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Joe Biden’s Problem Isn’t His Age, It’s Our Age
Trump’s cruelty theater is distorting politics and people’s views of the president.
“YOU’LL LIVE TO BE 90!” someone shouted at Joe Biden at a union-hall Labor Day rally in Philadelphia. The 80-year-old president laughed and made the sign of the cross. “The only thing that comes with age is a little bit of wisdom,” he said, adding: “I’ve been doing this longer than anybody. And guess what? I’m going to continue to do it with your help.”
Age is the 2024 issue that won’t go away, and there’s no denying there’s reason for concern. Yet Biden’s real problem is not his age. It’s our age … of performative politics.
As usual, Donald Trump is at the root of the mess. From the minute he entered the 2016 presidential race on a golden escalator in a building blaring his name, U.S. politics has been a twisted reality show that elevates outrage, insults, and cruelty in a spirit of sadistic fun. That’s entertainment, at least for Trump’s many millions of devoted fans.
Theatrics are not unheard of in the political arena, yet scenes from the relatively recent past seem so innocent now. For instance, here’s the beginning of an article I wrote with a USA Today colleague, Judy Keen, in 2004:
They talk guns, they talk teams, they talk tough. You’d think they were running for top jock. Or maybe leader of the free world. It’s macho time in the presidential race. The best man could be the one who seems more manly.
It was just three years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and America was on edge. President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry, his Democratic challenger, each needed to prove only they could keep the country safe. The upshot was a pair of hypercompetitive athletes who always seemed to be hunting, fishing, bike-riding, wood-chopping, brush-cutting, windsurfing, snowboarding, and posing with guns, troops, veterans, and generals.
But they did not consider criminal indictments a badge of honor. They did not brag about supporters so devoted they’d stick with them no matter what, even murder. They did not punch down. They did not target vulnerable communities. In fact, just the opposite.
Kerry urged Americans to embrace their nation’s strength and diversity. “We believe in the value of doing what’s right for everyone in the American family,” he said in his convention acceptance speech. “We believe that what matters most is . . . the shared values that show the true face of America. Not narrow appeals that divide us, but shared values that unite us.”
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Bush pointedly tried to defuse backlash against America’s millions of Muslim citizens. “Islam is peace,” he said at a mosque less than six days after the 9/11 attacks. “In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect. Women who cover their heads . . . must be not intimidated in America. That’s not the America I know. That’s not the America I value.”
That was 2001. In 2015, Trump campaigned on banning Muslims from entering the United States.
THE LATEST DISPLAY of what now passes for “strength” came just last week when Gov. Ron DeSantis, one of the many trying to dislodge Trump in the GOP 2024 nomination race, declined to meet with Biden on his visit to a storm-ravaged Florida town. His reason—that it would disrupt Hurricane Idalia recovery efforts—didn’t ring true to the Biden team. Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the Live Oak area Biden visited was “mutually agreed on by both the governor’s team and my team on the ground” and her people had “heard no concerns over any impact to the communities” ahead of Biden’s visit. She surveyed storm damage Thursday with DeSantis but did not hear from him about his plan to skip the meeting.
A joint appearance that might produce an embarrassing picture? Too much risk of becoming another Chris Christie. The former New Jersey governor, now an anti-Trump candidate for the 2024 GOP nomination, endured years of political blowback over a photo showing him and President Barack Obama having an intense, emotional moment just after Superstorm Sandy, one of the deadliest and costliest hurricanes in U.S. history.
That Christie-Obama encounter has long been mocked as a hug. It actually shows the pair shaking hands, with space between them, and Obama’s left hand on Christie’s shoulder. One Fox News host conceded as much three years later when Christie was running for the 2016 presidential nomination. “I looked at it last night and I said, ‘That’s no hug,’ and I gotta say, I’m sorry about the hug,” Greta Van Susteren told Christie.
Not that DeSantis is much of a spontaneous hugger, but God forbid he get caught on camera seeming too cozy with the most powerful Democrat in the country, or even marginally respectful of the office and the man who holds it. Is that strength? You be the judge.
Is it strength for DeSantis to pick a fight with the Walt Disney Company, to reject an Advanced Placement course in black history, to stage a hostile takeover of a college, to dictate what teachers can and can’t say about the LGBTQ community? Is it strength for Trump to raise money off 91 felony counts, to praise foreign despots, to race DeSantis to the bottom on immigration, LGBTQ rights, and general authoritarian tendencies?
Or is it all political performance art?
Trump is besting DeSantis and the rest of the field in large part because he’s a veteran entertainer who can read a room—or in this case a country. The first and only time I watched a Trump rally from start to finish was in February 2016, and it was a terrifying glimpse of what was to come. The part about supporters so loyal he could get away with murder wasn’t even the scariest thing he said that day in Sparks, Nevada. “The most dangerous element of Trump has nothing to do with any of that, or his slanders and incitements and hostile policy prescriptions. It’s the flashes of charm and humor that make him seem almost plausible,” I wrote.
The only word I regret now is “almost.”
BIDEN IS THE ANTI-TRUMP, literally and metaphorically. After decades in the trenches of the Senate and vice presidency, he’s a steadfast upholder of norms—from supporting Ukraine and NATO to aiming for bipartisanship when possible. He’s never been a flashy entertainer and he doesn’t trade on grievance. His peak flash was ‘cool guy with aviator sunglasses and a Corvette,’ and that Biden persona appears to be making a comeback. He’s held few formal press conferences or sitdown interviews as president, and he can seem absent or rote at formulaic events. But he’s got a sense of humor and he more than holds his own in impromptu exchanges, whether they’re with children, journalists, Republican legislators at a State of the Union speech, or fans at a Labor Day rally.
One classic off-the-cuff moment was when a reporter asked Biden what he thought of Trump’s Fulton County, Georgia, mug shot. “Handsome guy. Wonderful guy,” he said, smiling. And there’s Biden with an exuberant middle schooler on the first day of school in Washington, D.C. “Oh my god y’all, I’m shaking hands with the president! I’m going to be famous!” she exclaimed. “You’re gonna be president,” Biden told her. “I’m gonna be president?” “Sure you can be president,” the leader of the free world responded.
America has had some charismatic presidents, like Trump, who were ineffective (and, in his case, unfathomably malign). It’s had some—Obama, Ronald Reagan, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR—who had both charisma and solid or even stellar records of achievement. It’s also had lower-key, sometimes awkward presidents, like Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and George H.W. Bush, who accomplished a lot.
The fundamental assumptions on the right are that Biden is out of it and his administration is incompetent. But they’re wrong, as objective reality—Biden’s public appearances and his record to date—clearly shows. I’d put Biden in the company of Truman, Eisenhower, and Bush 41.
Several of the Founding Fathers, by the way, might be in that category as well. Dean Simonton, now a psychology professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis, told NPR in 2012 that charisma didn’t count for much in America’s early days, given the absence of mass media and the nature of politics at the time. George Washington, he said, wouldn’t have a prayer of getting elected today.
I’m not sure a 55- or 60-year-old Biden would do any better than 80-year-old Biden on the showmanship that has taken Trump so far. He’s a journeyman politician, steeped in process and policy. He probably would agree with something Bill Richardson, who died Friday, told Atlantic writer Mark Leibovich years ago: “I don’t mind being called a ‘professional politician.’ It’s better than being an amateur, right?”
While today’s media dissections and exposure aren’t particularly helpful to Biden, Trump is a rank amateur at ethical and legal accountability. The media microscope on his profound transgressions, as they are litigated and laid bare in criminal proceedings, could lead to true justice: A decisive defeat for Trump in 2024, proving conclusively that his brand of bullying, dishonest, destructive entertainment is no longer a winning commodity in American politics.