November 20th was Joe Biden’s 80th birthday. Our first octogenarian president is two years older than Ronald Reagan when his presidency ended in 1989.
Biden is still fit and energetic, but he’s also showing his age. His hair is thinner, his walk stiffer, his speech more garbled than when he arrived at the White House almost two years ago.
One thing hasn’t changed: he’s notoriously stubborn.
And now that he’s 80, it’s probably fair to describe him as a stubborn old man.
Ask anyone who’s worked for Biden and you’ll hear a version of the same description: He listens to dissenting voices, but once he makes up his mind, he’s almost imperturbable.
“One thing I learned quickly,” a former aide told me, “You don’t tell Joe Biden what to say.”
When wrong, this stubbornness can be his worst vice. If he is right, it can be his most useful virtue.
Biden’s stubbornness has helped steer his presidency into some of its deepest potholes.
It set off the debacle of the US withdrawal from Kabul, as Biden rejected requests from the military for a delay. (Asked later if he thought he made mistakes in Afghanistan, he said, “No.”)
It shook public confidence when he prematurely declared victory over the COVID-19 pandemic, despite federal experts warning the disease was still spreading.
It drove his popularity back that year as he brushed aside warnings of rising inflation and stuck to an economic message – “Things are better than you think” – that seemed detached from voters’ lives.
But one form of his stubbornness is useful—a quality more commonly referred to as persistence or stubbornness. So does the President.
His persistent support for Ukraine in the fight against a Russian invasion has made him the undisputed leader of a revived North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
That fall, Biden decided that the most important issue in the midterm elections was democracy — defending constitutional norms against “ultra-MAGA Republican” extremism.
“What we do now will decide whether democracy lasts long,” he said in one of several campaign speeches.
Pundits and political strategists criticized the message, arguing that the election would be decided on economic issues rather than abstractions about democracy.
But when the returns came in, it turned out that Biden was more right than wrong. An Associated Press poll found that democracy ranked second only to inflation as a concern among voters. A surprisingly high percentage of voters dissatisfied with the economy still voted for the Democrats, allowing them to retain control of the Senate and lose fewer than expected House seats.
At a post-election press conference, the president was asked if he saw a need to adjust course based on the lessons of his first two years.
“I will not change,” he said.
Biden’s midterm campaign theme was, unsurprisingly, an updated version of his 2020 presidential campaign message: a plea for constitutional norms, a rejection of Donald Trump’s extremism.
In that campaign, candidate Biden also won the Democratic nomination through sheer stubbornness. He finished fourth in Iowa and a disastrous fifth in New Hampshire, but stuck to a strategy based on winning over black voters in South Carolina and outlasting his rivals.
Long before 2020, perseverance in the face of adversity was at the heart of Biden’s story. His national political career began tragically when, shortly before he was sworn in as Senator, his wife and daughter were killed in a traffic accident. He suffered two brain aneurysms. He lost his first two attempts at winning the Democratic presidential nomination — badly — but came back for a third try.
Now, at the start of another presidential campaign, Biden’s stubbornness is showing up again: will he run for re-election in 2024 at just under 82?
The president has repeatedly said he wants to run, and it turns out he meant it.
“Our intention is to run again,” he said after the results of the midterm exams were in. “That was our intention, regardless of how this election turned out.”
Those around him say the interim results and Trump’s entry into the race merely confirmed a decision Biden had already made.
Nothing makes him more defiant than critics who say he’s lost his stuff. Nothing makes him more eager than another chance to defeat Trump.
“He feels like he’s the only one who has hit (Trump) before,” former White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on MSNBC.
Asked if polls showing most voters don’t want him running will sway his thinking, Biden said, “It doesn’t.”
In a CNN poll on the outcome of the election, 67% of voters said they didn’t want Biden to run again. But among Democratic voters — those who will decide the party’s nominee — 57% said they wanted Biden to run, 38% said they didn’t. This suggests that the President is going into the race as the clear favourite.
As for his age, Biden recently said, “It’s a legitimate thing to be concerned about.”
“I think the best way to make a judgment is to watch me. Am I slowing down?” he said. “I don’t feel that way.”
Is that stubbornness, the vice that can lead to disaster? Or is it persistence, the virtue that leads to hard-earned success?
Don’t ask Biden. He’s not the best judge. All he knows is that stubbornness — OK, persistence — has worked for him so far.