Joe Biden is officially running for re-election, and his candidacy will put some Democratic voters — those not only skittish about his age but also about his passion for policy — in a vise: They recognize the threat from the leading Republican candidates, but they’ve been underwhelmed by Biden, who’d be 82 at the start of a second term.
The age question is a major concern for Biden, according to political advisers I’ve spoken to recently — and according to the chatter on cable news and online. And the sense that he has underwhelmed is particularly problematic for Biden when it comes to young voters. According to an Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School poll of 18-to 29-year-olds released Monday, just 36 percent of young Americans approve of Biden’s job performance. That number has steadily dropped over the course of his presidency.
Though young voters were only 17 percent of the 2020 electorate, they’ll probably be a key to another Biden win, since he won about 60 percent of the 18-to-29 vote last time around. Younger voters can also be barometers of how much a candidate’s passion factors into his appeal.
I reached out to several voting rights advocates and political organizers to discuss Biden’s bid, and the overall impression settles somewhere between cautious optimism and dampened enthusiasm, not so much about Biden’s age, but how voters, including younger voters, look at his policy priorities. As Clifford Albright, the co-founder and executive director of the Black Voters Matter Fund, told me, although younger voters would generally like to see younger candidates, “the age thing can be overcome if you’re talking about the right issues.”
Albright mentioned the presidential candidacies of Senator Bernie Sanders, who’s about a year older than Biden. As a contender for the Democratic nomination, he said, Sanders was held aloft by young voters because he vociferously championed issues that they cared about. They felt that he was fighting for them.
It’s on those issues where some activists seemed to think Biden had left an opening for voter disappointment. They weren’t naïve about the structural obstacles in the way Congress operates that made legislative progress difficult, if not impossible, but they simply didn’t believe that Biden went down fighting on some of the initiatives that younger Democratic voters cared about most.
One that sticks in their craws, undoubtedly because they deal with voting rights, was a sense that Biden didn’t fight hard enough for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
Nse Ufot, the founder of the New South Super PAC, chastised Biden for speaking about the voting rights bill at the Atlanta University Center — home to four historically Black colleges and universities, in a state where both senators were already committed to voting for the law — ahead of a push to the pass the bill, knowing there weren’t enough votes to pass it. Biden “should have been in West Virginia,” said Ufot, he “should have been in Phoenix, Ariz., because those are the people who need to hear it.”
She said it seemed almost like a coach coming to the sideline to console a team in defeat even though there was still time left on the clock and the game was still being played. It just didn’t feel like an all-out effort to go down swinging.
Ufot, channeling the rapper Ice Cube, said of Biden: “I need you to put your back into it!”
But both Ufot and Albright considered the hesitation about Biden’s age a bit of a red herring. For them, policy and voter engagement — and the time and resources put into both — will be more determinative.
On the policy front, Albright believes that the polling for Democrats, particularly in the fall of 2022, ticked up not only because the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, but also because Biden finally took action on student loan forgiveness, the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act with the most significant climate provisions in American history and the passage of relatively narrow, but still significant, federal gun legislation. A half year later, these Democratic wins can feel like old news, but they were agenda items that Democratic voters, including young voters, cared deeply about.
So if Biden made gains on some of the issues that young voters care about, why are the activists still concerned?
Biden’s challenge when it comes to younger voters isn’t so much his age, but his posture, they say. He was elected in part as an antidote to the chaos of the Donald Trump years. But, as Albright sees it now, “some of that stability that he offers, some of that comfort or whatever that he offers some folks, that has actually been, from our perspective, part of the problem.”
“When you’re in a moment like what we’re in,” Albright said, “you have to recognize that this is not a time for the normal, the traditional, the nostalgia or whatever, and that you need something different.”
Ufot buttressed that sentiment more bluntly, saying, “People are trying to appear to be elder statesmen when the country is,” in effect, on “fire.”
In a certain sense, Biden’s age becomes a proxy for other dissatisfactions voters may have with him. Trump is just four years younger than Biden, but he has convinced his followers that his venom is a marker of virility.
Biden has to demonstrate more fight for more progressive policies. Even if he loses the battles, he has to show the scars. Positioning himself as the last line of defense against the return of Trump or the rise of an equally dangerous Republican isn’t sufficient.
He has to show that he is more bulldog than bulwark.
As Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of the New Virginia Majority, put it, in the next year and a half leading to the election, “I think you’re going to see more — at least I hope we’re going to see more — of that fight, because I think at the end of the day, voters want to vote for someone who they believe will fight for what is needed.”
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