Joe Biden views himself as a bridge. To where, exactly?

Apr 15, 2020 at 1:00 am
It’s Biden’s party now.
It’s Biden’s party now. Michael F. Hiatt, Shutterstock

On January 20, 2021, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. will be 78 years and 61 days old. If he wins in November, he'll not only be the oldest man ever to take the oath of office, he'll also be the oldest man ever to be president. Ronald Reagan completed his second term just before his 78th birthday. On January 20, 2025, Biden will be 82 years and 61 days old, older than all but eight presidents when they died.

There's no indication that Biden is physically unwell. (For the record, if Donald Trump completes a second term, he, too, will become the oldest president in U.S. history — and he believes exercise drains your life force.) Last year, the American Federation for Aging Research assessed the health, longevity, and survival prospects of presidential candidates. It gave Biden a 79 percent chance of living through his first term and a 70 percent chance of surviving his second. (Trump has an 85 percent chance of making it another four years.)

And contra the memes about Biden's allegedly declining mental state, there's no evidence that he's mentally unwell, either — at least beyond innuendo linked to his stutter.

Not that the Trump campaign and its army of bots won't exploit both of those things anyway. With Bernie Sanders suspending his campaign, Biden is the presumptive nominee and — on paper — the likely next president of the United States. A CNN poll last week had him up by 11 points over Trump, 53–42. A Quinnipiac poll had Biden winning 49–41.

Those numbers don't bode well for an incumbent facing an election-year recession and increasing criticism over his handling of a deadly pandemic. Trump will spend the next six months trying to make the country hate Joe Biden. Biden will spend that time reminding disaffected lefties that two liberal Supreme Court justices are in their 80s, contrasting his reputed decency with Trump's amorality, and trying to make the election a referendum on the incumbent.

Maybe that will be enough.

But though strong on paper, Biden has a number of chinks in his armor — one of which has historically been an especially bad omen: enthusiasm. His support is wide but shallow. There's no palpable energy about Ridin' with Biden on the No Malarkey Express. (A campaign whose agenda boils down to unplugging the country and plugging it back in hardly makes you tingle, does it?) Relatedly, Grandpa Joe never caught on with Millennials and Gen Z, who have little interest in reverting to the ante-Trump status quo.

To his credit, Biden seems aware that he represents the past. "Look," he said last month at an event with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, California Senator Kamala Harris, and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, "I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else. There's an entire generation of leaders you saw stand behind me. They are the future of this country."

Then there's the disturbing sexual assault allegation lodged by former Senate staffer Tara Reade. Other women have said Biden touched them inappropriately but in ways that didn't rise to the level of assault. Reade's 27-year-old claim won't be fatal to the campaign unless more allegations like it come to light. Its pall, however, will allow Trump to deflect from his own sexual misconduct.

Though strong on paper, there’s no palpable energy about Ridin’ with Biden on the No Malarkey Express.

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That brings us to the question of a running mate. Despite the drama that surrounds VP selections every four years, they tend not to matter much. They don't swing elections. At most, an effective choice fills a résumé gap or sends a signal to tenuous supporters.

Given the circumstances, though, Biden might be the exception that proves the rule. He's said he'll pick a woman, which is smart. Beyond that, he needs someone who can forcefully articulate a vision, infuse his campaign with energy, and, ideally, liaise with progressives. And as a soon-to-be octogenarian, he also needs a plausible replacement.

To my mind, all of that should point to Elizabeth Warren. But I doubt that's where Biden's headed. Warren is 70, older than Biden wants. She's also well to his left.

And he has plenty of viable alternatives. There are women of color, including Kamala Harris, who, despite her much-to-be-desired history as a prosecutor, has a solidly progressive voting record; the electrifying but inexperienced Stacey Abrams of Georgia; and Asian-American Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, who lost both of her legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq. There are also women from swing states (though the home-state advantage is a myth), including the Trump-antagonizing Gov. Whitmer; Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, who would be the first (openly) LGBTQ person on a national ticket (I see you, James Buchanan); and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the darling of editorial boards.

I don't know if Biden's pick will mean anything in November. If we're in the Second Great Depression and Trump's approval is in the 30s — even if we're limping out of a recession and he's in the low 40s — probably not. But if he views himself as a bridge to the political future, his choice will say a lot about what he thinks that future looks like.

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