Give Us Biden

ENGAGEMENTS with  Chidi Amuta

All it has taken to expose the porous underbelly of American democracy is one bad debate night by an 81 year old incumbent president. President Joe Biden fared poorly in his first CNN debate for this election season. A combination of  cold, jet lag and old age troubles made him a bit nervous and uncollected. He was lost in the middle of sentences and seemed to forget his lines on familiar subjects even those where he has excelled as president. 

More destabilising perhaps was the fact that he  was sharing a debate podium with a known serial liar, habitual bully  and unashamed demagogue. That combination in an electoral opponent is enough to unhinge any honest contestant. But even at that, Trump’s negatives are what should have prepared Biden to come fighting. But he did not. He frequently landed weak blows and a miserable thud each time he tried to put up a fight. The strategy of treating Trump with kid gloves as, at best, a spoilt child did not work and never works in politics.

Biden was restrained, meek and a bit uncollected. Trump was his usual blustery, hectoring and serially lying self. He won the debate not by repenting from Trumpism but by repeatedly punching a weakened Biden. In the end, supporters and opponents of the sitting president agreed that he was hardly at his best that Thursday night.

Concern about Biden’s bad showing at that debate has refused to go away.  Concern among supporters has grown into anxiety and even division among Democrats. The Democratic Party is riled and divided. Some would like Biden to quit the stage and yield place to a younger candidate with a better chance of defeating Donald Trump in the November elections. A solid core of Democrats led by majority of governors still believe Biden is their best bet in the circumstance.

Others including of course Biden’s immediate family and his core supporters insist that notwithstanding the bad debate night, Biden is their best bet. He is a tested hand. He has experience, track record and can be trusted by allies and respected, if not exactly feared, by adversaries. After all , he had out- debated and defeated Trump in 2020. He is best suited to do it again than would a totally new hand so late in the day.

The Republicans, especially Trump and his diehard devotees, are triumphant. They see Mr. Biden as a man weakened by age, unstated infirmity and incremental incapacity especially in unscripted situations. They are silent on the fact of Trump being nearly of the same age bracket as Biden.

On the whole, it is bad enough that America is now faced with a presidential choice weighed down by geriatric concerns. It is a binary choice between two ageing men whose competitiveness has been reduced to a comparison between two geriatric health records. It is even worse that both parties have become so limited in their leadership options that they seem stuck with a choice between a convicted blustering old crook and a tired good old man.

Biden’s debate performance means so much because of the peculiarities of American democracy and society.  America is a nation built on an ideal, on a creed of equality of the people and the rejection of monarchical absolutism. A creedalnation that covers such a wide area of territory can best be forged through effective communication. At first, it was radio that forged that communication link. But radio was constrained by voice and sound. The advent of television completed the link by adding images to voice, giving birth to the television nation. People as far flung as from Boston to Alaska , from Washington DC to North Dakota could now hear and see common images of their political leaders and other key influencers.

America’s is an image and television driven democracy. The political contest in America thrives on big marketing, advertisement and image engineering. Over time, television and the media have come to overwhelm American politics with their influence to the extent that the political persona has become something of a pseudo celebrity. The culture of stardom and celebrity created by Hollywood and the music industry have come to rub off on politics, luring the politician into the limelight of celebrity culture.

The ability to appear on most major channels and networks, to out- talk your opponent and reduce the urgent needs of the nation to a marketing selling point have become the deciding factors in whom the electorate votes for. The political star that must sell should wear the correct tie colour, be made up by make-up artists, rehash the catch phrases of the moment and appear to be on the side of Joe the plumber and Jane the housewife. In all of it, the ability to convince, to play the salesman at short notice has become a major indicator of preparedness to lead America.

A candidate who has all the ideas on how to sustain America’s greatness but fares poorly on the television screen  may end up being just “the best president America may never get”. On the contrary, the smooth talker, the guy who has an uncanny ability to combine some substance with celebrity appeal stands a better chance of moving into the White House to lord it over America and, by implication, the entire world for a good four years in the first instance.

Therefore, Biden’s recent bad debate night meant a  tragedy for America’s television image driven politics. This is why the options have narrowed to whether Biden should stay in the race or take a dignified exit. Either option is no easy route. If he were to quit, the Democratic party will be jolted into finding a substitute barely five months to the election. The possibility that the substitute will find his  or her feet so readily and quickly and be in a strong position to defeat Donald Trump is slim. That option effectively means that the Democrats would be ready to lose the election just to make the point that they opted for a younger, more vibrant candidate.

In the alternative, keep Biden in the race and try to fix his lapses and the degradations of old age on his electability.  This requires a closer management of the optics of his campaign events,  better preparations and more indepth homework on Trump’s weaknesses especially his compulsive lying and liberty with facts. The chances of a Biden win can are better if he stays in the race. But of course, those opposed to his staying on are more concerned about the energy and style of governance that he will lead if he secures a second term. In that regard, his experience and mature knowledge of people should equip him with good men and women to pull off a credible administration.

Those who wish Biden well are either genuine supporters or people who live with a mortal fear of the catastrophe of a second Trump presidency. People are genuinely concerned about the future of democracy in the hands of a lover of dictators and a self declared autocrat. Worse still, Trump’s looming threat to the international order is likely to tilt the balance in favour of the forces of authoritarianism. A man who openly admires Vladimir Putin, Xi Jiping, Kim Jung Un etc cannot be placed in the White House without overturning the world order.

Elsewhere in other political cultures, a mere one night of television debate would not mean so much. Take Nigeria for instance. We run a US-type presidential system with a cloned constitution along the same lines. But we hardly subject our presidential candidates to any verbal or intellectual rigour. Our presidential candidates do not have to debate with each other. They do not have to have any mastery of the most urgent national issues. They do not have to reel out statistics of the national economy of other vital statistics. They only need to be the choice of some party, loosely defined.

In 1999 when the military was handing over to a civil democracy, the two front runners for the presidency were Olusegun Obasanjo for the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Olu Falaye for the Alliance for Democracy (AD). At the height of the campaigns, the idea was floated that there should be a television debate between the two. Somehow, neither party was enthusiastic about the debate. Time was allowed to elapse and the debate never took place.

In Buhari’s two terms as civilian president, there was no debate between him and any of his opponents. Both Atiku Abubakar and Goodluck Jonathan may have been willing to debate with Mr. Buhari but the latter was not  there for any debate. He lacked the capacity to string sentences together. He lacked any demonstrable knowledge or conviction on whatever were the raging national issues of his time. No one knows what he knew or did not know about anything and everything.

A reclusive and aloof man of few words and scanty ideas, Mr. Buhari was not the type to talk his way to power. He knew only how to cobble together an alliance of strange bed fellows to forge a winning alliance. Power was his means and end as well. In power, he feasted on the combined ability of his devotees and staffers to do most of the talking in no coordinated manner. What was important was that he was in power and at the helm.

As late as the 2023 presidential election campaign season, the matter of debates among the candidates was toyed with but dropped like hot potato. While Mr. Peter Obi and Abubakar Atiku were inclined to engage in open debates and media sessions, not so with Bola Tinubu. In fact, the campaign season witnessed Mr. Tinubu at his most controversial and incomprehensible. At campaign events, he was quoted as uttering gibberish, a point that fuelled speculations about his exact health condition. People who heard him uttering “Bulaba; Baba blu… Bulaba…” could not make out what language he was speaking. The obvious conclusion in street corners and bars was that the man was suffering from some mental health conditions that had affected both his comprehension and elocution.

When he showed up to present his agenda at the Chatham House in London, he could hardly answer any question. Instead, he lined up party faithful and supporting cronies on his entourage as the ones who would answer questions on his behalf  since he preferred ‘team work’.

Eventually, there was no debate between Mr. Tinubu and any of the other major candidates. There was not even a face-to- face interview between Tinubu and anyone or medium of note. But when the election results were announced, Tinubu, the man who said practically nothing to any one, was declared the winner over and above the other two who spent mental energy dissecting the nation’s problems and urgent challenges.

Therefore, the favourite Nigerian presidential candidate cannot be a television  hero or media celebrity. Yet Nigerians have shown more than passing interest in the America’s presidential elections than other nationals. It may be a subliminal celebration of what we long for but do not yet have.

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