Both have bumbling, grandfatherly public personas, which they use to full effect
This week, a clip has been circulating of Joe Biden driving away after a reporter questioned him about Israel. Here is an excerpt of the conversation:
“Mr President, can I ask you a quick question about Israel before you drive away because it’s so important?”
“No, you can’t. Not unless you get in front of the car as I step on it! I’m only teasing… Ok here we go – you ready?”
“Let’s see it sir!”
What is revealing about this interaction isn’t Biden threatening to run over a journalist (he is obviously joking) or even his ducking of the question. It is the behaviour of the journalists, who swoon and coo at the sight of a 78-year-old man speeding off in an electric pick-up. More peculiar still is the applause that follows, with one particularly awestruck reporter muttering “that’s fantastic”.
We hear a lot about how Joe Biden, with his big government spending, is the next FDR or LBJ; but moments like these bring to mind another former President, whose breezy, avuncular charm allowed him to escape press scrutiny in much the same way. During his eight year administration, Ronald Reagan was always known to have gotten away with a wink and a smile whenever he was in a tight corner, captured brilliantly by this old SNL sketch. In fact, so slick was the ‘Teflon president’ (because he was never stuck with the blame) with the press that there was even a book written about it.
Reagan was also famously careful with press conference appearances. Over his eight years as president, he only had 46 total press conferences in his two terms at an average of 5.75 a year (Barack Obama, by contrast, had 164 over the course of his administration). Similarly, Joe Biden did not hold a single in-person press conference in his first three months as president (admittedly, the pandemic has played a role).
At 77, Reagan ended his presidency before Joe Biden even began his, but both faced similar accusations of cognitive decline. In Reagan’s final year as president, there were rumours that he was already displaying the signs of the Alzheimer’s that eventually killed him; Biden, meanwhile, wins plaudits for managing to utter a sequence of words that arrive at a conclusion.
Partly due to their age, gaffes sprang eternal. Ronald Reagan nearly started a world war when he quipped on the radio: “we begin bombing [Russia] in five minutes” failing to realise that his microphone was on. Some of Biden’s famous hits include mistaking then Prime Minister Theresa May for Margaret Thatcher (twice); claiming that he struck a climate deal with Deng Xiao-ping, who died in 1997; and boldly claiming that gun crime in America had killed 150 million people since 2007.
And yet, these gaffes formed a part of their bumbling, grandfatherly public personas, which made them more endearing to voters — and the press. Though the mask has slipped occasionally, Joe Biden has made full use of his doddering demeanour, which has served as a useful cover for passing some of the most radical legislation this century. Next time you see a Biden blunder on air, don’t let reporters give him such an easy ride.