This week in Bidenomics: Eldergate

This week in Bidenomics: Eldergate

Is President Biden’s advanced age an economic issue? It certainly is if it prevents his reelection and opens the door to a Republican with sharply different tax, trade, and spending plans.


The economic news is going Biden’s way. Stocks continue to hit record highs, reflecting investor optimism about the future. Inflation continues to improve. Bank of America economists think growth in 2024 could be stronger than expected, which ought to be bullish for Biden’s reelection odds.

Yet Biden’s latest liability is a federal prosecutor’s report describing the 81-year-old president as an “elderly man with a poor memory.” The report actually exonerated Biden for keeping classified material at his home after he left the vice presidency in 2017. There was some classified info, but Biden may have retained it as an “innocent mistake,” according to the report. Unlike former President Donald Trump, who stiff-armed prosecutors trying to get classified documents he took and ended up charged with obstruction of justice, Biden cooperated fully and sat for five hours of interviews. The prosecutor recommended no further action.

But he did jab Biden where it hurts by calling his mental acuity into question. The report described Biden’s memory as “significantly limited,” including interview recordings dating to 2017, three years before Biden won the presidency. During interviews with prosecutors last October, Biden demonstrated “limited precision and recall.”


A feisty Biden fired back at a Feb. 8 press conference, where reporters shouted questions at the president, basically asking if he’s infirm. “I know what the hell I’m doing,” Biden insisted. “My memory is fine. Take a look at what I’ve done since I’ve become president. How’d that happen? I guess I just forgot what was going on?”

Biden supporters also point out that the special counsel, Robert Hur, is a Republican appointed to be a Justice Department prosecutor by Donald Trump in 2018, who may have been trying to weaken Biden’s 2024 candidacy. To Biden’s credit, there’s no evidence the Justice Department tried to block, spin, or undermine Hur’s investigation, the way Trump’s Justice Department tried to undercut the 2019 Robert Mueller report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.


The bigger picture for Biden, nonetheless, is that he may be the first president in modern times to lose reelection for reasons other than a weak economy. The state of the economy almost always determines whether a first-term president wins a second term. An election year recession in 1980 tanked Jimmy Carter’s reelection bid, and a recession hangover sank George H.W. Bush in 1992. The COVID pandemic affected Trump’s reelection bid in 2020, but a big part of that was the teetering economy.

All the modern presidents who got reelected did so amid a strong or recovering economy: Ronald Reagan in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1996, George W. Bush in 2004, Barack Obama in 2012. If current trends continue, Biden should be joining that group. On the Yahoo Finance Bidenomics Report Card, Biden’s grade recently rose from B to B+, with his strongest assets being job and GDP growth plus the newly animated stock market.


As everybody following the 2024 election knows, however, Biden is getting no credit from voters for anything going right in the economy. Consumer confidence has sharply improved during the last two months, as voters finally seem to believe inflation is receding for good. Yet Biden’s approval rating is stuck at a measly 39%, near the low point of his presidency. Biden’s approval rating fell as inflation rose and confidence plummeted, but there’s been no corresponding recovery in Biden’s approval as the economy has strengthened.

Whether a cheap shot or not, Hur’s elderly-man putdown could be a turning point for Biden. It triggered Biden’s first major effort to shoot down such criticism publicly, and he didn’t exactly succeed. Biden was on the offensive during the Feb. 8 session before the cameras, and as the old aphorism goes, when you’re explaining, you’re losing. Oh, in the same appearance, Biden also said “Mexico” when he meant to say “Egypt,” as if underscoring Hur’s contention.


It may now be a bigger priority for Biden to prove his mental fitness than to coax voters into feeling better about the economy. Biden could do it. Most voters won’t read the Hur report and many may not even hear about it. If Biden is as healthy as he claims and he can show it, Eldergate might blow over.

Trump, Biden’s likely presidential opponent (if both men make it to the finish line), is listing, too. Polls show large majorities of voters think each candidate is too old, and Trump could face juries in one or two of his four criminal trials by the fall. If the lineup holds, the fall election will pit an elderly man with poor memory against an elderly man with poor ethics.


Voters know the differences between Biden and Trump. Biden is a champion of clean energy who wants to raise taxes on businesses and the wealthy and expand social programs. Trump is a fossil-fuel zealot who would kill green energy subsidies, cut taxes further, slash regulations more than he did during his first term, and intensify his trade war with China.

The odds are rising, however, that one or both of these current front-runners leaves the race, forcing voters to get familiar with new faces. They probably wouldn’t complain.


Rick Newman

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