Guest columnist Don Baumer: The truth about Biden for president

  • President Joe Biden speaks at a reception to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law at the White House on Monday. AP

Published: 9/1/2023 6:00:45 AM

The 2024 presidential election is shaping up to be largely about the truth — who is telling it, and who isn’t. Although debate over the truthfulness of politicians is not exactly new (Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton come to mind), its prominence in the coming campaign exceeds anything I have observed in over 50 years of paying careful attention to American politics.

Of course, the principal reason for the focus on truth is Donald Trump’s propensity for not telling it and distorting reality to suit his political purposes. The truth is not something that Trump thinks or cares about; whatever he can say to hurt his enemies and promote himself is what he will say publicly and repeatedly.

But what about the truth on the Democratic side? It appears that there is one truth that most Democrats don’t want to talk about or acknowledge in the public arena: Joe Biden may be too old to serve effectively in another four-year term as president.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence that age is affecting his judgment was his deci sion to run for reelection. It is not surprising that there has been very little turbulence within the Democratic Party about this matter. The president pretty much controls the Democratic National Committee, and Democratic congressional leaders are loath to criticize their president because any suggestion of dissension within the Democratic bloc strengthens their Republican opponents in Congress.

Democrats are supposed to be the party of hope and change, but presently they are projecting an image, especially to younger voters, of an organization entrenched in power that is resistant to new ideas and new faces.

Joe Biden has done a good job as president. Despite the longstanding gridlock in Washington, he orchestrated the passage of several important pieces of legislation through Congress, including COVID relief (Rescue Plan), massive infrastructure improvement projects, action on climate change (Inflation Reduction Act), and the much-needed lifting of the debt ceiling.

In all of these legislative successes, Biden himself played a big role, using the knowledge and experience he has acquired over the course of 50 years of participation in high-level politics and policy in Washington. Few, if any other Democratic leaders could have pulled off as many legislative accomplishments as he has over the last three years.

However, despite these successes his job approval ratings are not very high (around 40%), which is not promising for someone seeking reelection. So, why not step down, knowing that you have done a good job as president, and invite your party to find new leadership?

This question seems particularly relevant in Biden’s case because he has never been an especially effective campaigner for national office. His first presidential run in 1987 barely got off the ground when allegations of plagiarism in law school and borrowing of phrases from other politicians surfaced and sunk him. In 2008, he never came close to either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. (Of course, he was later chosen to be Obama’s running mate.)

In 2020, Biden certainly did not emerge from the debates among Democratic hopefuls as a clear winner. After the debates he went on to place fourth in the Iowa caucuses and fifth in the New Hampshire primary before being rescued by James Clyburn in the South Carolina primary, after which his opponents exited rather quickly.

In the general election, as COVID raged, he made relatively few public appearances, and in the final stretch benefited greatly from Obama’s return to the stump in support of his candidacy. Still, he did win the election, and this is what Democratic insiders and power brokers point to as the reason for the party to stick together in support of his reelection.

There is certainly a good deal of truth on their side — a strong record as president, a proven winner of a national election. No one else in the party (other than Obama) has a track record that comes close. If he were younger, there would be no sound reason to argue for an alternative candidate. But he will be 86 years old by the end of his second term, and he is already showing many signs of aging.

In addition, the prospect of Kamala Harris becoming president is not an electoral asset for Democrats and may well be an asset for Republicans. Younger voters, who may be crucial in the next election, could easily register their unhappiness about the choices they have been given by not voting at all.

The obvious challenge to the argument I am making is: If Biden steps down, who is equipped to step up? I would rule out Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren, all of whom are either too old or not sufficiently appealing to a national audience. I also don’t think that 2020 contenders Pete Buttigieg or Amy Klobuchar have advanced their national standing in the last three years.

However, we Democrats do have some rising stars at the state level. My picks would be Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan or Gov. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania. Not sure which one should top the ticket, but I think they would make an appealing pair — energy, smarts, experience at campaigning and governing, and YOUTH.

We need a candidate who can both make a convincing case that Trump is as scurrilous and idiotic as he is, and offer an attractive alternative. I have a great deal of confidence that younger, sharp, experienced and progressive candidates like Whitmer and Shapiro could do this, and then go on to win the election and serve effectively in the presidency.

Don Baumer, professor emeritus of government, Smith College, lives in Florence.


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