By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
A June survey by Harvard’s Center for American Political Studies and the Harris Poll— in part a poll of the “approval and mood of the country”—suggested that 64 percent of voters believe Biden, who is 79 and would be 86 at the end of a second term, is too old to be president.
And according to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll, 64 percent of Democrats want a different presidential nominee in 2024. Biden’s age and job performance were the top reasons reported by this poll. This survey contacted only 849 voters nationwide, reaching them by phone between July 5-7, 2022.
The Times/Siena poll also stated that just 13 percent of voters said the United States is “on the right track,” while 77 percent said it is “headed in the wrong direction.”
But polls are only snapshots of moments in time. And surveys billing themselves as measuring the “mood” of the country are measuring something so vague and changeable as to be utterly useless.
Furthermore, surveys based on questions like the Times/Siena poll’s: “Do you think the United States is on the right track or is it headed in the wrong direction?” are too general to have any validity unless they specify the right or wrong direction on what? And ask who the respondents hold responsible for that right or wrong direction. (E.g., for those who think the daily or weekly mass murders the nation has been experiencing is a “wrong direction,” who do they consider responsible and why?)
Not to mention that questions that are multiple choice or require a yes or no answer are often leading questions that do not permit nuanced responses and may place the desired reply into the respondent’s mind and mouth.
Instead of conducting such polls or simply reporting their results, poll takers and news outlets that love them would do better to provide specific information about what voters are dissatisfied with. And then address who those voters consider responsible for the “wrong” direction.
Polls are often used as much or more to push public opinion as to reflect it. The concerns about Biden’s age began with Republican propaganda that the liberal media as well as many Democrats have simply picked up, parroting the Republican talking points. Monkey hear, monkey repeat.
In promoting the notion that Biden is too old to run again, the New York Times' chief White House correspondent, Peter Baker, advanced the view that the White House is “determined to guard him against unscripted interactions with the news media.”
As support for this statement, Baker notes that Biden has held only 16 news conferences since taking office, less than half as many as Donald Trump, Barack Obama and George W. Bush had held by this stage of their presidencies. It also points out that he has only given 38 interviews, while Trump gave 116, Obama 198, and W. Bush 71.
However, as Baker admits, Biden has made himself more accessible than past presidents in other ways, taking questions informally after speeches and other events 290 times, compared with 213 by Trump and only 64 by Obama.
Even the foreign press is piling on. As evidence of Biden’s aging, NDTV in New Delhi, India, has argued that on the weekends, Biden “often disappears to one of his two homes in Delaware for two or three days. White House correspondents only see him once, at a distance, when he goes to Mass.”
NDTV added the opinion that, “when G7 leaders posed for a photo at a June summit, it was impossible to ignore the age gap between Biden and Canadian premier Justin Trudeau, 50, or French President Emmanuel Macron, 44.”
NDTV’s coverage reeks of journalistic irritation that it is not getting the access it wants.
So what if Biden goes to Delaware on weekends? Other presidents have gone to Camp David. The last one spent most of his time at Mar-a-Lago. So what if Biden is provided some privacy when he goes to Mass?
As for the G7 photo, are we meant to decide our next leader based on physical appearances? Voters may do that, but a responsible media should not be promoting such shallow decision-making.
The most bluntly forthright of those attacking Biden based on age has been the Times’ Michele Goldberg. While noting that “many of the crises driving down Biden’s approval numbers are not his fault,” Goldberg wrote, straight out: “I hope he doesn’t run again, because he’s too old.”
Goldberg follows her newspaper’s line of so-called analysis, writing: “Biden has always been given to gaffes and malapropisms, but there is a painful suspense in watching him speak now, like seeing someone wobble on a tightrope.” She also repeats the argument that he has participated “in fewer than half as many news conferences or interviews as recent predecessors.”
But to which predecessors is Goldberg referring? To Trump, who never missed an opportunity to push himself forward, though he made no sense—contradicting himself within just about every sentence? Or to Obama, one of the greatest orators in our 200 year-plus history, with whom no current speaker could compare? Why doesn’t Goldberg think to contrast the articulate Biden’s occasional gaffes with those of George W. Bush, who—without a Biden-like stutter to overcome—mostly couldn’t put two words together without a malapropism? And Bush’s foot-in-mouth disease did not keep him from serving two terms.
Goldberg also suggests that Biden’s staff “often seems to be keeping him out of view.” But that assessment misses the likely effort of Biden and his administration to present themselves as the un-Trumps. Rather than exhibit Trump’s “vampiric thirst for attention” which Goldberg references, Biden may be bending over backwards to be low-key. Just do the job, Joe—a job that, these days, is a job for Job.
Despite acknowledging that Biden “is still sharp and engaged in performing the behind-the-scenes duties of his office,” Goldberg is obsessed with the age of our leaders writ large. She argues that we are being “ruled by a gerontocracy.” She cites the ages of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is 82 years old; House Majority Leader Steney Hoyer, 83; and Senate Majority Leader, Chuck Schumer, 71. Notably, Goldberg does not mention Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who, at 80 years old, wields more power than the Senate majority.
By raising Nancy Pelosi’s age, Goldberg defeats her own argument. Because Pelosi is a prime example of the need for someone with age and experience who knows the ropes and how to pull them. Pelosi (fortunately) and McConnell (unfortunately) are extremely effective leaders.
Policy, not age, should be the consideration in choosing a leader. What do they stand for? What do they fight for? What have they managed to accomplish against what odds? And how can the voters get them what they need to overcome those odds when the odds are overwhelming?
President Biden has numerous achievements to his credit: passing a big Covid-19 relief bill, cutting child poverty, and signing a bipartisan infrastructure law. He has restrengthened the U.S. position in NATO and its reputation around the world, and led in the support of Ukraine against the Russian invasion.
In addition, faced with the right-wing Supreme Court’s overturning of the constitutional right to an abortion, Biden issued a presidential guidance document last Thursday, July 14, which protects emergency abortions nationwide. The presidential guidance relies on federal legislation on medial emergencies signed into law by President Reagan. Where state law conflicts with federal law on this, not only can a hospital comply, legally it must comply with federal law. This is only a beginning move by Biden’s administration to work around the Supreme Court’s decision.
Biden’s efforts for social and climate spending have been watered down and thwarted by conservative Democratic senators like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, in consort with Mitch McConnell’s Republicans. But the cure for that is getting enough Democrats elected to the Senate to get rid of the filibuster and make the Manchin-Sinema efforts to obstruct irrelevant.
There is one point which Goldberg makes with which I do agree: “by receding so far into the background, [Biden] forfeits the ability to set the public agenda.” Goldberg adds: “You can’t spin away a bad economy, but you can draw attention to its bright spots, like a 3.6 percent unemployment rate. Americans overwhelmingly sympathize with Ukraine, and with a rousing enough message, some might be willing to accept the pain of high gas prices as the cost of standing up to Vladimir Putin. To rally them, however, it’s not enough for the administration to repeat the phrase 'Putin’s price hike.’"
However, these weaknesses have nothing to do with age. They are the result of Biden’s nature and his administration’s stylistic choices.
Biden’s problem is not his age, but his mild nature and insistence on being the un-Trump. His idea of recreating “normalcy” seems to be bending over backwards to eschew politics in order to bring back the rule of law. This is resulting in law that has no teeth.
When we needed an attorney general who would prosecute lawlessness at the highest levels of government, Biden appointed a man who apparently is so afraid of appearing political that he is allowing the destruction of democracy.
We have long needed Biden to ascend his bully pulpit and bellow: “Give me more Democrats. It’s the only way to rid the Senate of the filibuster so we can stop Republican obstruction and pass legislation the nation needs.” However, it was only sometime in the last couple of weeks that Biden finally addressed this need, pleading to donors at a fundraiser, “We need two more senators.” But Biden and every Democratic leader should be roaring that need, hammering it home to Democratic voters and the general public, not merely to donors. And not merely begging for only two.
Biden’s limitation is that he is no Roosevelt, who developed uniquely creative solutions for huge problems, and who brought his conservative Supreme Court to heel by threatening to expand it—even though his Democratic Congress did not end up supporting the expansion. Nor is Biden a “Give ‘em hell, Harry” Truman—a fighting spirit we need in a leader now.
Goldberg claims the Democrats have “a number of charismatic governors and senators they can turn to” as presidential candidates in place of Biden. But she does not name one. Although I may agree that we need one, right now, I don’t see someone charismatic emerging. And do we really want another primary season with as many as 23 candidates engaged in crowded debates, creating a soundbite show rather than a true debate of issues? Furthermore, while pushing Biden to take stronger actions is needed, tearing down Biden may well weaken him sufficiently for Trump or some Trumpist Republican to win in 2024.
It is a conundrum. We don’t quite have the leader we need for this battle. But given the fragile state of democracy and how a Republican win in 2024 would end that democracy, we can’t afford to risk losing the leader we’ve got.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.