Analysis: Biden May Not Like It, But His Age Will Play Spoilsport

Analysis: Biden May Not Like It, But His Age Will Play Spoilsport

The race to the White House this year is virtually a geriatric marathon

Sachin KalbagUpdated: Wednesday, March 13, 2024, 10:27 PM IST
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US President Joe Biden and challenger Donald Trump | File Photo/AFP

In 1984, when then US President Ronald Reagan was 73 and running for a second term, he had to debate with Walter Mondale, a former Vice President under Jimmy Carter and the Democratic Party’s frontrunner against the Republican incumbent. Mondale was 17 years younger than Reagan.

The debate’s host — Henry Trewhitt of The Baltimore Sun — asked Reagan on live TV: “You already are the oldest President in history. Some of your staff said recently that you looked tired after your recent encounter with Mr Mondale. I recall that President Kennedy had to go days on end without sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Any doubt in your mind whether you will be able to function under such circumstances?”

Reagan, a veteran actor of over 50 films in the pre- and post-World War II era, was not one to be fazed. “Not at all, Mr Trewhit,” he replied, “And I want you to know that I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Everyone, including Mondale, laughed.

Joe Biden, the current US President, does not have Reagan’s luxury to laugh away this opponent’s age, or his. He is 81, already the oldest head of state in US history, and by the time this year’s election draws to a close he will be 15 days short of 82. His opponent, Donald Trump, will be 78. The combined age will be 159 years — a world record of sorts. Incidentally, the independent third candidate, Robert F Kennedy, Jr, will be nearly 71 at the time of the election.

The race to the White House this year is virtually a geriatric marathon.

Biden hit back at his critics last week with a passionate, hard-hitting State of the Union (SOTU) address where he not only addressed the age factor, but attacked Trump for his bigotry and self-serving campaign tactics. To be sure, Biden is right. Trump has neither any ideology to propagate nor a political agenda to market heading into the November election; in fact, he has no other person to serve apart from himself. Yet, it is Biden who is on the backfoot.

The reason is perception. Biden’s consistent goofs and the recent confidential report prepared by US Special Counsel Robert Hur wherein the President is described as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” have worsened his image, notwithstanding the SOTU speech. At the centre of the Hur controversy is the fact that if you read the 250-plus-page transcript, you’d never realise that Biden occasionally slurs or has problems with memory (he once publicly mentioned he spoke to a European leader who, in fact, had died many years earlier).

Republicans went after Hur during a recent testimony trying to force any anti-Biden statement out of him. Despite being a Trump appointee, he refused to be drawn into that controversy. When Congressman Scott Fitzgerald asked him directly whether the President was senile, Hur responded assertively, “That conclusion does not appear in my report.”

Biden may have, at least with the hardline Republicans, clawed his way back a bit. After the SOTU speech, for instance, Republicans had no idea how to respond. After waiting for weeks for Biden to goof up on stage and therefore go for an all-out offensive, they said they found Biden to be “too loud”. Democrats were only laughing.

Trump did not take the back seat, though. He released a video of Biden stumbling on the stairs of his official plane Air Force One, and later falling off his bike. Trump knows exactly what entertains and arouses his base.

But it is not the Republicans that Biden has to impress — they anyway won’t vote for him; it is his twin constituencies of liberals and minorities that need to be kept happy. And both aren’t. They may vote for him because there is no alternative within the Democratic Party, and because the Republican challenger is worse; but it is the “Undecideds” that are key.

Historically, America’s undecideds have either stayed away from voting or have mostly voted for the challenger. The first category will haunt Biden for the next six months or so. Then again, as we discussed a fortnight ago in this very space, there are also the “Uncommitted” voters within the Biden supporter base who believe that the President’s ambivalence over Israeli aggression in Gaza has cost more than 30,000 lives, including more than 10,000 children and an equal number of women.

Inflation isn’t doing well either. The US Federal Reserve has steadfastly refused to lower interest rates because inflation is still high. In fact, on March 13, the latest US inflation figures showed an uptick, and put paid to any thought of Fed chairman Jerome Powell lowering interest rates.

The election equation for Biden is therefore clear — Inflation plus Unemployment plus Israel plus Street Crime plus Homelessness plus The Age Factor will lead to a possible loss for the incumbent. In reality, America in 2024 is in a much better situation than the America of 2022.

But then, the perception among the citizens is different. The November vote is more of a referendum on Biden’s performance than a vote for Trump. Also, rational people may laugh it off at the moment, but there is a genuine fear among the many Americans that Biden may be leading the nation into World War III. This is why his image matters.

Besides, Trump has nothing to prove, electorally. His primary and secondary platforms are Biden This and Biden That. Legally, he may be on weak ground (there are 91 charges against him), but the greater his legal troubles, the more aroused his base becomes.

Therefore, Biden may hate it, but his age will matter on November 5, and could well play the biggest spoilsport.

Sachin Kalbag, Senior Fellow at The Takshashila Institution, is a former Washington Correspondent and editor of Indian newspapers. Email: sachin@takshashila.org.in. Twitter: @SachinKalbag

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