The Old Guy’s Taking His Shot

Joe Biden is making people rethink their assumptions — about him and age

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Let’s drift back to those olden days, shall we? Way back around 2019 when the critical pieces on 76-year-old Joe Biden came hard and heavy.

It started with the headlines. This from Politico: “Is Joe Biden Too Old?” Politico’s Jack Shafer then tallied a collection of media outlets which did their takes on the age of Joe—not only asking if he’s too old, but stepping straight into the ageism issue, of whether the candidate should be put out to pasture rather than sent to the White House. A sampling:

  • The New York Times: “Why Joe Biden’s Age Worries Some Democratic Allies and Voters”

  • The Atlantic: “Is Joe Biden ‘Too Old’?”

  • CNN: “Is Joe Biden too old to be president?”

  • Politico: “It’s not just Trump questioning Biden’s age. Democrats are, too.”

  • Slate: “Joe Biden is Old”

Get the picture? Then came the questions—or the assertions. Maybe he doesn’t have the physical energy, the verbal acuity, the memory, the necessary wit, the clarity. Maybe his gaffes are not just a long-time pattern, but a sign he doesn’t have it anymore. Maybe his early debate stumbles or momentary searching for words are a sign that he’s too doddering to take on the job.

Note Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty calling his first debate a “painfully feeble performance,” with this opening line: “In his first face-off with his rivals for the 2020 Democratic nomination, Joe Biden came off as a candidate trapped in amber.” The headline in this case? “Joe Biden appears to be a candidate from a different era.”

To be clear, these were legit questions. And it wasn’t just the media that was asking them. Plenty of Americans wondered and worried: One of three Americans surveyed by Gallup in 2020 admitted that they wouldn’t vote for even a “well-qualified” presidential candidate over 70. Biden himself acknowledged in 2018, “Well, chronologically, I am old…I think age is relevant.” He was then 75.

Of course, the White House occupant, ever the predator, did his best to tap into those worries. He tagged him “Sleepy Joe.” He doubted his “mental capacity.” He asserted that he was “even slower than he used to be.” And, most ironically, Biden “doesn’t have what it takes” to be president.

But look at him now. Just days away from 100 days in office, there’s already a vigorous record of achievement that belies the notion that an old guy can’t handle the rigors of the job. Quite the opposite. For all those who complained before the election about another old white guy taking the reins, whined that we needed someone younger and fresher, and worried that he was the last guy to take the country into the future, Biden has proffered a compelling (and calm) counterpunch.

Knowledge, experience and the wisdom of age—matched with the common sense to surround himself with talented professionals and experts—looks not only like the right package for this moment, but a winning approach at any time. I’m not doubting that younger people are capable of handling the job, of course, but the 78-year-old might have one extra ingredient that his younger colleagues don’t.

He surely brings extraordinary empathy and compassion, a deep commitment to and belief in good governance, the necessary management skills and strategic mindset that can actually get things done and make things better. But he may also bring that one other detail that most of us missed when assessing his potential for success early on—and that is his awareness that he only has so much time, that this is his moment, and that he’s going to take his shot.

That has included strategically confronting the coronavirus and getting over 200 million doses of vaccine in the arms of Americans in less than 100 days. As the AP’s Jonathan Lemire and Calvin Woodward note, the number of COVID deaths in the US has dropped from 4,380 people on the day Biden took office to about 700 people a day now. 

He also gets credit for passing a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, putting in place an all-hands-on-deck agenda and team to confront the climate crisis, and demonstrating long-absent social imagination by pushing for a $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan that extends well beyond the tired notions of repairing bridges, roads and transportation. As I’ve written previously, he’s asking Congress and Americans “to think bigger, to expand the idea in which fixing and building infrastructure can mean addressing inequality and recognizing human needs like health and home care and justice and climate change.”

Has his agenda included a hesitancy to spend his time doing press conferences, reading scripts from teleprompters, and relying on the advice of his team for decision-making rather than insisting that “he alone” can fix it? Yes, it has. Call me crazy, but that sounds like a president staying on message and doing his job.

Yes, he has work to do to better manage immigration reform and continuing pressures at the border. I’m also impatient to see progress in prosecuting the insurrection and holding elected officials who participated accountable. But I’ll take both of these as efforts in progress rather than failures at this point in his presidency.

Now, before you write me off as a rosy-eyed observer, do know I’m ready to be disappointed and change my tune if the remarkable early promise doesn’t sustain itself over time. I do admit that the bar has been set so tragically low after the last four years, simply not holding every news cycle hostage with assaults on our sanity feels like a reason to throw a parade.

But nearly 100 days in, it’s looking like President Joseph R. Biden is going to keep making more and more of his doubters rue the day they thought he would be merely a moderate, a caretaker—and an old story. At a time when Americans are living longer, that may quicken the step of more than a few septuagenarians who’ve been told their time is up.

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