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Newsletter: To be, or not to be — up for the job of president

President Biden stands with raised fists.
President Biden attends a church service at Mt. Airy Church of God in Christ in Philadelphia on Sunday.
(Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)
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Good morning. I’m Robert Greene, and it is Wednesday, July 10. Let’s look at the week in Opinion so far.

King Lear is enjoying a media moment, thanks to Joe Biden and the national kibitzing over whether he (Biden, not Lear) is too old and infirm for another term leading the nation. The Economist, the New York Times and others have brushed up their Shakespeare to offer some perspective on Biden, the 81-year-old president who is running for reelection. The problem is, there’s not much of a resemblance. In Shakespeare’s tragedy, Lear didn’t want another term. He wanted to retire.

Sort of. He wanted others to handle the burdens of leadership, yet cling to his title and prestige and occasionally exercise power when it suited him. It’s as if he wanted to play golf while being fawned on by 100 unruly knights.

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That doesn’t sound so much like Biden as it does the other aging president vying for another round.

The point of the pundits’ comparison is that Lear’s age affected his judgment. But the play is ambiguous on this point. Did mental decline lead him to give up power? Or did losing power cause his decline?

In Lear’s day (and Shakespeare’s), it was virtually impossible to retire from leadership gracefully and peacefully. A monarch’s tenure ended only with the arrival of the grim reaper, often summoned by a younger, stronger and more popular prince. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work in the United States.

Biden’s story is not Lear’s, yet there does appear to be something Shakespearean afoot. Two old kings vie for power. Each denies his mortality. Each has one hand grasping for the crown, and the other — or so it seems — reaching for the nation’s throat. The fools and rowdy knights make their usual ruckus. Would-be successors hide in the dressing room.

With the final act about to begin, we still don’t know if we have met all the characters, or if what we are watching is a comedy, a tragedy, or both.

Biden put Democrats in a pickle. What’s the right way out of it? Scott Jennings, a Republican CNN commentator, says Democrats may be thinking they’d be better off with another presidential nominee. “But Biden did beat Trump once (by roughly 44,000 votes in three states) and did win the Democratic nomination in 2024. To remove him now may seem like a knee-jerk reaction to a nation craving strong leadership. There’s some chance Biden could win again, albeit a dwindling one if you believe the data-crunching forecasters.”

The force propping up Trump that we still don’t talk about. Erin Aubry Kaplan, a contributing writer to Opinion, calls it by its name: white nationalism. “The problem of having to name this problem without really naming it literally makes Biden tongue-tied, which is not a good thing for a man who has dealt with a stutter his whole life. The entire Democratic Party and its white fellow travelers further to the left have stifled themselves on this matter too, subconsciously or because they think talking too directly about white nationalist rot would be self-defeating politics.”

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This record-breaking heat is an emergency. It’s time to treat it like one. In the past week, the West has broken all sorts of heat records. An all-time high of 124 degrees in Palm Springs! But, as The Times’ editorial board writes, “all the attention on the numbers can overshadow the larger, frightening context: We are living in a dangerous new era of more frequent, more destructive and deadlier disasters fueled by humanity’s continued spewing of greenhouse gas pollution.”

California will finally have indoor heat standards for workplaces — with a cruel exception. State regulators have finally set standards to protect workers in warehouses, kitchens and other workplaces, but they left out prisons and jails. Nicholas Shapiro, director of the Carceral Ecologies Lab at UCLA, and Bharat Jayram Venkat, director of the UCLA Heat Lab, note that this is particularly worrisome given how vulnerable incarcerated people are due to “the locations of jails and prisons, the way they’re built, their general lack of air conditioning and ventilation, the prevalence among prisoners of health conditions that heat can worsen and the use of psychiatric drugs that exacerbate the consequences of heat.”

Big Oil lost ballot battle, but will still fight to drill near California homes. The fossil fuel industry may have dropped a ballot measure to block drilling restrictions, but it’s not going to drop the issue, the editorial board writes: “The oil industry has made it clear that its fight to keep drilling in neighborhoods will continue, only in court instead of on the ballot. It’s still the state’s most powerful lobby and we can expect it to keep using its money and influence to try to get its way.”

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