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Column: You can relax, Gavin: Biden showed he’s not a doddering old man

by Marko Florentino
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President Biden, in his State of the Union speech, reminded me of a cranky old grandpa emphatically telling his concerned adult offspring: “Look, kids, I’m not moving out of the house. So forget it.”

In this case, it was the White House.

“I won’t walk away,” Biden insisted. He was talking about not abandoning American values. But I also heard something else:

He won’t be walking out onto the south lawn and climbing aboard Marine 1 to chopper off to a Delaware retirement home. Not this year anyway.

No one is probably more relieved than California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Newsom has been at the top of virtually every list of alternative Democratic candidates if the 81-year-old president were to voluntarily bow out amid growing anxiety about whether he’s too doddering and weak to serve a second term. His fiery State of the Union address should have eased many viewers’ concerns.

Newsom never wanted to run this year anyway. “Subzero” interest, he long has insisted. And it’s perfectly believable.

If the job opened up now and Newsom seized the moment, he’d surely need to run against his old San Francisco ally, Vice President Kamala Harris. That would make him a party pariah, especially among Black women, a core Democratic constituency, Newsom has said privately. So, he’d defer to Harris.

Newsom, 56, but still youthful with his Hollywood looks, apparently is eyeing 2028 for a presidential bid as he maneuvers to become a national political player and better known. He’s an eager Biden surrogate constantly promoting the president’s reelection.

But if Biden wins reelection, Harris, 59, will be first in line to succeed him in 2028. Would Newsom again defer? No one knows, probably not even Newsom.

Newsom could angle for a cabinet post, perhaps Energy or Interior. There, he could press his favorite fight against global warming.

But Newson won’t be going anywhere politically until he takes care of huge problems in California, most notably homelessness. He needs a record of achievement to sell battleground states where voters are instinctively suspicious of leftist California.

Newsom certainly got a wake-up call in last week’s primary election when his pet Proposition 1 fared much more poorly than expected. By week’s end, it was too close to call.

The measure included a $6.4-billion bond to build more treatment beds for homeless people who are mentally ill or substance abuse addicts. And it would redirect some existing funding away from preventative care and target people already homeless.

So Newsom is short on voter sway in his home state. And he’s in no position to run for president, even if Biden dropped out.

Biden’s bravo performance should reduce hounding of the governor by reporters inquiring about his desire to run for the presidency. Politicians are always pleased to be mentioned as a potential presidential candidate. But answering the same questions the same way repeatedly does become eye-rolling.

More broadly, the president’s speech should lower the volume on calls for Biden to step aside.

“Clear, direct, powerful,” Newsom said of the speech in a social media post.

Biden’s State of the Union address actually was one of the best by any president in a long time. Forceful, full of energy and straightforward. No nuances. Lots of everyday common talk. Maybe a little shrill for some, but it fit the national moment.

He highlighted his record, looked to the future and even added some humor.

“In my career, I’ve been told I was too young,” Biden said to laughter, recalling that he was elected to the Senate at 29. “And I’ve been told I am too old,” he added to more laughter.

“The issue facing our nation isn’t how old we are. It’s how old are our ideas. Hate, anger, revenge, retribution are the oldest of ideas. But you can’t lead America with ancient ideas that only take us back…. You need a vision for the future and what can and should be done. Tonight, you’ve heard mine.”

Democrats applauded. Republicans glared.

That’s pretty much how the speech ended and it was fine, although beforehand I’d fantasized about different final words.

I’m one of those wishful thinkers whom Times columnist Jackie Calmes referred to last week. Before the address, I’d have preferred that Biden steal President Lyndon B. Johnson’s classic line capping his 1968 nationally televised speech on the Vietnam war:

“Accordingly, I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term.”

Johnson bowed out on March 31 because he figured he couldn’t win against growing anti-war rebellion in the Democratic Party. New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy had just entered the race. And Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy had been running for weeks. Johnson may also have foreseen health problems.

Unlike Johnson, Biden’s main problem is age. I’ve never believed he’s too old to handle the job. But millions of Americans think he is. And many could withhold their votes in November, returning the White House key to the detestable Donald Trump.

Trump, 77, is almost as old as Biden. And he is a guy who does show signs of mental slippage. But that doesn’t seem to bother the MAGA cult.

Polls show Biden trailing Trump — slightly but consistently.

Biden can reverse that by capitalizing on his State of the Union momentum and campaigning personally and aggressively among voters, showing his energy, warning of the Trump menace and displaying humor.

One thing’s certain: The old grandpa won’t be leaving the house unless shoved by voters. And Newsom’s happy.

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