Opinion: Biden’s secret weapon to defuse the age issue
Joe Biden to address the age issue head-on at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner — but with a delightfully comedic touch.
“Look, I get that age is a completely reasonable issue. It’s in everybody’s mind and by everyone, I mean The New York Times.” Biden then added, “Headline: ‘Biden’s advanced age is a big issue. Trump’s, however, is not.’ ”
“You might think I don’t like Rupert Murdoch. That’s simply not true. How can I dislike a guy who makes me look like Harry Styles?”
“Call me old, I call it being seasoned. You say I am ancient, I say I’m wise,” he quipped, adding: “You say I’m over the hill, Don Lemon would say, ‘That’s a man in his prime.’ ” (He was referring to the former CNN anchor’s controversial comments suggesting that women over 40 might have their better days behind them.)
What Biden was doing was funny — but it had a serious intent: The history of presidential campaigning tells us that humor is one of the most effective ways to defuse concerns that, unaddressed, might become major campaign issues.
Biden’s reelection campaign is not the first time that age has been front and center in a presidential campaign. It was also the case in 1984, when President Ronald Reagan, then 73, ran for reelection against a more spry, 56-year-old Walter Mondale, who had been Jimmy Carter’s vice president.
At the time, Reagan was the oldest president in US history, and political commentators then, much like today, raised the issue of Reagan’s advanced age and mental acuity. It became even more acute after the first presidential debate in October 1984. Reagan came across to many who watched the debate as tired and confused.
At the second presidential debate, however, Reagan was ready for the age question.
The Baltimore Sun’s Henry Trewhitt asked Reagan bluntly: “You already are the oldest president in history. And some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent (debating) encounter with Mr. Mondale.” He then asked Reagan point-blank if he had any doubts about being able to do the job for four more years.
With his response, Reagan gave one of history’s most famous presidential debate lines: “I want you to know,” he said, “that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
The debate audience — and even Mondale — roared with laughter. Reagan’s poll numbers rebounded, and he went on to win reelection easily. We’ll never know for sure how big a role that one-liner played, but age never again seemed a major campaign liability that could derail his reelection.
A serious response to the question might have made him appear defensive. Reagan skillfully used comedy to deflect concern about his age — with stunning results.
Biden should take a page from Reagan’s book. He should continue what he started at the correspondents’ dinner and keep it going throughout the 2024 campaign. He should own the issue of his age, using comedy to brush it to one side.
This approach will show voters that Biden is not running from the issue — he’d be taking it on squarely, if lightheartedly. It also affords the opportunity to put on display his mental sharpness and agility. It’s a big part of why Reagan’s joke went so far in apparently helping to boost his poll numbers.
But finally — and here’s something we all know intuitively — being funny makes a person more likable. Self-deprecating humor shows a level of security and confidence as a person. What a great contrast Biden put on display Saturday night with Donald Trump, his potential 2024 opponent.
The former president was too thin-skinned to even attend these annual comedy roasts while he was president, and he has lashed out at comedians and comedy shows such as “Saturday Night Live” for having the temerity to mock him.
There’s one more thing that Biden has in common with Reagan, in addition to being advanced in age and dearly loving a good laugh. At about this same time in his first term, Reagan’s approval rating was 42%, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. Currently, Biden’s approval rating in the CNN poll of polls is about the same.
Reagan went on to win 49 of 50 states in the 1984 election. Such a result seems out of the question in today’s politically polarized nation, but Biden, like Reagan, knows how to deliver a joke.
And if you can get people to laugh with you, you can get them to vote for you.
Editor’s Note: Dean Obeidallah’s article was published in CNN on 30 April 2023.
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Published on: 1 May 2023.
Biden is taking a page from Reagan’s book on the age issue, while Trump was too thin-skinned to attend annual comedy roasts
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