When you think of presidential birthdays, you may well think of Marilyn Monroe and her seductive, Madison Square Garden rendition of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to John F. Kennedy on the eve of his 45th birthday in May 1962.
But the 80th birthday of a far more successful U.S. president, Joe Biden, was greeted Sunday with blunt agism and constant references to “the octogenarian who is the oldest president to have ever served in the White House.” (Ronald Reagan was 77 at the end of his second term.)
Pundits are deliberating over how fit Biden will be – physically and cognitively – should he choose to run for reelection in 2024. The same pundits who became expert virologists and epidemiologists just two years ago have now acquired additional specializations in gerontology and neuroscience.
I don’t know if Joe Biden will run in 2024. I also don’t know who he will run against. Trying to predict who will run and what the political landscape and contours of the campaigns will be two years in advance is a job for political clairvoyants using their time-proven tarot cards or the residue at the bottom of coffee cups as a guide.
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What I do know is that Biden had a spectacular November in terms of the signature credo since he announced his run for the 2020 presidency: defending democracy from a comprehensive assault from its enemies, both domestically and internationally.
In baseball batting terms, Biden went 3 for 4 in November (and the month is not yet over). He hit a double with Brazil; he hit a triple with Kherson; he hit a home run with the U.S. midterm elections; and he struck out on Israel.
In fact, he’s arguably 5 for 6 if you factor in his granddaughter Naomi’s wedding at the White House and a successful meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali, Indonesia. But let’s focus on that original, tangible 3 for 4.
Biden’s political raison d’être since April 2019, when he announced his candidacy, was fighting “for the soul of America.” As early as 2017, referring to the events of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Biden stated that the country was “living through a battle for the soul of this nation.”
This is a recurring theme that has defined his presidency possibly more than any particular policy or legislation. He was challenging then-President Donald Trump, but his ongoing campaign is to confront Trumpism – a phenomenon that is unlikely to disappear even without Trump’s toxic presence.
Biden was rallying against backsliding trends in American democracy; a narrative that was no longer unified around the Constitution; a populist, demagogic president with little regard for truth and facts, and no reverence for U.S. political institutions, processes, checks and balances, and good governance.
But while Biden was concentrating on the dangers to American democracy, an entire network of authoritarian leaders, illiberal quasi-democracies and anocracies was expanding. “Anocracy,” incidentally, is the middle zone describing the state of a gradual but consistent movement away from democracy, but not yet reaching a full dictatorship – as masterfully detailed by Barbara F. Walter in her recently published book “How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them.”
Brazil, Hungary, Poland, the Philippines and other, already authoritarian, countries were the planets in this evolving solar system. But the sun was Russia, determined to challenge and change the American-hegemonic world order, supported quietly by a politically emerging China.
In many countries, including the United States itself, France, Italy and Israel, the core composition of political systems was changing, with center-right parties moving further to the illiberal right and merging, or being consumed, by extremists.
Biden’s resolve and determination in standing up to Russia, strengthening NATO and assisting Ukraine has been detailed profusely, as have Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategic miscalculations and flawed assumptions in the Ukraine war.
Domestically, Biden only succeeded partially this year in passing broad, sweeping legislation, for which he received very little credit. Inflation and gas prices were up and Americans were increasingly discontent with their president. As the midterm elections neared, the aforementioned pundits predicted a “red wave,” a “red tsunami” and the effective end of Biden’s presidency. Then came November.
President Jair Bolsonaro reluctantly accepted defeated in Brazil on November 2. Russia spectacularly withdrew from the southern city of Kherson after a series of resounding defeats as its colossal military failure continues. Gas prices are coming down despite Saudi Arabia’s political antics with oil production, rudely reneging on its so-called alliance with America.
In the United States, Democrats retained the Senate and lost the House of Representatives by a very narrow margin – contrary to the multiyear trend that the incumbent president’s party loses 28 House seats and four in the Senate, on average, in their first midterm election.
The one exception was the November 1 election in Israel, which resulted in a right wing, far right and religious governing coalition that is patently illiberal. But as far as Biden is concerned, the Israeli exception is the least important of his at-bats: 75 percent of American Jews voted for a Democrat in the midterms. Furthermore, he has no expectations for a “peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians, nor any political alliance or meaningful partnership with Benjamin Netanyahu.
Some pundits are now recanting, comparing Biden’s achievements to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and leadership during World War II. FDR, remember, was president for 12 years. Biden hasn’t even completed two. Yet for some reason, his age or a term he mispronounced are the issues. Presidents George W. Bush and Gerald Ford got confused too, not to mention Trump. It comes with the territory.
I don’t know whether Biden will run in 2024, and I’m an agnostic on whether he should. But on the evidence of the month of November alone, he deserves a hell of a lot more credit and respect than he is getting.