Joe Biden faces the test of a lifetime

Joe Biden exits the Beast – the president’s heavily armored stretch limousine – and makes his way into the Regal Lounge, a Black-owned barbershop in Columbia, South Carolina.

The space is cramped, but President Biden works the room like a pro. Customers and stylists alike stop everything to greet the surprise guest, here to campaign ahead of the state’s Democratic primary. A member of the Secret Service instructs a barber to put down his razor; after all, he’s cheek by jowl with the leader of the free world.

The setting, of course, is calculated. The largely Democratic Black vote is critical to Mr. Biden’s election prospects in November – as it was in 2020 – and Black men, in particular, have been peeling away from the president’s column. 

Why We Wrote This

President Biden’s decades of experience have brought valuable perspective, supporters say. Yet the next president will face uniquely modern challenges. Is Mr. Biden’s age a liability or an asset? It may be both.

After a few minutes inside the Regal, we reporters accompanying Mr. Biden are escorted out. But the president stays inside for a full half-hour. This is the Biden way: More than just grinning for the cameras, he needs to shake every hand, pose for selfies, win people over one by one. 

Tom Brenner/Reuters

President Joe Biden greets a patron during an unannounced visit to the Regal Lounge barbershop in Columbia, South Carolina, Jan. 27, 2024.

“That’s where Biden is most comfortable” – engaging with the public, says former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a friend of the president’s for 25 years. “He loves people.” 

In many ways, Mr. Biden’s brand of politics is as old-school as they come. He has been a fixture in Washington since his first election to the Senate in 1972, and his approach can be seen as a relic of a bygone era, when respect and civility in public life were the norm, and the ability to work across the aisle and cut legislative deals was the name of the game. 

Today, after 36 years as a senator from Delaware, eight years as vice president, and three-plus years as president, Mr. Biden faces the challenge of a lifetime: fending off likely GOP nominee Donald Trump amid rampant partisan dysfunction, growing isolationism, a crisis on the southern U.S. border, and an increasingly restive left. His job approval rating with the public is now consistently under 40%.

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