Was I the only journalist in America who thought President Biden’s State of the Union speech Tuesday was hard to watch? At least until he departed from his script and began sparring with the nation’s rudest Republicans?
Sometimes when Biden starts to speak, I involuntarily hold my breath, waiting for him to stumble over his words, or slur them or otherwise mangle his text in a way that will show up in clips on Fox News or MAGA Twitter. See, he’s incompetent!
Worrying about this detracts from the pleasure of having a solid Democratic president after four years of Trumpian chaos and bluster. Biden’s halting delivery may be in part due to his lifelong stutter, but it’s more likely due to his advanced age.
At 80, after all, he’s our oldest president, a fact that Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the country’s youngest governor, callowly pointed out in her bizarre State of the Union rebuttal.
Three years ago, when Biden was vying for the Democratic presidential nomination against Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris et al, I stood in a jam-packed high school gym in Des Moines, surrounded by a who’s who of American political journalists, watching what many of us believed was the swan song of the well-regarded former vice president.
It was kind of sad, but hey, he’d had a good long run, and who could begrudge him one last romp on the trail?
I had last seen him campaigning in person in 2007, when he was running against Barack Obama. I roamed around Iowa with him then, and he was garrulous, to say the least. I did not know about his childhood stutter, and I never saw evidence of it.
In 2020, it seemed as if Biden’s years playing second fiddle to Obama for two terms, during which he suffered the loss of his elder son, Beau, to cancer, had taken their toll.
“Watching him onstage was jarring,” I wrote at the beginning of that primary season. “He was not the smooth orator of the past. He relied on notes, hesitated and often raised his voice to a shout, as if mistaking volume for passion.”
Biden finished a dismal fourth in the 2020 Iowa caucuses. Many of us were ready to write him off as yesterday’s news. All the cool Ray-Ban aviators in the world were not going to help.
And then came South Carolina, where his status as second-in-command to the country’s first Black president persuaded Black voters to revive his campaign. He swamped the competition, won his very first presidential primary and headed into Super Tuesday with money in his coffers and the wind at his back. His campaign message — the election was a battle for the soul of America — resonated with Democratic and independent voters who had watched President Trump court and compliment white nationalists and call African nations “shithole countries.”
When it came right down to it, voters in 2020 didn’t seem to care about his age. After all, American politics is possibly the only arena where senescence is not an impediment to success.
I mean, the former House speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), just stepped down from her leadership role at 82. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell clocks in at 80. California’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, will celebrate her 90th birthday later this year, God willing. She also happens to be the oldest sitting U.S. senator. (Will I make a joke about how she is sitting rather than standing? I will not.)
And now here we are on the verge of another presidential campaign that, at least at this point, may pit Biden against the former guy, despite a majority of Democrats telling pollsters they think he’s too old to run.
By most measures, Biden has been a successful president. As my colleague Jackie Calmes noted last week, many historians and nonpartisan analysts say he has achieved more legislatively in his first two years “than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson.”
Running against Trump again would be a Democratic dream come true. Can we even imagine a scenario where the 7 million-plus voters who gave Biden his very comfortable margin of success over Trump would change their minds?
He may not always sound sharp, but Biden proved Tuesday that he hasn’t lost his edge. He accused “some Republicans” of wanting to use Social Security and Medicare as negotiating points in discussions about raising the debt ceiling.
From the incredulous expressions and boos of so many on the right side of the chamber, you would have thought that Biden had accused them of drowning puppies when, in fact, it’s a cherished tenet of Republican ideology that so-called “entitlements” are out of control and need to be ratcheted back — by raising age limits, by reducing benefits or, worse, by privatization.
The president was fast on his feet. Sensing an opportunity to extemporize, he looked around the chamber, pleased.
“So folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right?” he said. “We’ve got unanimity. So tonight … let’s stand up for seniors. Stand up and show them we will not cut Social Security. We will not cut Medicare.”
OK, yes, Biden should have said “off the table” not “off the books.” It was a slip of the tongue.
But we all knew exactly what he meant.
And so did the Republicans he so cleverly backed into a corner.
Is Biden too old to run again? Hardly. Like whiskey, wine and cast-iron skillets, some things just get better with age.