Tuesday, December 6, 2022
Dec. 6, 2022

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McManus: Is Biden stubborn or tenacious?


Sunday was Joe Biden’s 80th birthday. Our first octogenarian president is two years older than Ronald Reagan was when his presidency ended in 1989.

Biden is still fit and energetic, but he’s also showing his age. His hair is thinner, his gait stiffer, his speech a little more garbled than when he arrived in the White House almost two years ago. One thing hasn’t changed: He’s famously stubborn.

And now that he’s 80, it’s probably fair to describe him as a stubborn old man.

Ask anyone who’s worked for Biden, and you’ll hear a version of the same description: He listens to dissenting voices, but once he’s made up his mind, he’s almost unshakable.

“One thing I learned quickly,” a former aide told me, “you don’t tell Joe Biden what to say.”

When he is wrong, that stubbornness may be his worst vice. When he’s right, it may be his most useful virtue.

Biden’s stubbornness has helped steer his presidency into some of its deepest potholes. It produced the debacle of the U.S. withdrawal from Kabul, when Biden dismissed pleas from the military for delay. (Asked later if he thought he had made mistakes in Afghanistan, he said: “No.”)

It shook public confidence when he prematurely declared victory over the COVID-19 pandemic, even as federal experts warned that the disease was still spreading.

This year, it drove his popularity down when he brushed off warnings of rising inflation and stuck to an economic message — “things are better than you think” — that seemed disconnected from voters’ lives.

But there’s also a form of stubbornness that’s useful — a trait more often called persistence or tenacity. The president has that too. His persistent support for Ukraine as it battles a Russian invasion has made him the undisputed leader of a reinvigorated North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

This fall, Biden decided the most important issue in the midterm elections was democracy — the defense of constitutional norms against the extremism of “ultra-MAGA Republicans.”

“What we’re doing now is going to determine whether democracy will long endure,” he said in one of several campaign speeches.

Pundits and political strategists criticized the message, arguing that the election would be decided on economic issues, not abstractions about democracy.

But when the returns came in, Biden turned out to be more right than wrong. An Associated Press poll found that democracy ranked a close second to inflation among voters’ concerns. A surprisingly high percentage of voters unhappy about the economy voted for Democrats nonetheless, enabling them to retain control of the Senate and lose fewer seats than expected in the House.

Now, at the beginning of another presidential campaign, Biden’s stubbornness has surfaced again: Will he run for reelection in 2024 at nearly 82?

People around him say the midterm results plus Trump’s entry into the race merely confirmed a decision Biden had already made.

Asked whether polling that shows most voters don’t want him to run will affect his thinking, Biden said: “It doesn’t.”

In a CNN exit poll on Election Day, 67 percent of voters said they did not want Biden to run again. But among Democratic voters — the ones who will decide on the party’s nominee — 57 percent said they wanted Biden to run; 38 percent said they did not. That suggests the president starts the race as a clear favorite.

As for his age, Biden said recently, “It’s a legitimate thing to be concerned about. I think the best way to make the judgment is to watch me. Am I slowing up? That’s not how I feel.”

Is that stubbornness, the vice that can lead to disaster? Or is it tenacity, the virtue that leads to hard-earned success?

Don’t ask Biden; he’s not the best judge. All he knows is that stubbornness — OK, tenacity — has worked for him up to now.