Biden’s record is more impressive than Obama’s – but he is making a mistake by running again

Published by The I newspaper (24th April, 2023)

Muddling up New Zealand’s rugby team with a British paramilitary unit from the past that was infamous for its brutality is an epic blunder, even for an elderly politician talking in a pub who admits he has always been “a gaffe machine”. 

Fortunately, Joe Biden managed not to confuse the All Blacks with the Black and Tans in his set-piece speech to Ireland’s parliament the following day, raising his fist in triumph at getting his lines right to cheers from listening MPs. But beyond that horrendous slip, along with needing assistance from his son when fielding questions from children, the president’s feelgood trip to his ancestral homeland was a success.

It is far from ideal that the leader of the free world gets cheered for his ability not to muddle his words at a major event. Yet there is growing expectation that Biden – having cried at Knock Shrine, deftly navigated the difficult politics north of the border and showcased his trope of the Irish-American dream – will this week declare that he seeks a second stint in the White House.

Never mind that he is already the oldest president in US history, a frail man who would be 86 years old at the end of a second term. His mental capabilities are frequently questioned, he had a recent health scare over a cancerous skin lesion, and he indicated four years ago that he would only stick around for one term to soothe tensions tormenting his nation.

He was trounced into fourth place in 2020. Then came triumph in South Carolina that set him on the path to power. But now barely one in four Americans want him to run again, his ratings are little better than his dreadful predecessor at this point in the presidency, his vice-president is deemed a disastrous flop and even most Democrats believe he is far too feeble for another tilt at the top job.

Yet Biden is unlikely to face serious challenge. This demonstrates deep-rooted fear on his side over Donald Trump’s possible return, with desire to avoid a divisive and potentially damaging battle. So, the next US presidential election might see another clash between these two ancient dinosaurs, although there are another 333 million citizens in the nation.

It is incredible that there is even the remote possibility Republicans might pick Trump after his corrosive lies about a “stolen” election, his links to the attack on Congress and the indictment in New York. Yet even as the overhyped campaign of bigoted Florida governor Ron DeSantis falters and a new wave of hopefuls enter the fray, it seems unlikely the party can escape Trump’s toxic shadow and shrug off his brand of crass populism.

The 46th US president took office at a time of immense turbulence. To his credit, Biden showed that he understood the interwoven nature of threats to democracy both at home and abroad, something still missed by too many British politicians.

He extricated the US from its broken intervention in Afghanistan, albeit badly, then led the international coalition to support Ukraine, seeing that the country is caught on the frontline of an epochal clash between dictatorship and democracy. Just imagine if Trump – so cavalier towards allies, so conflicted on Vladimir Putin, so hostile to Nato – had been in charge. Biden has also been abundantly clear that the US will defend Taiwan with military force if China dares to invade.

He can boast a decent record at home too. The economy is doing well with record job creation, tumbling inflation and the lowest unemployment rate for half a century. Biden has kept his party disciplined despite divisions over direction, cut deals with the opposition and passed significant measures to pump cash into infrastructure, invest in clean energy, promote the making of advanced computer chips and protect same-sex unions (passed, incidentally, with the support of 12 Republican senators as public attitudes fast evolve). There has been minor gun reform, cancellation of student debt and the pardoning of federal convictions for marijuana possession.

Few analysts expected such achievements given his age, the stasis in Washington and tribal fissures fanned by fanatics on both left and right. This veteran operator has turned out to be an unexpectedly strong, almost dynamic, president – as shown by that folksy trip this month to Ireland. For all the cringing at his gaffes and concern over his frailties, he has achieved more so far in his first term than any predecessor this century – including Barack Obama, that charismatic orator whom he served as vice-president.

Indeed, it is arguable that he has been the most transformative US president since Ronald Reagan – another elderly leader who prompted concerns over his age and fading cognitive abilities yet stood strong in the face of global despotism.

Biden’s success is tribute to his consensual style, his pragmatic approach and his refusal to accept defeat after rebounding so often from setbacks in both his family life and his long career. It serves as a reminder that real leadership is not about shallow boasts, silly stunts and driving open wedge issues. It also shows experience is a real benefit in the dark arts of politics.

Biden felt like a throwback four years ago with his plodding appeals for unity in this argumentative, fractured and partisan age – yet he has highlighted again that politics is about building bridges, not blowing them up. But he should not run again at his advanced age. For ultimately, it makes a mockery of the political system in the world’s most important democracy, something that he has claimed to be fighting to protect during his five decades in Washington.

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