Should we be worried about Joe?

I go into this in detail not for the sake of horse-race politics, but to do what I can to stem any rising panic.

Should we be worried about Joe?
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

If you know me well — and judging by the subscription list, most of you do — you know that political opinions come along with the package. In fact, that's a fair portion of what I want to practice here, while I try to get back into the swing of things at Religion Dispatches and elsewhere.

(If you're here for the personal essays, don't worry. There will be plenty of those as well.)

This week, I thought I'd try to answer the title question: Should we be worried about Joe Biden? It's a question often asked by people who fret about the fall presidential election. Judging by my social media feed, most of us do. It's also a question that has nearly as many implications as it does askers.

Should we be worried about Joe Biden's age?

Short version: no, I don't think so. People who have followed Biden for a long time (and I have, since 1988) know that he's always been prone to saying the wrong thing. He did it recently when he referred to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi as the president of Mexico. That gaffe was particularly poorly timed, since it came in an attempt to defend Biden's memory. But again, people who have followed Biden for a long time haven't seen any increase in his flubs. Neither have any concerns leaked from the White House.

You might recall that Biden was defending his memory against Special Counsel Robert Hur, who issued a report describing Biden as an "elderly man with a poor memory." Except he didn't: instead, that was Hur's imagining Biden's line of defense in a hypothetical court case. It was vulturous media outlets, led by the New York Times, who picked the line up and ran with it.

So should we be worried about Biden's age? No more so than any other octogenarian, I'd say. Biden's probably not as healthy as he once was, nor as mentally acute. But I haven't seen anything to show that he's unfit for his current position. Besides, it's not like the nation lacks experience in compensating for presidential disability.

Should we be worried about Joe's popularity?

It's no secret that voters think Biden is too old to be president. In fact, the memory issue doesn't seem to have affected his support. Voters already thought he was too old, and the latest story didn't change their minds.

It's also no secret that Biden's approval ratings are terrible, or that he's tied or even behind Trump in several key states. But there are lots of reasons not to sweat the numbers too much:

  1. We're still too far out from the election for polls to have much predictive power. If Biden's still struggling this summer, then it's time to worry. Right now, poll respondents are venting spleen and entertaining visions of third-party rescues. Or they're just tuned out and not thinking about politics at all.
  2. There are a lot of garbage polls being fielded. Even I had a moment of worry when the latest Marquette Law poll came out. But for every gold-standard pollster, there's at least one or two others thrown up in a bid to shape the election narrative. There are also systemic limits on what scientific polling can do, and in recent elections, pollsters have often underestimated Democratic votes.
  3. Presidents and other leaders just aren't liked very much these days. This is a pattern that's been developing since the George W. Bush era. Partisans reflexively disapprove opposite-party leaders, and everybody blames the president for everything that's wrong in society and politics and baseball. Biden actually does well compared to some European leaders, and approval ratings and voting intentions are becoming increasingly uncoupled.

That's because of the biggest reason not to sweat the polls too much: negative partisanship. Simply put, many people don't vote for a president so much as against his or her opponent. And of the two major party candidates this cycle, there's only one who will be constantly generating reasons to vote against him, in the form of court cases, objectionable rhetoric, and authoritarian instincts. Even on the comparison of age, Trump comes out on the short end of the stick. The Biden campaign has only to run ads comparing speech patterns to lay waste to that argument.

As smarter people than me have said, Americans rejected Trump in 2020, and nothing that has happened since then has made him more attractive. Add to that a strong economy and voters' repeated rejection of Republican extremism on immigration and abortion, and it's easy to see who has more of a tailwind this season. (Oh yeah, and: Trump's been undermining the Republican National Committee and state parties, too.)

I go into this in detail not for the sake of horse-race politics, but to do what I can to stem any rising panic. Not just for you, dear readers, but for the pundits, some of whom seem to have stumbled and hit their heads. It is an absolute fantasy to think that Biden could be replaced as the candidate at this stage in the game. He polls better against Trump than alternatives, for goshsake. Even if that weren't the case, coming up with a nominee at the party convention is a recipe for disaster. The last time Democrats tried that was when LBJ stepped down in 1968, leading to the notably smooth and attractive convention in Chicago later that year.

As well, Biden remains very popular with Black voters. He won 96% of the primary vote in South Carolina, for example. Benching him at this point would send a strong signal to African Americans that their votes don't count.

Should we be worried about Joe's policies?

I suspect that a good deal of the anxiety about Biden comes not from the man himself but from disagreements about his governance. And I get it, there is legitimate room for criticism, particularly on the war in Gaza.

But there is this enduring idea that America could move sharply to the left were it not for wishy-washy centrists who don't really want change. It is another fantasy, I'm afraid. The system is stacked against progress in a million ways both in and outside the control of the president. Bernie Sanders would not have won in 2016. Nor would he have been able to enact a more progressive agenda than Biden, even if he did.

You can pick any particular issue you like and discover two things are true: Biden's policies probably don't go far enough, and they're better than any other Democrat in decades. The exception is with immigration and border control. But even there, the issue is such a tangle that I'd hold off judgment until Biden had a cooperative Congress to work with.

So what should we be worried about?

It's entirely possible that Biden will lose this November. I think trends are running toward his re-election. But presidential races are tight these days, and a lot could happen between now and November. For example, the New York Times could go on a "but her emails"-style bender with his age.

The bigger issue is that if you look carefully, you can see places where the Democratic coalition is a bit frayed. There's a palpable desire for younger national leadership, and to my knowledge, Democrats don't have a strong sub-50's bench. U.S. support for Israel is a definite dividing line, as is immigration, and economic policies. Those aren't immediate concerns. But they will be eventually, especially when there's not quite as repellent an opponent to vote against.

So I don't think we need to worry about Joe, no. He'll hold up long enough to get us past November, which is the crucial part. Whether he dies in office in his second term or goes on to apparent immortality like Jimmy Carter, though, he's undeniably the last of some kind of president. What I'm worried about isn't Joe, it's that there are deep and lasting divisions in American society, and no clear leaders to take the nation past them . Not until Taylor Swift announces her 2028 campaign, anyway.

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