Cynicism and Ageism Are Drowning Out Biden’s Accomplishments as He Seeks Second Term
On April 26, President Joe Biden officially announced his run for reelection. Yale SOM leadership expert Jeffrey Sonnenfeld writes that cynical media coverage and unwarranted concern over Biden’s age have muted the remarkable achievements of his first term.
This commentary originally appeared in Time.
Last week, The Wall Street Journal’s editors condemned Biden’s plan to announce a second term candidacy, asserting, “The public understands what Mr. Biden apparently won’t admit: that electing an octogenarian in obvious decline for another four years could be an historic mistake.” In 820 words, they could not provide a single piece of evidence for such a decline.
The wisdom of octogenarian leaders have rebuilt nations at fragile moments. Only the 82-year-old Benjamin Franklin could lead the needed national consensus at the U.S. Constitutional Convention, and only 87-year-old Konrad Adenauer could rebuild national spirit and global trust for defeated post-war Germany. France relied upon Charles de Gaulle to unify the nation as he reached 80. After leading Union Pacific and Brown Brothers Harriman, Averell Harriman served as one of the greatest diplomats, advising presidents until he was 94. Similarly, 80 year-old Biden has brought economic resurgence and renewed positive purpose to American character. Forget that he is just three years older than likely rival candidate Donald Trump or that he is a dozen years younger than his main media critic (and WSJ owner) 92-year old Fox chief Rupert Murdoch. Still, the deafening cacophony of colliding choruses of media critics create such noise that it is hard for the public to hear the triumphs of the Biden presidency.
Common societal pathologies have filtered truth from the public through such ideological and prejudice barriers as racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, authoritarianism, Communism, fascism, and anti-Americanism. In President Joe Biden’s case, the “isms” that serve as unique barriers to the truth are cynicism and ageism.
After a presidency which tore apart the fabric of social harmony, were it not for media cynicism and ageism, the public would likely be singing that happy days are here again. That song—“Happy Days are Here Again”—was FDR’s campaign theme years a decade before Joe Biden was born and 14 years before Donald Trump was born. Instead of the nostalgic condemnation of “Make America Great Again,” happy days have truly returned under President Joe Biden remarkably quickly, with a return to normalcy in the executive function of government. Remarkably, the statistics show that over the last two and a half years the U.S. has enjoyed a resurgent economy, flying in the face of cynical expectations of pundits, pollsters, and media commentators whose forecasts of crises and decline have not come to pass, yet continue with doom-and-gloom prognostications of impending recession and malaise.
As one such example, the Harvard-Harris Poll howls that, supposedly, a whopping 70% of voters believe the economy is on wrong track, including a majority of all Democratic voters, while 62% of voters believe the economy is weak. Some credible pollsters are even predicting Trump will outperform Biden by 10% in 2024. The statistical sophistry of these pollsters, who already have an egg on their face from erroneously predicting a “sweeping red wave” in last year’s midterm elections, is unfortunately reinforced by a Beltway chattering class whose default mode seems to be maximum cynicism all the time. For example, Larry Summers is now warning about “looming recession” after calling for “10% unemployment” while Fareed Zakaria is warning about the “demise of the dollar.”
But over the last three years, the track record of these doom-and-gloom economic forecasts has been abysmal, and the chorus of bipartisan cynicism sequentially condemns President Biden for inherited problems, which have each been masterfully resolved. This ranges from the new resurgent COVID-19 strains in 2021, the string of paralyzing ransomware cyberattacks, the supply chain backlogs, the fulfillment of Trump’s unwise hasty Afghanistan exit agreement, adding energy and food supplies after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, to natural disasters of wildfires and hurricanes, to the Federal Reserve-triggered regional banking anxieties. Rather than showcase the speedy, effective, if understated coordinated government action which came to the rescue of each, the media microphones move from crisis to crisis.
If anything, we almost wish the Biden team were more vocal in trumpeting their accomplishments in building a stronger and more equitable economy “from the bottom up and the middle out,” as Biden himself likes to say.
As David Brooks pointed out recently in the NYT, citing the Economist, there has never been a better time to do business in America than right now. As Biden launches his re-election, no matter the gripes of cynics or the sophistry of pollsters, clearly he has tailwinds of a strong economy at his back with a more equitable and resilient economy thanks to his steady stewardship.
The Administration’s legislative wins have already started to have a transformative impact, ranging from the $50 billion CHIPS Act to re-shore critical supply chain/chip vulnerabilities; the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill to both revitalize legacy roads and bridges as well as develop the clean energy infrastructure of the future; as well as the Inflation Reduction Act to lower drug pricing and accelerate the building out of the decarbonization economy. As a result, since the start of 2021, over 12 million jobs have been added, including more than 1 million manufacturing jobs, while the unemployment rate sits at a 54-year low, including record lows for Black and Hispanic workers. Far from out-of-control spending, these legislative accomplishments have hardly come at the expense of fiscal responsibility as the deficit has shrunk by $1.7 trillion—the largest deficit reduction in American history.
Still, the corrosive impact of ideological chants from the GOP and inherently skeptical media and unconscious, self-interested fact-free age bias take their toll on the truthful portrait of Biden’s astounding successes. Skeptics are quick to say “yeah, but what have you done for us lately,” moving in haste to look under rocks for new problems without acknowledging the skilled recovery from the last ones. Sadly, this is not countered by an overly humble Biden cabinet which is honest, experienced, and skilled but which lacks any of the bombast of the Trump Administration. Maybe a little bit of self-promotion would not hurt.
Similarly, when the Wall Street Journal editors assert that “different people age at different rates, but the risk of an accelerated decline for Mr. Biden is considerable,” they not only provide no examples of such decline, but in reality it is unlikely any of those editors could keep up with President Biden’s daily schedule of grueling national travel and daunting globetrotting, let alone his robust exercise schedule. Sure, he has had a speech stutter since childhood but that has become less of problem with age and his once-longwinded speeches have become far pithier, and never approaching Trump’s two hour drone-athons.
The best work of many scientists, artists, and leaders has been in their later years. In 1985, comedian George. Burns, at age 89, told me, “Retirement is for the birds. NBC also asked me to sign a five- year contract. How do I know if they’ll be around in five years?” He was wise as just two months later, NBC’s parent was sold to GE, while Burns continued to perform on stage and screen for another decade.
Perhaps it is time for pundits to learn to read economic statistics and to act their age.