN summit in Cambodia last weekend that, even as a ‘cockeyed optimist’, he believed it would be a ‘stretch’ to win the House—the President, Chuck Schumer (Senate Majority Leader), and Nancy Pelosi (outgoing Speaker of the House) will be encouraged that the youth vote gave Democrats an edge in especially tight races. Likewise, the Financial Times reported that college-educated women as well as Black and Latino voters ‘overwhelmingly turned up’ for the Democrats.

While Biden’s advanced age—he would be 86 years old by the end of his second term—is frequently cited as the primary reason why he should retire at the next presidential election in 2024, he has pursued, arguably, the most ambitious legislative programme since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and remains highly-effective. As the podcaster and Daily Beast columnist, David Rothkopf, wrote in a mammoth Twitter thread over the weekend, Biden is ‘off to the best start of any POTUS in more than half a century’ and has demonstrated the benefits of governing by consensus, no matter how ‘tedious, incremental, and arcane’ the American system may be.

In addition to passing the momentous two-trillion-dollar American Rescue Plan and two-trillion-dollar Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the first two years of Biden’s presidency has seen the restoration of constitutional norms and a flurry of remarkable legislative achievements, including the Inflation Reduction Act (which committed $391 billion to tackle climate change), the CHIPS Act (intended to stimulate domestic semi-conductor production), and the first major gun-control legislation in 30 years. To borrow a line from the Texan comedian, Sean Kent, ‘Biden is like FedEx, because he delivers overnight’.

Despite Fox News’ and, bizarrely, Sky News Australia’s concerted efforts to sow doubt about his mental capacity, the President’s Physician, Kevin O’Connor, reported last November that his patient remains ‘healthy, vigorous … [and] fit to successfully execute the duties of the Presidency’. As we approach Biden’s eightieth birthday this Sunday with his latest annual ‘health summary’ due to be published later this month, O’Connor also categorically stated that detailed examination did not show any signs of ‘any cerebellar or other central neurological disorder’.

As Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of the United States’ National Council on Aging (more of whom later) notes, ‘youth is no guarantee of brilliance and age does not ensure wisdom – nor, however, does it guarantee dementia’. Although the gruelling pace of the presidency today—Biden has attended the G-20, ASEAN, and COP-27 summits in the last week alone—has created an expectation that candidates for high office should be fighting fit, there is an argument to be made that Biden could still be an effective domestic leader if he were in poor physical health, as his role model, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was in the run-up to the Second World War.

While recent polling for the New York Times suggests that voters from both major parties would prefer younger candidates in 2024, Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld used a recent opinion piece in Politico to convincingly argue that age is a ‘dangerously misleading qualifier for key positions’, noting that ‘history is rife with instances of extraordinary individuals succeeding well into old age’. Reflecting on over 45 years’ experience of what social scientists used to call ‘industrial gerontology’, Sonnenfeld argues that older leaders tend to have greater ‘interpersonal savvy’ and take longer to make decisions but are ‘better able to appreciate the value of new information’.

Sonnenfeld's assessment of older leaders chimes with that of Kent Conrad (Democratic Senator for North Dakota from 1987 to 2013) who told Carl Hulse and Jason Horowitz (in the New York Times in 2016) that Biden has 'a humanity that comes across, he is for real ... [and] is able to articulate his values'.

Despite the frequent claim that Biden is ‘too old school’ to lead the United States through such a challenging moment, Sonnenfeld’s assessment accords with both Obama’s assessment of the importance of Biden’s continued willingness to ‘listen and learn and hear other people’s experiences’, and the range and scale of his administration’s achievements. Particularly noteworthy progressive reforms that demonstrate this willingness to listen to those whose lived experience fundamentally differs from his own include his Executive Orders overturning Donald Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the United States military, pardoning thousands of people with federal convictions for cannabis possession, and making sexual orientation and gender protected characteristics for federal government recruitment.

Unlike many British politicos, I’m not fixated on American politics, but I do have a deep respect (and, given how farcical our politics has been over the last couple of months, am becoming increasingly envious) for Biden’s achievements, his fundamental decency, and his ability to cooperate across the aisle in Congress and work the levers of government. As Scott Pelley concluded after interviewing Biden for 60 Minutes a month ago, ‘if there is less bounce in the step than there once was, if the words don’t flow like they used to, maybe there’s still something to be said for knowhow’.

Tom Chidwick is the Manager of the Mile End Institute and a contemporary historian. This essay originally appeared in Scottish Review and is reproduced with their kind permission.



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