I don’t want to be a killjoy but the mirth with which signs of Jo Biden’s age are greeted strikes me as mindless. Good for a few laughs on Have I got News for You. Look, ha, ha, ha, he’s just tumbled over a sandbag. Trump at his rallies will be laughing along too.
“If the measure of a man is his gait, speech and memory for trivialities, then we are lost”, declared a letter-writer to the New York Times on 7 June summing up the dilemma facing uncertain voters in next year’s US Presidential elections. Will Jo Biden at 81 with some of the frailties of old-age be up to the job?
The criminal investigations besetting Trump have only reinforced his cult status with his core vote. Can he count on Biden’s support eroding under withering scrutiny in the hostile media? Will the Republican campaign gain traction with each stumble, fall and wrong word?
Biden is often compared on the geriatric scale to the elderly – a decade younger actually – President Ronald Reagan. Reagan, aged 72, touched an approval low of 35% in early 1983 but in 1984 went on to win a second term in a landslide victory against the lackluster Walter Mondale. Like the actor he was, Reagan played the folksy grandfather and the American public, used to TV stereotypes, responded positively. President Biden’s performance is less assured. His approval ratings have been bumping along at around 41% for many months. Recently there has been a small tick upwards.
For Biden a better comparison than Reagan would be with President Lyndon Baines Johnson (1963-1969) whose knowledge of politics ‘on the Hill’ and around State governors was legendary. Biden too has brought stellar negotiating and deal-making skills as well as long experience to the Presidency. He has a talented and loyal team around him, with an outstanding Secretary of State, Antony Blinken though Kamala Harris as Vice-President is unpopular. Already the list of Biden’s executive orders and bills is impressive.
US Congressional Acts are complex composites and US congressional representatives are far more independent of any Party discipline than their British counterparts. Biden’s skills operating within this difficult terrain, made even more difficult by a politicised Supreme Court, are demonstrated by his handling of his portmanteau Build Back Better plan, a ‘blue-collar blueprint’ to win back poorer workers. When key parts were blocked in the Senate (as was his proposed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act) Biden made acceptable amendments and changed the bill’s name to the Inflation Reduction Act finally signed off on 16 August 2022. The prices of prescription drugs were lowered, offering $800 annual savings on health insurance for 13 million citizens, and providing investment of $369 billion over ten years for climate change mitigation and clean energy use. Taxation was tightened and steps approved to reduce national debt. The Act built on the eye-watering, job-creating, $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill signed on 15 November 2021.
Also in 2022, Biden’s Safer Communities Act included, amongst other minor provisions, enhanced background checks on under 21s buying guns. A tiny step forward but the first successful – bipartisan - attempt at gun control legislation in thirty years. And a bipartisan agreement concluded this year’s ritual ‘debt-ceiling crisis’ - it stood at an epic $31.4 trillion - enabling Biden to sign the Fiscal Responsibility Act on 3 June. But none of this stream of legislation seems to have impressed an American public; the perception is that the US economy is faring badly with the blame falling on Biden.
Aware that his approval rating for his overall handling of the economy was only 34%, Biden delivered a much-prepared speech in the Old Chicago Post Office on 28 June. He sounded distinctly Keynesian presenting what amounted to aggregate demand as the most important driving force in the economy and promising government intervention to increase output. These are all echoes of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Contrasting Democrat economic policy with Republican trickle down, he rejected, “the belief we should cut taxes for the wealthy and big corporations...that we should shrink public investment in infrastructure and public education”, thus summarising ‘Reaganomics’. Instead the economy should be built “from the middle out and the bottom up”. In a room festooned with ‘Bidenomics’ banners, an attack term used by the Republicans, the speech was a bold counter-branding exercise, not without risk.
Biden’s core electoral support lies amongst more educated and Black voters as well as to a lesser degree Latinos. US Catholics comprise a little over a quarter of the national vote. You might think the large Catholic community would support a fellow Catholic, and he did attract more support than Hillary Clinton, but about half voted for Trump in the 2020 Presidential elections. Despite an impressive record harmonising with official Catholic positions on climate change and social justice, Biden’s support for abortion provision will be an obstacle to deriving any significant electoral advantage from Catholic voters.
Americans largely agree with the Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade decision of 1973 which divided pregnancy into three phases. Opinion polls suggest 69% of Americans think abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy, 37% in the next three and 22% in the final. The respected Pew Foundation finds that 76% of US Catholics think abortion should be legal in some cases/contexts but amongst Catholics who attend mass regularly there is a significantly higher level of pro-life conviction.
Biden has made several attempts to address this problem. At a recent fundraiser for his re-election campaign, he spoke approvingly of the tri-partite division citing the first three months of a pregnancy as a matter for the family, the second three for the doctors and the third for the State – to ban or to allow when needed to save the mother’s life. “I’m a practicing Catholic”, he said. “I’m not big on abortion. But guess what? Roe v Wade got it right”. Pope Francis, while avoiding direct censure, described the President’s religious position as ‘incoherence’. US policy on migration across the southern border is also contrary to Church teaching as well as the practice of many US Catholics of welcoming and supporting Latin American incomers. But for Biden to adopt the Church’s official moral stance would most likely deliver the USA into Trump-dominated Republican hands.
In a democracy you cannot win over voters without making some concessions to popular opinion. And if you cannot win over voters you cannot win elections and achieve even incremental change. J.F. Kennedy made it clear that his catholicism would not influence his conduct of the US Presidency. Biden seems more equivocal, with his piety far more up-front, but makes necessary concessions. And with a man like Trump trumpeting around the country ever ready to divide and destroy we should not too easily condemn Biden’s à la carte catholicism. Nor laugh him out of court for manifestations of old-age. As Bette Davis once said: “Old age ain’t no place for sissies” - especially if it’s being jeered at.
See TheArticle 03/07/2023.