Opinion

President Biden, America's future leaders are watching

Why Biden is the boomers' last chance to set things right

OK, boomers: You have one last chance not to leave the country in terrible shape.

The inauguration of President Biden on Wednesday probably is the last great political triumph of the Baby Boom generation. Technically, Biden isn't a boomer — he was born in 1942, a few years before the end of World War II — but he does belong to the boomer and boomer-adjacent cohort of American politicians who came of political age in the 1970s and '80s. They were shaped by Vietnam, Watergate, and Reaganism, and they first took the White House with the election of 46-year-old Bill Clinton in 1992.

Clinton had it easy. He took the reins of power from President George H.W. Bush, who was the last of a generation of presidents who served the country during World War II. The Cold War had just come to an end, so Clinton didn't need to promise to make America great — he arrived in office as the country was at the zenith of its power and prestige.

Biden has a much more difficult challenge.

America is mired in a once-in-a-century pandemic that has already killed 400,000 people. The country is experiencing its second economic calamity in a dozen years. And our democracy is fragile enough that when commentators speak of the possibility of civil war, it doesn't seem all that shrill or hyperbolic. The last time a majority of Americans felt satisfied with the direction of the United States was January 2004 — after the invasion of Iraq, but when it was still plausible to many of us that the U.S. could win the war. The most recent Gallup poll, in December, showed that just 16 percent of Americans are bullish on their country.

So Biden has two jobs, really. The first is to stop the bleeding. The second is to prepare, at long last, to hand the reins of leadership to a younger generation.

Both tasks require figuring out how we got here. The devolution of the country from triumphant to barely holding it together came as the Clinton-Biden generation of politicians gradually aged from fresh-faced 40-somethings who hung out with the cool kids on MTV to a group of gerontocrats hanging onto power. Donald Trump, who just left office, is 74. Biden is 78. So is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is 80. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is 70. Vice President Kamala Harris and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) are both relatively young — they are in their 50s — but McCarthy, at least, seems to have a shaky hold on power these days.

It may be unfair and ageist to pin America's problems on the fact that so much of our leadership class is eligible for Social Security. But it does seem that the generation of leaders born in the 1940s and '50s have squandered their inheritance. Clinton had an affair in the Oval Office, which helped chisel away at the notion that character matters in leadership. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) pioneered the practice of politics as a permanent culture war that can sometimes spill over into real violence. President George W. Bush launched the war in Iraq, failed New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and then left the country in economic ruin. Trump's sins have been documented ad nauseum. All the while, leaders on both sides of the aisle helped kick the can down the road on existential issues like climate change, ignored warning signs of growing economic inequality, and (at best) slow-walked progress on racial inequality until that situation became untenable.

Is it any wonder that "OK, boomer" has become the to-go insult for exhausted and embittered millennials?

Those young voters shouldn't get too cocky, though. The boomers they disdain were once optimistic young people who thought they would save the world from their out-of-touch elders, too. And millennials will need Biden to be successful just to have a chance to show they can do a better job once given the chance.

The new president and his Democratic allies who now control Congress seem determined to try to set things right by making advances on climate change, racism, and economic inequality. But they will need to do a better job of cultivating a younger group of successors. Biden has started that task by selecting Harris as his vice president. But the leadership of House Democrats is increasingly under fire for being "old and out of touch," and Senate Democrats aren't much better. If Democrats aren't ready to hand over leadership to a new generation by the time the 2022 and 2024 elections arrive, they will have failed.

Then again, maybe younger leaders won't keep waiting around for their elders to make way. On Wednesday, much of the nation was wowed by the inauguration poetry of 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, a young woman who is already making plans. "This is a long, long, faraway goal, but 2036 I am running for office to be president of the United States," she told The New York Times in 2017, when she was just 19. "So you can put that in your iCloud calendar." If Biden does his job right, America will still be a country worth leading by then.

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