What's Tony Thinking

The Trouble With Biden


In 1992, amid the campaign season that pitted George H.W. Bush against Bill Clinton, I had a conversation, in passing, with a stranger. He said, “The American people will vote for whichever candidate they think is tougher.” Maybe he said “stronger,” but I think it was “tougher.”

Whatever you think about that remark — I thought it was pretty insightful — it may be a clue to what troubles people about Joe Biden and why his approval rating is so low. He doesn’t look or sound tough. What he does seem is mortal. He shuffles. He gropes for words. He falls off his bike.

These are all, to be sure, completely normal things that could happen to anyone, particularly anyone who is as old as Biden is. But the trouble with all of it is that it reminds us of our own weakness, of our own vulnerabilities, of our mortality. In short, of our own humanity with its inherent limits.

We would prefer to not be so reminded. We would prefer vigor and strength, or at least the appearance of it. We will even, apparently, accept the pseudo-toughness of demeaning others, of ridiculing some as “soft” or “weak.”

It is, of course, entirely possible to be troubled by Joe Biden’s policies. The Biden team clearly mis-calculated on inflation. But then, who foresaw Russia’s attack on Ukraine and its damage to the global economy?

And a good argument can be made that anyone serving as U.S. President should have as much physical strength and stamina, as well as mental alertness as humanely possible just to have a chance of success in the job. Which is among the reasons that I hope Biden does not run for a second term.

But beyond the rational reasons that might trouble people about Biden and his presidency, there is something more. His vulnerabilities remind us of our own. His walking pace and occasional verbal miscues are a sign of what we work hard at forgetting and denying, i.e. our own mortality.

The other evening we were reading, aloud in a group, the “Yeshua” chapter of Francis Spufford’s book, UnApologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. At one point in this luminous chapter, Spufford describes a beaten Jesus in the procession toward Skull Hill and crucifixion.

“Daylight finds him in a procession again, but this time no one could mistake him for a king. He’s stumbling under the weight of his own instrument of execution, a great big wooden thing he can hardly lift, with an escort of the empire’s soldiers. The bystanders who’ve come blinking out of the lodgings where they spent the festival night don’t see their hopes, or even the possibility of their hopes, parading by. They see their disappointment, they see their frustration. They see everything in themselves that is too weak or too afraid to confront the strapping paratroopers; and much though they hate the soldiers, they hate him more, for his pathetic slide into victimhood . . . and just look at him. There’s something disgusting about him, don’t you think? Something that makes you squirm inside. Something . . . furtive. He’s so pale and sickly looking . . .” Spufford continues in this vein, concluding, “He’s less a messiah, more a patch of something nasty on the pavement.”

After we finished reading the “Yeshua” chapter aloud one of our group said, “I wonder if that’s what bothers people about Biden,” meaning he doesn’t project strength, mega-watt charisma and winning. “That’s what troubles people about him.” Her comment rang true to me.

Of course, the point — or at least part of the point of the crucifixion — is Jesus’ full embrace of our humanity and especially of that experience of being cast-out, degraded, declared sub-human and ungodly. A good part of the purpose of crucifixion as a form of execution, is to utterly dehumanize its subjects. And that’s part of why the crucifixion is redemptive. “Christ died,” wrote Paul, “for the ungodly.” For the cast-out and the cast-off, those rendered sub-human. And for us all who are at some point and some time, “ungodly,” shameful and disgusting.

The Christian doctrine of redemption is a different topic than Joe Biden’s age or strength, but it is as my friend observed, they are related. We are troubled by him because he reminds us of our own humanity, our own morality. And we would rather he didn’t.


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