Mideast crisis will test whether Biden can make experience an asset

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The escalating confrontation between Israel and Hamas is offering President Joe Biden a crucial opportunity to begin flipping the script on one of his most glaring vulnerabilities in the 2024 presidential race.

For months, polls have consistently shown that most Americans believe Biden’s advanced age has diminished his capacity to handle the responsibilities of the presidency. But many Democrats believe that Biden’s widely praised response to the Mideast crisis could provide him a pivot point to argue that his age is an asset because it has equipped him with the experience to navigate such a complex challenge.

“As you project forward, we are going to be able to argue that Joe Biden’s age has been central to his success because in a time of Covid, insurrection, Russian invasion of Ukraine, now challenges in the Middle East, we have the most experienced man ever as president,” said Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg. “Perhaps having the most experienced person ever to go into the Oval Office was a blessing for the country. I think we are going to be able to make that argument forcefully.”

Biden unquestionably faces a steep climb to ameliorate the concern that he’s too old for the job. Political strategists in both parties agree that those public perceptions are largely rooted in reactions to his physical appearance – particularly the stiffness of his walk and softness of his voice – and thus may be difficult to reverse with arguments about his performance. In a CNN poll released last month, about three-fourths of adults said Biden did not have “the stamina and sharpness to serve effectively as president” and nearly as many said he does not inspire confidence. Even about half of Democrats said Biden lacked enough stamina and sharpness and did not inspire confidence, with a preponderant majority of Democrats younger than 45 expressing those critical views.

But the crisis in Israel shows the path Biden will probably need to follow if there’s any chance for him to transmute doubts about his age into confidence in his experience. Though critics on the left and right in American politics have raised objections, Biden’s response to the Hamas attack has drawn praise as both resolute and measured from a broad range of leaders across the ideological spectrum in both the US and Israel.

“Biden is in his element here where relationships matter and his team is experienced (meaning operationally effective) and thoughtful (meaning can see forests as well as trees),” James Steinberg, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and deputy secretary of state under former President Barack Obama, wrote in an email.

Similarly, David Friedman, who served as ambassador to Israel for then-President Donald Trump, declared late last week, on Fox News Channel no less, that “The Biden administration over the past 12-13 days has been great.”

These responses underscore the fundamental political paradox about Biden’s age, and the experience that derives from it. On the one hand, there’s no doubt that his age is increasing anxiety among Democrats about his capacity to serve as an effective candidate for the presidency in 2024; on the other, his experience is increasing Democratic faith in his capacity to serve as an effective president now.

While more Democrats have been openly pining for another, younger alternative to replace Biden as the party’s nominee next year, many party leaders argued that there was no one from the Democrats’ large 2020 field of presidential candidates, or even among the rising crop of governors and senators discussed as potential successors, that they would trust more at this moment than Biden.

“No one – not a one,” said Matt Bennett, executive vice president for public affairs at Third Way, an organization of centrist Democrats. “That is genuinely the case. And I get people’s uneasiness about him both because he’s old and he has low poll numbers. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t the best person for the job.”

Familiarity with an issue is no guarantee of success: Biden took office with a long-standing determination to end the American deployment in Afghanistan but still executed a chaotic withdrawal. But in responding to global challenges, Biden, who was first elected to the Senate in 1972, is drawing on half a century of dealing with issues and players around the world; even George H.W. Bush, the last president who arrived in office with an extensive foreign policy pedigree, had only about two decades of previous high-level exposure to world events.

This latest crisis has offered more evidence that Biden is more proficient at the aspects of the presidency that unfold offstage than those that occur in public. It’s probably not a coincidence that the private aspects of the presidency are the ones where experience is the greatest asset, while the public elements of the job are those where age may be the greatest burden.

Biden’s speeches about Ukraine, and especially his impassioned denunciations of the Hamas attack over the past two weeks, have drawn much stronger reviews than most of his addresses on domestic issues. (Bret Stephens, a conservative New York Times columnist often critical of Biden, wrote that his first speech after the attack “deserves a place in any anthology of great American rhetoric.”) In Biden’s nationally televised address about Israel and Ukraine on Thursday, he drew on a long tradition of presidents from both parties who presented American international engagement as the key to world stability, even quoting Franklin D. Roosevelt’s call during World War II for the US to serve as the “arsenal of democracy.”

But even when Biden was younger, delivering galvanizing speeches was never his greatest strength. No one ever confused him with Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton or Barack Obama as a communicator and his performance as president hasn’t changed that verdict. Instead, Biden has been at his best when working with other leaders, at home and abroad, out of the public eye.

Biden, for instance, passed more consequential legislation than almost anyone expected during his first two years, but he did not do so by rallying public sentiment or barnstorming the country. Rather, in quiet meetings, he helped to orchestrate a surprisingly effective legislative minuet that produced bipartisan agreements on infrastructure and promoting semiconductor manufacturing before culminating in a stunning agreement with holdout Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia to pass an expansive package of clean energy and health care initiatives with Democrat votes alone.

“He’s showed a degree of political dexterity in managing the coalition that would have been very challenging for anyone else,” said Rosenberg. “His years of actually legislating, where he learned how to bring people together and hash stuff out, was really important in keeping the Democratic family together.”

To the degree Biden has succeeded in international affairs, it has largely been with the same formula of working offstage with other leaders, many of whom he’s known for years, around issues that he has also worked on for years. In the most dramatic example, that sort of private negotiation and collaboration has produced a surprisingly broad and durable international coalition of nations supporting Ukraine against Russia.

Biden’s effort to manage this latest Mideast crisis is centered on his attempts through private diplomacy to support Israel in its determination to disable Hamas, while minimizing the risk of a wider war and maintaining the possibility of diplomatic agreements after the fighting (including, most importantly, a rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia meant to counter Iranian influence). Administration officials believe that the strong support that Biden has expressed for Israel, not only after the latest attack, but through his long career, has provided him with a credibility among the Israeli public that will increase his leverage to influence, and perhaps restrain, the decisions of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The president “wisely from the very moment of this horror show expressed unfettered solidarity with Israel and that allowed him to then go to Israel and behind closed doors continue the conversation, which I’m sure Secretary [Antony] Blinken started,” said one former senior national security official in the Biden administration, who asked to be anonymous while discussing the situation. That credibility, the former official said, allowed Biden to ask hard questions of the Israelis such as “‘Ok, you are going to send in ground troops and then what? We did shock and awe [in the second Iraq war] and then we found ourselves trapped without a plan. What are you doing? What’s the outcome? Who is going to control Gaza when you’re done whatever you are doing? At least stop and think about this.’”

In all these ways, the Israel confrontation offers Biden an opportunity to highlight the aspects of the presidency for which he is arguably best suited. In the crisis’ first days, former President Trump also provided Biden exactly the sort of personal contrast Democrats want to create when Trump initially responded to the tragic Hamas attack by airing personal grievances against Netanyahu and criticizing the Israeli response to the attack. For some Democrats, Trump’s off-key response crystallized the contrast they want to present next year to voters: “Biden is quiet competence and Trump is chaos and it’s a real choice,” said Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, vice president and chief strategy officer at Way to Win, a liberal group that funds organizations and campaigns focusing on voters of color.

Ancona said Biden’s performance since the Hamas attack points to the case Democrats should be preparing to make to voters in 2024. “He’s been a workhorse not a show pony, but that’s something we can talk about,” she said. “You can show a picture of a president working quietly behind the scenes, you can tell a story of how he has your best interests at heart. It is what it is: he’s, what, 80? You can’t get around that. But I do think he has shown he has the capacity and strength and tenacity to do this job. He’s been doing it. So why shouldn’t he get a chance to keep doing it?”

Likewise, Rosenberg argues, “In my view you can’t separate his age from his successes as president. He’s been successful because of his age and experience not in spite of it, and we have to rethink that completely.”

Other Democrats, though, aren’t sure that Biden can neutralize concerns about his age by making a case for the benefits of his experience. One Democratic pollster familiar with thinking in the Biden campaign, who asked for anonymity while discussing the 2024 landscape, said that highlighting Biden’s experience would only produce limited value for him so long as most voters are dissatisfied with conditions in the country. “The problem with the experience side is that people feel bad,” the pollster said. “If people felt like his accomplishments improved things for them, they wouldn’t care about his age. … The problem with the age vs. experience [argument] is that experience has to produce results for them, but experience isn’t producing results.”

William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and long-time Democratic strategist, sees another limit to the experience argument. Like most Democrats, Galston believes that Biden’s response to the crisis has, in fact, demonstrated the value of his long track record on international issues. “This is where all of his instincts, honed by decades of experience, come into play,” Galston said. “He knows which people to call when; he knows whom to send where. As was the case in [Ukraine], this is the sort of episode where Biden is at his best.”

The problem, Galston argues, is that voters can see the value of Biden’s experience in dealing with world events today and still worry he could not effectively handle the presidency for another term. “It’s not a logical contradiction,” Galston said, for voters to believe that “‘Yes, over the first four years of his presidency, his experience proved its value, and he had enough energy and focus to be able to draw on it when he needed it’ and at the same time say, ‘I am very worried that over the next four years, in the tension between the advantages of experience and disadvantages of age, that balance is going to shift against him.’”

To assuage concerns about his capacity, Biden will need not only to “tell” voters about the value of his experience but to “show” them his vigor through a rigorous campaign schedule, Galston said. “The experience argument is necessary, but not sufficient,” Galston maintains. “In addition to that argument, assuming it can be made well and convincingly, I think he is going to have to show through his conduct of the campaign that he’s up for another four years.”

Biden’s trips into active war zones in Ukraine and Israel have provided dramatic images that his campaign is already using to make that case. As Galston suggests, the president will surely need to prove the point again repeatedly in 2024.

But most analysts agree that what the president most needs to demonstrate in the months ahead is not energy, but results. His supporters have reason for optimism that Biden’s carefully calibrated response to the Israel-Hamas hostilities will allow them to present him as a reassuring source of stability in an unstable world – in stark contrast to the unpredictability and chaos that Trump, his most likely 2024 opponent, perpetually generates. But Biden’s management of this volatile conflict will help him make that argument only if its outcome, in fact, promotes greater stability in the Middle East. If nothing else, Biden’s long experience has surely taught him how difficult stability will be to achieve in a region once again teetering on the edge of explosion.

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