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Column: How the media's obsession with Biden's age could help reelect Trump

Vietnamese General Secretary of the Communist Party Nguyen Phu Trong, front right, and US President Joe Biden, front left, attend a military welcome ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam, Sunday, Sept.10, 2023. Biden is on an official two-day visit in Vietnam. (Luong Thai Linh/Pool Photo via AP)
Who says he's too old? President Biden and Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, attend a welcome ceremony Sunday in Hanoi. (Luong Thai Linh / Associated Press)

President Biden on Monday completed a five-day trip to the Far East that included a summit meeting in New Delhi with leaders of the G-20 conference of developed countries at which a major international infrastructure project for India was announced, followed by a one-day visit to Vietnam, where he solidified relations with that country as a bulwark against China.

You might not be aware of this burst of presidential energy if you're a reader of the news website Axios. On Saturday, while Biden's journey was in full swing, the site's gloss on Biden's activities was this:

"Joe Biden and Donald Trump are running dueling basement campaigns that make them look like they're in the witness protection program."

Biden's presidential duties and Trump's legal battles are limiting their ability to campaign.

Axios pairs Trump's conspiracy indictment with Biden's presidential achievements

One can't be too surprised with this take by Axios, the governing goal of which is to boil down the news into compact nuggets that can be consumed in their entirety during a commercial break in an NFL game. But two aspects of its report stand out.

One is its sedulous adherence to the "both sides do it" press narrative, in which every action by one party must be paired with an ostensibly equivalent action by the other party.

Then there's the juvenile snarkiness of the report, which takes pains to point out that the "bonus" of Biden's taking "policy-focused presidential trips" is that "the campaign doesn't have to cover expenses."

Of course: What better reason to take a four-day international jaunt of 15,000 miles round-trip than to save his presidential campaign a few bucks? (Does anyone doubt that if Biden skipped the G-20 summit, Axios would be asking whether his age had something to do with his staying home?)

Finally, the age thing. From the level of coverage this issue is getting in the press, one would think it's the only important consideration out there.

Never mind that one of these candidates has been indicted for allegedly plotting to destroy American democracy — Axios both-sides that issue by noting that "Biden's presidential duties and Trump's legal battles are limiting their ability to campaign," as if serving the public interest and undermining the public interest are merely two sides of the same coin.

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Also, of course, Biden at 80 is only three years older than Trump (77), and appears to be more physically active.

Reportage like this makes one doubt that the political press is up to the task of responsibly covering what could be a historically pivotal presidential election. In 2024 the race won't feature two candidates with differing, but arguably sound, policy ideas, but one whose commitment to public policy is manifest, and another whose disdain for democracy is plain.

As long ago as 1992, it became clear that American campaign coverage was becoming consumed with inanity. That was the year, it may be recalled, when a major campaign theme was tied up with George H.W. Bush's unfamiliarity with a supermarket scanner. The nugget was exploited to paint Bush as an elitist hopelessly out of touch with the ordinary American — never mind that the episode had been misreported from the start and was not corrected until years later.

Since then, campaign coverage has gotten only more stupefied. That's because, for campaign reporters (and I've been one), policy is complicated and therefore boring. It's much easier and more exciting to boil every contest down to who's-ahead-today-and-who's-behind horse race metrics, leavened by the memes that allow reporters to portray themselves as knowing insiders.

If a candidate's team questions the veracity of the meme, one can always respond, "Well, that's what your opponents are saying and you can't blame us for reporting that."

Every race since 1992 seems to have been reduced to a premasticated nugget. In 2000, it was Al Gore's claim to have "invented the internet." In truth, that's not what he said, and in any case he had indeed played a key role in advancing the legislation and funding that made the internet happen. Too bad for Gore: The meme became shorthand for the notion that he couldn't be trusted.

In 2016, it was the claim that Hillary Clinton had used a private email server as secretary of State, supposedly placing national security at risk. This was always a fatuous issue, but since Trump was pushing it relentlessly the press went along, even though there was much more evidence that Trump was the one whose behavior threatened national security.

This time around, the age meme is accompanied by the claim that Americans are hopelessly polarized. As I've written before, there's no evidence for that, and plenty for the contrary. The truth is that Americans favor, often by a supermajority, abortion rights and stricter gun controls.

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Biden's economic initiatives also are broadly popular — so much so that GOP office-holders have scurried to groundbreakings to take credit for projects funded by Biden's 2021 infrastructure bill, even though congressional Republicans voted overwhelmingly against it.

Biden's 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which allows Medicare to negotiate drug prices for the first time and capped insulin prices for Medicare patients, provisions that are plainly good for consumers and broadly popular, passed without a single Republican vote in either chamber.

Yet the "polarization" meme is harder to kill than a television zombie. What's worse is that the press and political commentators blame both parties equally for driving Americans apart.

Consider a recent report by the American Political Science Assn., which asserted that the issue that divides Americans more than any other is race.

In the report's preface, Mark D. Brewer of the University of Maine asserts that "today’s Republican and Democratic Parties have evolved to a place where they emphasize difference, stoke fear and animosity, and incite conflict."

That's a classic both-sides construction, but is it so? Not according to the report's text. There, one finds scant evidence that the Democrats "stoke fear and animosity," much less "incite conflict." Do they "emphasize difference"? Given that the theme of much Democratic politicking is racial and ethnic inclusiveness and a welcoming of gender diversity, that can't be true.

In the report itself, Zoltan Hajnal of UC San Diego writes that the Democratic Party publicly embraced "the basic goals of the Civil Rights Movement" while the GOP, through its "Southern Strategy" to exploit white resentment of Black rights in that region, "abandoned over a hundred years of racial progressivism."

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(Rather churlishly, I thought, Hajnal ascribes the Democrats' commitment to civil rights to a desire to grub votes "by giving Blacks access to the vote." Perhaps the Democrats just thought that giving all citizens access to the vote was the right thing to do.)

More to the point, Lilliana Mason of Johns Hopkins University writes that because the GOP's positions on policies such as abortion, gun control, healthcare and infrastructure spending "run contrary to the majority of public preferences," the party tries to "take advantage of identity-centric rhetoric — which can motivate voters without offering them economic or practical benefits."

Mason quotes the outstanding political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson as observing that “to deliver to the plutocrats yet still win elections, Republicans reached ever deeper into ... segments of the electorate where conservative economic policies failed to stir voters’ passions but divisive appeals to identity did."

That doesn't sound as if both sides are equally guilty of stoking fear and animosity and inciting conflict.

One other popular meme in the political press is that in Biden the Democrats are saddled with a deeply unpopular standard-carrier. This is another extremely dubious assertion beloved of lazy political commentators.

As Kevin Drum points out, Biden's job approval (42%, according to Gallup) is right in line with those of Trump (42%), Obama (40%), Reagan (44%) and Clinton (46%) at this stage of their first terms. All of them, except Trump, went on to second terms.

The consequence of the press' fixation on the issue of Biden's age despite his evident capability for governing is that public opinion will be skewed in Trump's favor, even as some of Trump's fellow Republicans have begun to question his fitness for office (not to mention those, er, "legal battles," as Axios would have it).

The importance of the press in reporting fairly and incisively on the issues at large in the coming presidential election is inescapable. So far, its failure has become more evident with every passing day. Time is getting short for it to turn itself around.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.