Opinion | Why I Am Now Deeply Worried for America

Until a few days ago, I was feeling fairly sanguine about America’s prospects. Economically, we’ve had a year of strong growth and plunging inflation — and aside from committed Republicans, who see no good, hear no good and speak no good when a Democrat is president, Americans appear to be recognizing this progress. It has seemed increasingly likely that the nation’s good sense would prevail and democracy would survive.

But watching the frenzy over President Biden’s age, I am, for the first time, profoundly concerned about the nation’s future. It now seems entirely possible that within the next year, American democracy could be irretrievably altered.

And the final blow won’t be the rise of political extremism — that rise certainly created the preconditions for disaster, but it has been part of the landscape for some time now. No, what may turn this menace into catastrophe is the way the hand-wringing over Biden’s age has overshadowed the real stakes in the 2024 election. It reminds me, as it reminds everyone I know, of the 2016 furor over Hillary Clinton’s email server, which was a minor issue that may well have wound up swinging the election to Donald Trump.

As most people know by now, Robert Hur, a special counsel appointed to look into allegations of wrongdoing on Biden’s part, concluded that the president shouldn’t be charged. But his report included an uncalled-for and completely unprofessional swipe at Biden’s mental acuity, apparently based on the president’s difficulty in remembering specific dates — difficulty that, as I wrote on Friday, everyone confronts at whatever age. Hur’s gratuitous treatment of Biden echoed James Comey’s gratuitous treatment of Clinton — Hur and Comey both seemed to want to take political stands when that was not their duty.

It’s a case of bureaucrats overstepping their bounds in a way that’s at best careless and at worst malicious.

Yes, it’s true that Biden is old, and will be even older if he wins re-election and serves out a second term. I wish that Democrats had been able to settle on a consensus successor a year or two ago and that Biden had been able to step aside in that successor’s favor without setting off an intraparty free-for-all. But speculating about whether that could have happened is beside the point now. It didn’t happen, and Biden is going to be the Democratic nominee.

It’s also true that many voters think the president’s age is an issue. But there’s perception and there’s reality: As anyone who has recently spent time with Biden (and I have) can tell you, he is in full possession of his faculties — completely lucid and with excellent grasp of detail. Of course, most voters don’t get to see him up close, and it’s on Biden’s team to address that. And yes, he speaks quietly and a bit slowly, although this is in part because of his lifetime struggle with stuttering. He also, by the way, has a sense of humor, which I think is important.

Most important is that Biden has been a remarkably effective president. Trump spent four years claiming that a major infrastructure initiative was just around the corner, to the point that “It’s infrastructure week!” became a running joke; Biden actually got legislation passed. Trump promised to revive American manufacturing, but didn’t. Biden’s technology and climate policies — the latter passed against heavy odds — have produced a surge in manufacturing investment. His enhancement of Obamacare has brought health insurance coverage to millions.

If you ask me, these achievements say a lot more about Biden’s capacity than his occasional verbal slips.

And what about his opponent, who is only four years younger? Maybe some people are impressed by the fact that Trump talks loud and mean. But what about what he’s actually saying in his speeches? They’re frequently rambling word salads, full of bizarre claims like his assertion on Friday that if he loses in November, “they’re going to change the name of Pennsylvania.”

Not to mention confusing Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi and mistaking E. Jean Carroll for one of his ex-wives.

As I also wrote last week, Trump’s speeches make me remember my father’s awful last year, when he suffered from sundowning — bouts of incoherence and belligerence after dark. And we’re supposed to be worried about Biden’s mental state?

Over the past few days, while the national discussion has been dominated by talk about Biden’s age, Trump declared that he wouldn’t intervene to help “delinquent” NATO members if Russia were to attack them, even suggesting that he might encourage such an attack. He seems to regard NATO as nothing more than a protection racket and after all this time still has no idea how the alliance works. By the way, Lithuania, the NATO member that Trump singled out, has spent a larger percentage of its G.D.P. on aid to Ukraine than any other nation.

Again, I wish this election weren’t a contest between two elderly men and worry in general about American gerontocracy. But like it or not, this is going to be a race between Biden and Trump — and somehow the lucid, well-informed candidate is getting more heat over his age than his ranting, factually challenged opponent.

As I said, until just the other day I was feeling somewhat optimistic. But now I’m deeply troubled about our nation’s future.

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