Joe Biden's quiet success goes much further than Bidenomics

If this is what happens when you have an elder as a leader maybe we ought to think about amending the Constitution

By Heather Digby Parton


Published July 7, 2023 9:16AM (EDT)

Joe Biden (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
Joe Biden (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

It seems that every conversation I have about politics these days begins with someone making the breathless observation that "OMG! Joe Biden is soooo oooooold!"

I get it. The president is old. And he looks his age. Anyone but movie stars who have had extensive plastic surgery look old at 81 and they usually just look weird. He walks stiffly and he's losing his hair — again. (Biden had a receding hairline before he was 30 and famously had hair transplants.) He also stumbles over his words and rambles when he's speaking spontaneously, but as someone who's been watching the guy for decades, I can tell you that he's always done that. Everyone knows now that he's been fighting a stutter all his life but Biden's also one of those garrulous old-style East Coast politicians who tell stories and flit from subject to subject. Still, there's no getting around the fact that he's the oldest president we've ever had and he's running for another term, so people are going to be concerned.

But if he's so over the hill that he's unable to function, how come he's done such a good job in his first term under very trying circumstances?

Biden has been one of the most active presidents in recent memory, making changes that are abrupt departures not only from Republicans but Democrats as well, including his old boss.

I don't really blame people for focusing so much on his age because if they watch the news only casually or just read the headlines as most people do, they don't know about his accomplishments. Political coverage is still focused on the Trump Show starring the dancing House MAGAs (with special guest stars The Supremes) and there isn't much time left to discuss the boring nitty gritty of what we used to call governing. As I've said before, the whole country was traumatized from the Trump years and the pandemic and frankly, the press has clung to a narrative of national misery for far too long. It seeps out into the ether and infects the body politic.

It seems as if every bit of good news from the past year has been qualified with gloom and doom:

"Yes, the job market is the best it's been in more than 50 years but ... the price of toilet paper has gone up by 35% since 2019!"

"Gas prices have dropped to less than they were before the pandemic but ... interest rates are higher causing people to worry about their 401ks."

It's not that these worries aren't legitimate but it feels as though any positive news is required to be followed by something designed to keep people from feeling too optimistic about the future. So it's been difficult to make the case that Biden's presidency has brought material improvement to most people's lives even though it manifestly has done so.

I've noticed that others are starting to make note of this phenomenon:

I was like many progressive types who didn't expect much from Joe Biden but I reconciled myself to the idea that it would be enough to have a caretaker president who would allow the country to calm down a little bit after the tumultuous Trump years. I was wrong. Biden has been one of the most active presidents in recent memory, making changes that are abrupt departures not only from Republicans but Democrats as well, including his old boss Barack Obama.

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Taking office in the middle of a deadly pandemic and after an insurrection with a razor-thin margin in both chambers of Congress, Joe Biden's legislative achievements include the American Rescue Plan, which staved off an economic collapse and created a massive rollout of life-saving vaccines. Despite much handwringing and gnashing of teeth that it would drive the economy into the ditch, it has done the opposite, creating 12 million jobs, the most of any single presidential term in history. Additionally, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the CHIPs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act created major legacy-defining progress on domestic manufacturing, infrastructure, climate change mitigation, deficit reduction, corporate taxes and out-of-pocket health costs. After another paroxysm of gun violence, Biden even managed to usher through the first bipartisan gun safety bill in 30 years.

Did he get everything on his agenda done? Of course not. There have been many disappointments along the way. But his accomplishments are, as Biden would say, "big f-ing deals" and that they were accomplished in a Congress so closely divided is nothing short of miraculous.

On foreign policy, the administration has done an admirable job restoring relationships with America's allies and bringing together a coalition to back Ukraine as it defends itself against the Russian invasion. His withdrawal from Afghanistan was messy but at least he did it, which is something his predecessors all claimed they wanted to do and didn't. (I'm not sure there was any other way but awful for such an awful war to end anyway.) He doesn't seem to consider dictators and despots as his special friends which is a nice change.

Biden is starting to campaign now and is touting "Bidenomics" which is succinctly described as an overturning of trickle-down economics to focus federal money in ways that benefit the middle class. (Trump and his followers call this communism.) On Thursday, he was in South Carolina touting a new manufacturing facility that will make solar energy products. Unlike a certain predecessor who constantly threatened to punish Americans who failed to support him, Biden's making the point that he's the president for everyone, not just those who vote for him, and his signature legislation is making a difference in a lot of red states (not that they will ever give him or Democrats credit.) He is, however, good-naturedly taunting all the Republicans who are racing to take credit for these projects after voting against the funding by saying, "I'll be there for the ground-breaking."

Meanwhile, the prices of groceries and gasoline have come back down to earth and most economists have lowered their expectation of a recession as the U.S. has seen better growth and lower inflation than any peer nation in the world over the past 12 months.

If this is what happens when you have an elder as a leader maybe we ought to think about amending the Constitution and raising the eligibility age for president.

There were reports a couple of weeks ago that Hollywood producer and big Democratic donor Jeffrey Katzenberg was advising the Biden campaign to lean into the age thing pointing out that people aren't as ageist as we may think. After all, the biggest box office draw this past weekend was 80-year-old Harrison Ford reprising his role as Indiana Jones. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, both 79, are about to go on tour again and can be expected to sell out. Paul McCartney at 81 is producing AI Beatles records.

Some people just have a strong life force no matter what their age and if they're lucky they have wisdom, confidence and judgment too. Joe Biden seems to be among that group and his bucket list is to leave a legacy of major improvements in the way government works. For an old guy, he sure is getting a whole lot done and he wants to do more. The country will be much better off if we let him. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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