There’s almost no escaping it, so no reason to try. If you google “polls on Joe Biden’s age,” you get a grim story, with precarious portents for his re-election campaign.
Biden’s Age Is Wearing on Democrats (Newsweek, July 25)
Nearly Half of Independent Voters Say Biden’s Age ‘Severely’ Limits Ability to Be President (The Hill, June 7)
Broad Doubts About Biden’s Age and Acuity Spell Republican Opportunity in 2024: Poll
(ABC News, May 7)
Less Than 35% Think Biden Has “Mental Sharpness” for Second Term (Axios, May 7)
Many other such citations suggest the steep hill the now 80-year-old Biden must climb to overcome voters’ doubts that he will be up to the job and continue his record-breaking run as the oldest person ever to hold the American presidency. (Ronald Reagan was the previous geriatric champion when he finished his second term at age 77 in 1988.)
Those doubting voters include one person writing just over four years ago under the headline, “Why Aged People Should Not Be President.” That person wrote at the time:
“…After due deliberation, I think neither Joe Biden (78 next inauguration day), Bernie Sanders (79), nor Donald Trump (74) should be vested with the most powerful position in the world. (Trump, of course, for infinitely more reasons than his age.) On every level sans possibly their experience and whatever wisdom they have managed to accrue from that, they are diminished from what they were as younger men—slower of thought, less energetic in body, and subject to steadily more rapid diminishment as age takes the toll that it always does.”
Longtime readers will likely already have figured out that yep, “that person” was none other than me, in this very space. And I’m here to say my position on this matter has perhaps not radically changed, but has definitely evolved over the four years of Joe Biden’s presidency, in the following ways.
Yes, Biden has slowed, as most all 80-year-olds have in one way or other. Though increasingly, we are beholding active-beyond-previous-imaginings 90-year-olds.
I’m thinking of one friend in particular who just hit his 91st and has slowed barely a whit from the energetic 63-year-old he was when I first met him. We regard such people with a certain kind of awe, but even more awe-inspiring is the ever-greater frequency with which we greet them as family, meet them as neighbors, or are informed about them in media reports.
Given Biden’s advancing age, these struggles to manage his stuttering are often mocked in public discourse as the feeble stammerings of a senile old man, fit only for the rest home rather than the nerve center of the modern world.
Biden’s challenge is exacerbated by the fact that he was a stutterer as a child, which means, as any stutterer will tell you, that he has had to continue meeting that challenge most days of his life since. Stuttering rarely “goes away” as such. It is instead, with arduous practice and steadfast resolve, “managed,” sometimes well enough to obscure the fact of the stutterer’s condition in adulthood, sometimes not.
In Biden’s case, he has had a widely noted tendency, even as a young senator first coming into the public eye, for verbal gaffes—garbled sentences, awkward pauses, malapropisms, occasional short bursts of word salad.
“That’s just Biden,” political friend and foe alike have long observed, implying a slightly askew mind that is nevertheless brought to heel by his underlying intelligence and amiability.
But I came to see “that’s just Biden” much more in the light of “that’s just Biden the stutterer” after reading an article in “The Atlantic” magazine early in 2020.
Author John Hendrickson is himself a stutterer whose condition he describes as “far worse than Biden.” After securing then-candidate Biden’s approval for an interview, stutterer to stutterer, Hendrickson laid out, in intimate, haunting detail, just what stutterers go through in navigating what appears to listeners as a Grand Canyon-sized gap between a nascent thought and the stutterer’s ability to express it.
“The cultural perception of stutterers is that they’re fearful, anxious people, or simply dumb, and that stuttering is the result. But it doesn’t work like that. Let’s say you’re in fourth grade and you have to stand up and recite state capitals. You know that Juneau is the capital of Alaska, but you also know that you almost always block on the j sound. You become intensely anxious not because you don’t know the answer, but because you do know the answer, and you know you’re going to stutter on it.”
And about one of Biden’s early—and highly representative—experiences being disparaged as a childhood stutterer:
“…Then the nun said, ‘Mr. Biden, what is that word?’ And it was ‘gentleman’ that she wanted me to say, not ‘gentle man.’ And she said, ‘Mr. Buh-Buh-Buh-Biden, what’s that word?’ Biden says he rose from his desk and left the classroom in protest, then walked home.”
Until this article debuted, Biden had said little for public consumption about his stuttering. He has even refused to offer it as an excuse for being a self-described “gaffe machine.”
But reading about his stutter was a revelation to me, contextualizing not only his long history of verbal miscues, but also his current and recurrent struggles to express himself clearly in public speaking. Given Biden’s advancing age, these struggles are often mocked in public discourse as the feeble stammerings of a senile old man, fit only for the rest home rather than the nerve center of the modern world.
And then we must ask: how could a feeble and stammering old man preside over a long list of accomplishments in just over two and a half years? Many of them have been of bipartisan nature that virtually no one would have predicted, given an opposition party that barely (if at all) acknowledges his legitimacy and employs huge resources to disparage his every hard-won word.
We live in a media age that highlights conflict, tension, vitriol and volume. The “If it bleeds it leads” ethos of yesteryear’s local television news has been complemented on the Internet by what I would modify to “If it shouts it sprouts”—the loudest voices spewing the darkest nonsense consistently garner the most widespread attention.
Donald Trump, Marjorie Taylor Greene, lately Vivek Ramaswamy: all are testament to the reality that buffoonery mixed with mendacity is a winning formula for sustained media attention.
And let’s also be clear: there is much that is attractive about young, in-their-prime candidates and their ability to think on their feet, adept with lines of attack in arguments. Think Nikki Haley in this past week’s Republican debate. She would be a formidable foe of Biden’s, and might cause me to change my mind about his running, but her party nominating anyone but Trump is highly unlikely.
In any case: Firing off one-liners and making snap verbal decisions in debate or live press conferences have basically zero to do with being president. Oh, sure, it looks and sounds good when a leader can deliver flawless, forceful responses in the heat of any given moment, no matter the setting.
But strong leadership—the ability to deliver results from a shared vision, a coherent set of goals, faithful team-building, follow-through and follow-up—comes from fidelity to a mission that will accrue to the greater good and from shrewd knowledge of people, not superior verbal skills.
The presidency is a place that rewards what psychologist Daniel Kahnemann calls “slow thinking” in his hugely influential book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (2011). Presidencies are where the proverbial buck stops, but the decisions presidents have to make are almost never of the “fast thinking,” intuitive, automatic, largely unconscious variety that Kahnemann describes.
Absent a movie script featuring a dirty bomb set to go off in a packed Super Bowl stadium in mere minutes unless a president does something supremely embarrassing on the White House lawn, presidents have the luxury of assembling teams who can and must take their time in developiing the formidable, often harrowing range of policy issues that face every administration.
Under the leadership of a wise and secure president, all of those team members are chosen because they are smarter and quicker in their area of expertise than the president is. A president whose motives are aligned with the nation’s welcomes that intelligence, along with the bearer’s forthrightness and authority to use it.
Judging by the available evidence of what Biden has done rather than exactly what he has said and how he has said it, it appears he has assembled a top-notch team and performed arguably the most difficult job in the world with great dexterity and wisdom, at least up to this point.
“But he will be 86 at the end of his second term!” bray the doomsayers.
I know; I have been one of them. All things being equal, I’d be more comfortable with a decade-younger Biden right now. But how often does life and politics give us ideal circumstancess? (Hint: the word begins with “N.”)
Which is why we must consult the actuarial tables, a specialty of the insurance industry, which knows a thing or two about life expectancy and is obviously much smarter than most all the rest of us because regardless of what happens or doesn’t happen, they have figured out how to make zillions of dollars, and we haven’t.
According to a recent article in “Forbes” magazine that took into account multiple health and lifestyle measures on which Biden scores higher than average Americans of any age, he looks on track to live well past his second term:
One life expectancy calculator developed by professors at the University of Pennsylvania asks 14 questions about your lifestyle and health circumstances. This calculator projects that President Biden’s life expectancy is age 98, with a 75% chance he’ll live until age 91. It also says he might live 9.6 years longer than most people, which is understandable given his current excellent health compared to most Americans.
Still, is there any guarantee we won’t be looking at President Harris sometime before 2028? No, but there’s no one alive guaranteed even one more day on earth.
Meanwhile, recent presidents in particular have a documented history of outliving most of their contemporaries. Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, 93; George H.W. Bush, 94, Jimmy Carter still among us at 98. The kids, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, are 77 and 62, respectively.
Also: Donald Trump is no spring chicken at 77, and has anyone ever actually listened all the way through one of his rambling, multi-track verbal trains of unremitting grievance? And the questions in the air are about Biden’s mental acuity?
Finally, if even the mention of “President Harris” concerns you as it does me, it is one more reason why Biden should ignore all calls for him to step aside.
What sounds in theory to allow for an example of wide-open democracy in action would likely descend into an extended donnybrook in which Harris, a near-complete flop in her own presidential campaign four years ago, would have the inside lane as the sitting vice-president who also happens to be a black woman and probably the progressive wing’s choice as the nominee. If voters and delegates veer from that script and cast Harris aside, there is every chance the resultant indignation would dampen voter turnout in the general election, which could result in the unmitigated disaster of Trump redux.
Then we would behold a man very possibly convicted or still on trial for multiple felonies reassuming the presidency and ready to unleash the furies of hell on the majority of a nation that once again made him a minority president. With no true mandate, he would nevertheless have all the power he needs to complete a job that would begin with pardons for everyone involved in the January 6 insurrection (starting with himself).
Then the complete redo of our democracy, in his own craven, ever-defiant image at last.
To which the only logical, desperate answer is, “Run, Joe, Run!”
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