The promise and pitfalls of Joe Biden
When I answered my phone that May day in 2007, it was Joe Biden on the line. After quick pleasantries, the conversation turned to a column I had just written about his attention-deprived presidential candidacy. I had begun by noting that the last time I’d covered Biden on the New Hampshire campaign trail had been two decades earlier, in 1987, when he was positioning himself as the fresh-faced tribune of the baby boom.
But now – that is, in 2007 — Barack Obama was seen as the next new thing, Biden as the same old thing, “a Capitol Hill fixture engaged, as so many senators are, in a long-term love affair with the sound of his own voice.”
“You made me look old,” he said.
“Senator,” I kidded, “you are old.”
He cursed jovially at me, with the spontaneity that makes him so hard to dislike. And honestly, my gibe was unfair; he was then an energetic 64, though in my defense, that was before 65 had become the new 30.
Today, however, I think it’s fair to say Biden, who jumped into the race on Thursday, is, at least by campaign standards, old. Not ancient, certainly. But 76 is old enough that, as with Bernie Sanders, 77, and Donald Trump, 72, Biden’s age is a legitimate concern — and one that in some way gets at the central challenges and contradictions of his candidacy. In a year with a lot of attractive but untested candidates, Biden’s appeal is that he’s a solid, well-liked, well-known quantity. After his eight years at Obama’s side, he’s someone many Americans could easily imagine in the Oval Office. As such, he could shape up as the Democrats’ best chance of uniting a party across its ideological faultlines and beating Trump. Yet to become the candidate Democrats could eventually coalesce around, Biden must provide a lot of reassurance.
I don’t mean on the shoulder-squeezing front. Politics is a grip-and-hug business; unless one of those activities violates a recognized physical no-trespassing zone, grips and hugs are best seen as lacking lecherous intent, and thus well short of a #MeToo offense.
So what issues am I talking about?
Physical and mental capacity are two. One’s late 70s is hardly an ideal time to assume the world’s most pressure-packed job. That’s particularly true if you’ve had a serious health problem, as Biden has, in the form of a nearly fatal aneurysm in 1988, though two corrective surgeries seem to have left him without recurring problems. Still, he’ll have to be forthcoming about his mental and physical fitness, and that means offering reporters extensive access to his doctors and medical records.
A second problem comes with his spontaneity: a tendency to let his mouth run like a flock of free-range chickens. Most of his verbal miscues are fairly harmless, some even humorous. But in the Trump era, that may be far less of a problem than it once was.
Then, there’s the larger matter of what a 2020 Biden candidacy will be about. His 1988 campaign was an awkward attempt to fit himself into a pollster-crafted generational role. His 2008 candidacy was predicated principally on his foreign-policy experience. Neither rationale proved convincing.
In his Thursday announcement video, Biden portrayed himself as the best chance to beat Trump in a battle for the soul of America. That’s an effective opening bid, but over time, voters will need to know what a Biden presidency would look like.
What will he, a practical center-left type in a party whose activist base has evolved harder left, offer? He has a sterling opportunity to define himself as the voice of results-oriented reason vis-a-vis Bernie Sanders’ castle-in-the-clouds socialism. Does he engage that debate — or try to finesse it? The first course is the right way to run, but it will require a campaign that goes well beyond the broad themes of Washington experience and foreign policy knowledge to outline a compelling domestic agenda.
Given Biden’s past presidential efforts, that may prove to be his biggest challenge.