Column: Is Joe Biden deadly stubborn – or virtuous tenacious?


President Biden answers reporters’ questions on Nov. 9, a day after the midterm elections. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

Today is 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 is also showing his age. His hair is thinner, his gait stiffer, his speech a little more garbled than when he arrived at the White House nearly two years ago.

One thing hasn’t changed: he’s known for being stubborn.

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

Ask anyone who 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 immovable.

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

If he’s wrong, that stubbornness can be his worst vice. If he is right, that is perhaps his most useful virtue.

Biden’s stubbornness has contributed to his presidency falling into some of the deepest pits.

It triggered the debacle of the US withdrawal from Kabul, as Biden rejected requests from the military for a delay. (Later asked 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 the disease was still spreading.

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This year saw his popularity plummet as he dismissed warnings of rising inflation and stuck to an economic message – “things are better than you think” – that seemed detached from voters’ lives.

But there is also a form of stubbornness that is useful – a quality more commonly referred to as perseverance or tenacity. So does the president.

His continued support for Ukraine in its fight against a Russian invasion has made him the undisputed leader of a revived North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

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

“What we do now will determine whether democracy lasts,” 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 UK Time News poll found that voter democracy was second only to inflation. A surprisingly high percentage of voters dissatisfied with the economy nevertheless voted for the Democrats, allowing them to retain control of the Senate and lose fewer seats than expected in the House.

At a post-election press conference, the president was asked if he saw the need to adjust his course based on the lessons of his first two years.

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“I’m not going to change,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, the theme of Biden’s midterm campaign was an updated version of the message from his 2020 presidential campaign: a pitch for constitutional standards, a rejection of Donald Trump’s extremism.

In that campaign, candidate Biden also won the Democratic nomination through sheer stubbornness. He finished fourth in Iowa and a disastrous fifth in New Hampshire, but stuck to a strategy that relied on winning black voters in South Carolina and outliving his rivals.

Long before 2020, perseverance in the face of adversity was at the heart of Biden’s story. His national political career began in tragedy when his wife and daughter were killed in a road accident shortly before he was sworn in as a senator. He endured two brain aneurysms. He lost his first two attempts to win the Democratic presidential nomination — badly — but came back for a third try.

Now, at the start of another presidential campaign, Biden’s stubbornness has resurfaced: Will he run for re-election in 2024 at nearly 82?

The president has repeatedly said he intends to run, and it turns out he meant it all along.

“It is our intention to re-enter,” he said after the interim returns came in. “That has been our intention, regardless of what the outcome of this election was.”

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Those around him say the interim results plus Trump’s entry into the race were just confirmation of a decision Biden had already made.

Nothing makes him more defiant than critics saying he’s lost his stuff; nothing makes him more eager than another chance to beat Trump.

“He feels like he’s the only one who’s defeated [Trump] rather,” his former press secretary Jen Psaki said on MSNBC.

When asked if polls showing most voters don’t want him to run will influence his thinking, Biden said, “It doesn’t.”

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

As for his age, Biden recently said, “It’s legitimate to worry about.”

“I think the best way to judge is to look at me. Am I slowing down?” he said. “I don’t feel that way.”

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 is not the best judge. All he knows is that stubbornness – okay, tenacity – has worked for him so far.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.


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