March 8, 2024 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

With command performance, Biden puts Dems’ fears to rest

That won’t stop pundits from concern-trolling about his age, but it should stop Democratic voters from worrying. Joe’s gonna be all right.

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Ezra Klein, the Times columnist, has been one of the leading liberal voices urging the Democratic Party to please please please pick someone other than the president to be the party’s nominee, not just because he’s old but because “the presidency is a performance.”

The presidency isn’t a performance, but the person holding the office does occasionally perform. To that effect, Joe Biden gave a command performance during the State of the Union address. That probably won’t stop pundits from concern-trolling about his age. However, it should stop Democratic voters from worrying. Joe’s gonna be all right.

According to a CNN poll taken of speech watchers before the speech, just 45 percent said Biden’s policies would move the country in the right direction. Afterward? That number went up to 62 percent. 

It’s just one poll, but I think it suggests two things. One is that many Democratic voters have been wringing their hands about the president’s age. Two is that they’ve been wringing their hands, because the Washington press corps, by putting the president’s age at the center of our political discourse, keeps suggesting they should wring their hands. Remove their influence on their thinking and voilà! 

If nothing else, that might be the story of the evening.

Pay attention to the timing. The State of the Union address came two days after Super Tuesday, the moment when it was clear he’s going to be the Democrats’ nominee and Donald Trump is going to be the Republicans’ nominee. These are related events. Biden won’t be seen in isolation anymore. From now on, he’ll be compared to Trump. He’s now reassured Democrats. He’s the same old Joe. Before long, we could see a widening gap in polling in which they had been neck-and-neck. 

Biden communicated to Democratic voters in another way. 

In an unorthodox move, he kept bringing up Trump, though never by name. Over and over, the president said, “unlike my predecessor, who said …” and then he’d say what Trump said in order to make sure we understood they represent polar views that voters must choose from.

This decision grabbed headlines. Some Republicans said Biden turned a presidential speech into a campaign speech. That was a risk he took, but I suspect Biden did it for a good reason – lots of voters, lots of Democratic voters, don’t know what Trump has been saying, and they don’t know, in part, because Biden’s age has taken on such a large presence in our political discourse it’s overshadowed everything.

Consider this striking moment when the president said this: “If my predecessor is watching, instead of playing politics and pressuring members of Congress to block the [bipartisan immigration reform] bill, join me in telling the Congress to pass it. We can do it together. But he apparently hears what he will not do. … I will not demonize immigrants, saying they are ‘poison in the blood of our country’” (my italics.)

Like I said, striking. If you’re going to ask your opponent to join you in solving a problem, you’re probably not going to bring up perhaps the ugliest thing he’s ever said. Biden, of course, does not expect Trump to join him. Trump doesn’t care about solving the “border crisis,” only exploiting it. Biden’s goal was probably telling Democratic voters, or swing voters generally, this is who Trump is. I’m old, but he’s evil. 

In closing, Biden delivered a speech-in-a-speech, and with it, he turned worry about his age upside down. Suddenly, in the context of the larger speech, being 81 years old didn’t feel like a liability at all. It felt like the very asset Americans need to bring the country into the future.

And he started with a joke. 

“I know I may not look like it, but I’ve been around a while. When you get to my age, certain things become clearer than ever before.

“I know the American story,” the president went on to say. “Again and again, I’ve seen the contest between competing forces in the battle for the soul of our nation. Between those who want to pull America back to the past and those who want to move America into the future.

The issue facing our nation isn’t how old we are, it’s how old are our ideas. Hate, anger, revenge, retribution are the oldest of ideas. But you can’t lead America with ancient ideas that only take us back. 

My lifetime has taught me to embrace freedom and democracy. A future based on core values. … Honesty, decency, dignity, equality. To respect everyone. To give everyone a fair shot. To give hate no safe harbor. Now, other people my age see it differently. The American story of resentment, revenge and retribution — that’s not me.

I’ll have more to say about this extraordinary speech later. Hint: It was a class warrior’s speech. So much so, that should have been the leading headline. For now, however, here’s the rest. It’s worth your time.

I was born amid World War II when America stood for the freedom of the world. I grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Claymont, Delaware, among working-class people who built this country.

I watched in horror as two of my heroes, like many of you did — Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy — were assassinated, and their legacies inspired me to pursue a career of service.

I left a law firm, became a public defender, because my city of Wilmington was the only city in America occupied by the National Guard after Dr. King was assassinated because of the riots.

I became a county councilman almost by accident. I got elected to the United States Senate when I had no intention of running at age 29, then vice president to our first Black president, now president to our first woman vice president.

In my career, I’ve been told I was too young. … And I’ve been told I am too old. Whether young or old, I’ve always known what endures. I’ve known our North Star.

The very idea of America is that we are all created equal, deserves to be treated equally throughout our lives. We’ve never fully lived up to that idea, but we’ve never walked away from it either.

And I won’t walk away from it now. I’m optimistic. I really am.

My fellow Americans, the issue facing our nation isn’t how old we are, it’s how old are our ideas.

Hate, anger, revenge, retribution are the oldest of ideas. But you can’t lead America with ancient ideas that only take us back.

To lead America, the land of possibilities, you need a vision for the future and what can and should be done. Tonight, you’ve heard mine.

I see a future where defending democracy, you don’t diminish it. I see a future where we restore the right to choose and protect other freedoms, not take them away.

I see a future where the middle class finally has a fair shot and the wealthy have to pay their fair share in taxes.

I see a future where we save the planet from the climate crisis and our country from gun violence.

Above all, I see a future for all Americans. I see a country for all Americans. And I will always be a president for all Americans because I believe in America. I believe in you, the American people.

You’re the reason we’ve never been more optimistic about our future than I am now. So let’s build the future together. Let’s remember who we are. We are the United States of America! And there is nothing, nothing beyond our capacity when we act together.

God bless you all, and may God protect our troops.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. 

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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