Politics / February 21, 2024

It’s Time to Get Over Biden’s Age

The potshots at the president’s age are attacks not just on Biden but also on his vice president. Plus, have you seen the other guy?

Elie Mystal

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris join hands as they depart a “Reproductive Freedom Campaign Rally” at George Mason University on January 23, 2024, in Manassas, Va.

(Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

I am of the opinion that President Joe Biden is indeed very old, and yet I also believe that his advanced, crumbly age couldn’t matter less for the upcoming presidential election. I reject the notion that Biden’s age is or should be a legitimate factor in the election, and I am suspicious of the incessant, nattering attempts by the media class to make age an ongoing issue.

I come to this conclusion by way of two objective facts: Donald Trump is also very old and Biden has a capable replacement.

First things first: Biden’s likely opponent, Trump, is also an old man, who struggles to put two sentences together without getting lost between periods. Mentally speaking, Biden misremembers key facts about world leaders; Trump misremembers key facts about how government works or whether a person he sexually assaulted is his ex-wife. Advantage: Biden. Physically speaking, Biden walks with a shuffle; Trump also walks with a shuffle, can’t hold a glass of water with one hand, and allegedly smells. Advantage: Biden. There is simply no age-related concern, insult, or joke that can be leveled at Biden that can’t also be leveled at Trump, and if the corporate media weren’t so desperately in the tank for a second Trump term—and the ratings and clicks he brings—that would be obvious.

But, unlike Republicans, I do not make political arguments based solely on whataboutism. For some, the fact that Trump is one cheeseburger away from taking a formaldehyde bath is irrelevant to the discussion about Biden’s age, and fair enough on that. However, those who would profess to have legitimate concerns about Biden’s age must at least admit that age is a concern in presidential elections only if we think the person elected will be rendered incapable of doing the job. That has happened before in our history: Edith Wilson was functionally the first woman president because Woodrow Wilson had a stroke and wasn’t calling the shots during most of his second term. More recently, Ronald Reagan was mentally checked out by the end of his second term, leaving real power to his wife, Nancy Reagan, and her Oujia board, his chief of staff Howard Baker, and his vice president, George H.W. Bush.

Look, I want the ancient humans running the establishment to relinquish their dead-hand control over American politics as much as anybody; I feel like I’ve spent my entire political life programming the VCR for these backward-looking people. But right now, we have a choice between one old dude who looks super old, and another old dude who looks super old and is also an unhinged criminal who aims to rule over all by fiat. The choice between Gandalf and Saruman wasn’t hard for the free peoples of Middle Earth and shouldn’t be hard for America.

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And this brings me to the second reason I’m wholly unconcerned about Biden’s age: I find Vice President Kamala Harris to be ready and capable of stepping in should Biden falter. If anything, I find the obsession about Biden’s age to be little more than veiled attacks on Harris—attacks that wouldn’t be happening if Harris were a different gender and race.

The criticisms of Harris’s performance as VP have centered around… her laugh. There are literally entire YouTube compilations and TikTok content centered around making fun of the way the VP laughs. The way the woman laughs bothers some people, and has been the most consistent criticism of her public performance over the last three years. It is 2024, by the way.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the media’s coverage of the first vice president who is Black, South Asian, and a woman has been atrocious. It’s been so bad that even Joe Scarborough—a man not exactly recognized for his ability to notice and comprehend structural bias in media coverage—called out some of the bad and biased coverage Harris has received.

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I’d also argue that she hasn’t been managed particularly well by the Biden administration. The Biden team has tried to make her the “face” of the administration’s immigration policies, which is like being made the face of pothole repairs in a town that has no budget for road work. Biden’s immigration policies can best be summed up as “Trump-level human rights violations without Trump-level racial slurs and insults,” and while that is an improvement over his predecessor, it’s hardly inspiring. Moreover, Biden’s entire strategy is to sacrifice migrant rights at the altar of bipartisan compromise, only that doesn’t work because Republicans would rather make immigration as problematic as possible and then blame Biden for the system Republicans refuse to allow people to fix. Harris has been a good soldier, and I’d like to think that everybody actually paying attention knows that nothing going on at the border is her fault, but, you know, she laughs sometimes and so people go from not noticing her to “burn the witch” in 0.6 seconds.

It’s frustrating, because the kind of young progressive voters who are most likely to have problems with Biden’s age and centrist policies are exactly the ones who could be brought over by Harris. Harris is the face of the administration’s push to restore abortion rights and reproductive health, and, unlike the top of the ticket, Harris has no problem saying the word “abortion.” One might think that the leader on one of the most significant issues facing the country this election season—the issue that has proven to motivate Democratic voters to turn out in droves—would at least be acknowledged in discussions about whom people should vote for this fall.

Harris has also been the most forceful senior White House official on the issue of Palestinian human rights and dignity. I say “most forceful” with an asterisk, because obviously nobody in power in our executive branch has been sufficiently clear that American money and military equipment should not be used to wipe the people of Gaza off the face of the earth. But, as these things go, it’s been Harris pushing Biden to show even the barest humanitarian impulse. It’s hardly enough, but given the White House’s stone-cold support for continued Israeli aggression, I hope Harris’s attempts to push for some kind of restraint end up being at least as compelling as Vice President Biden’s attempts to push President Obama toward embracing marriage equality.

The people most likely to think Biden is too old, too doddering, and too captured by the obsolete politics of the past have the opportunity to vote for a younger and more liberal candidate on the same presidential ticket. The idea that Biden might be felled by a strong gust of wind really isn’t that terrible to contemplate when one has confidence in the constitutional order of succession.

And yet, I find myself inundated by white Democrats (they’re always white, always, unless they can rap) openly pining for Biden to step aside so Democrats can nominate… Gavin Newsom. Or Gretchen Whitmer (who laughs neither too much nor too little, for now). Or some other great white hope du jour.

Given my policy preferences, it would be one thing if these Democrats were promoting some progressive candidate who was firmly to the left of Biden or Harris. But you’ll note that the actual “burn it the F down” progressives like Cori Bush or Pramila Jayapal never make these lists of candidates white Democrats pine for.

You can get to the left of Harris, but the people floated as Biden replacements are not to her left. They’re just white. Their singular electoral advantage over Harris is their whiteness. Black don’t crack, but the people on the left screaming the loudest about Biden’s age don’t want a younger candidate; they want a white candidate who isn’t as old as Biden.

As I am not blinded by whiteness, nor particularly impressed with testicles or deep, masculine chortles, I’m pretty comfortable with the Democratic presidential ticket heading into the November election. Biden will probably be fine and healthy. If not, the VP is ready to fulfill her constitutional duties. In the meantime, there’s an actual would-be dictator on the ballot who has been indicted on 91 felony charges and owes over $400 million in legal fines arising from his lies, fraudulent business practices, and rape—and who is also old, as well as being intellectually unfit, and likely smelly.

Maybe the pundit class can keep its eyes on the ball for six months? We can all go back to making grandpa jokes once this direct threat to American democracy has been defeated for a second time.

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Elie Mystal

Elie Mystal is The Nation’s justice correspondent and the host of its legal podcast, Contempt of Court. He is also an Alfred Knobler Fellow at the Type Media Center. His first book is the New York Times bestseller Allow Me to Retort: A Black Guy’s Guide to the Constitution, published by The New Press. Elie can be followed @ElieNYC.

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