15 Points and a Question About Joe Biden

Struggling to sort out your feelings about the president? So am I.

by Paul Waldman

The Cross Section

The purpose of this piece is not to convince you that Joe Biden should drop out of the race. In fact, I wrote it because I’m not sure if he should, and I think there are millions of people struggling with ambivalent and contradictory thoughts and emotions just as I am. So here are some things to keep in mind — some good, some not so good — as this story continues to develop in the wake of Biden’s disastrous performance in last week’s debate.

Struggling? No, for me there is no struggle. There is no comparison between the guy with the bad suntan who will not grow up and Joe Biden who will tell you right out he is old. A crook versus a ma who has served the nation since the eighties. Anyways read on, Paul Waldman offers up the reason why.

Preface by Dale Coberly . . .

I agree with Waldman, but will point out how I go a bit further: “Engaged only from 10am to 4pm” is not a disqualifier for President. He is not going to be woken up in the middle of the night and need to come up with a brilliant decision to meet some emergency. The Presidency is not as arduous as Waldman supposes. Some Presidents have aged in office, some have not. Lincoln grew old in office while he was still in his fifties. But he dealt with a moral dilemma that none of us could face: waging war which he hated, but absolutely necessary to save the “last best hope” of mankind. [letter to Congress 1862]. Biden will face no such moral stress. [he will need to fight against Trumism which is the greatest threat to America since the Civil War. But is not a war in which people will be killed, and Biden faces no dilemma in fighting it.] What he needs to do is guide and inspire his team to get, or try to get, policies that are good for the people. If he can manage the energy to give one good speech from time to time as needed, he will do enough. So far he has done that about as well as any President, better than some.

Unfortunately, there is the perception thing. Many, maybe most, people want a “leader” who inspires them with his “strength” as if we were a tribe of great apes, or medieval kings who led armies in battle. There is even some chance that foreign leaders would respond to him the same way: think of America as “weak.”

I doubt foreign leaders are that unsophisticated, but notice I am describing why it is some people follow Trump so blindly: to a large extent we still are a tribe of great apes. And we have to learn how to deal with that. I don’t think running away from the battle (drop out of the race) would show strength. If necessary it is better for him to “die in the saddle” bravely fighting the enemy. [“he” here means Biden.] I’ll vote for Biden whatever happens, and if he does die or become incapacitated, I will follow whoever picks up his flag and carries on the fight. Hope there is someone out there preparing “in case.”

Paul Waldman . . .

1. There are two paths ahead, one in which Biden remains the Democratic nominee and one in which he steps aside. Both involve extraordinary risk. We will all be gripped by anxiety bordering on terror for the next four months.

2. Biden has been an extremely effective president — better than many, including myself, thought he would be. 

3. Biden was a poor candidate before this debate, in part because he was being protected by his staff. He gives almost no interviews and does relatively few rallies and meet-n-greets. This is not fatal — mediocre campaigners have won before — but it represents a lot of missed opportunities.

4. Running for president is not something you can delegate. Aides can’t give speeches, meet voters, or do interviews on your behalf. Biden will have to be out there on the hustings.

5. There is going to be another moment — maybe more than one — between now and November when Biden is speaking in public and gets confused, loses his train of thought, or mangles his words. When he does, the press will give it five-alarm coverage.

6. “He successfully read off a teleprompter for 15 minutes!” is not particularly reassuring. That was the tenor of some of the comments after Biden appeared at a rally in North Carolina on Friday.

7. The vast majority of people who have supported Biden up until now will still vote for him no matter what, because they’re Democrats. Not only do they hate Donald Trump, they realize that when you vote for a president you’re also voting for an entire government, future judicial appointments, hundreds if not thousands of policy decisions, etc.

8. Polls in the next few days are unlikely to mean much — there’s a good chance that amid the wave of horrible coverage they’ll show a small movement away from Biden, but after a week or two they might well reset to where they were before. 

9. The results of questions like “Do you agree that Biden is too old to be president?” are good to know, but less important than who people say they’ll vote for. I think he’s too old to be president, but I’ll still vote for him if he’s the nominee. You probably feel the same way.

10. We have no idea how many voters who have supported him until now will turn away from him and toward Trump because they have newly concluded he’s too old. It might be large enough to make a real difference, or it might be infinitesimal.

10. For some time now, the argument I’ve made is that while Biden looks old — the quiet voice, the awkward gait — we had little evidence that his performance as president was limited by his age. We can’t say that today, and not just because of what we saw last week. New information is coming out suggesting limitations on his ability to function effectively, as people who have interacted with him are now talking to reporters. To take one example, White House aides told Axios that Biden is “dependably engaged” only between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm. Can we trust everything an anonymous source says? Perhaps not, but my previous position is no longer tenable.

11. As awful as his debate performance was, it was not a surprise. For a long time, Democrats have watched every press conference, public appearance, and speech Biden gives with their teeth clenched, waiting for him to lose his train of thought, amble into a sentence he can’t find his way out of, or become confused. And it has happened, repeatedly. Even the times when he was fine, he was never more than fine; at the end you’d say “That was OK, no disaster, phew.” 

12. The reason Biden won in 2020 is that he was a Democrat for the normies: reassuringly mainstream, experienced, not particularly ideological, the candidate who could appeal to a broad spectrum of voters including those who might be turned off by a Bernie Sanders or an Elizabeth Warren. The normies will likely decide this election, too. 

13. If Biden decides to step aside, Vice President Kamala Harris will be the Democratic nominee. You might think there are other Democrats who would have a better chance of beating Donald Trump, but they will not oppose her.

14. For multiple reasons including their resentment at having their prior coverage questioned, their anger at Biden for being so inaccessible, and the aching desire for a Big New Story, journalists are absolutely going to town on the story of Biden’s age. Editors have assigned entire teams of reporters to cover it, and they will produce one story after another about whether he’s too old and if he’ll pull out of the race. It will not go away.

15. No matter who the Democratic nominee is, everyone who cares about the future should spend the next four months making sure people understand what a monster Donald Trump is and what a horror it would be for America if he becomes president.

A troubling question

To wrap up, let me home in on a question I keep thinking about. We know that Biden has declined considerably from where he was four years ago; even if you think he’s still capable and competent, no one can deny that. Indeed, it would be a shock if he didn’t. The presidency is one of the most difficult jobs in the world: physically and mentally taxing, unremittingly stressful, requiring a combination of memory, insight, foresight, strategic thinking, and decisiveness. Nearly every president ages visibly over their time in office.

So even if you think that today at 81, Joe Biden is still capable of doing the job of president, do you think he’ll be capable of doing the job when he’s 85? After four more years of battles and crises and setbacks and stress? 

Of course he won’t. I don’t think even his most ardent defenders would be able to say honestly that given his current trajectory, he’ll be able to serve another full term.

Maybe that’s OK. As long as he beats Trump in November and the immediate danger has passed, one might decide, he can step aside in a month or a year, Vice President Harris will take over, and she’ll be a perfectly good president. Which is probably true. But the more this question is asked — Is Biden really going to be able to be president for another term? — the more difficult things are going to get.