Joe Biden met Keir Starmer at the White House. It was uncomfortable to watch

Today, the 61-year-old new prime minister of the UK and a man old enough to be his father met at the White House to discuss the defense capabilities of much of the world. This was the first official sitdown meeting between Keir Starmer and Joe Biden — the former just days into his premiership, having won the election on the 4th of July; the latter currently fighting both the opposition and a sizeable portion of his own party in the lead-up to a November election — but not the first time they’ve talked. Biden spoke on the phone to Starmer at length following Labour’s landslide victory (a call that was broadcast on Starmer’s Instagram in a very West Wing manner). He also shared a handshake and some brief words with the PM at the NATO family photo and summit earlier.

The Oval Office sitdown was a little more cozy. Starmer reportedly brought along an Arsenal shirt to gift the president during their talks (making Biden the most controversial fan since Osama bin Laden) and though the shirt was nowhere to be seen in the room, football was on the agenda. Biden opened with a joke, saying that the soccer news — the very recent England semi-final win against the Netherlands — was “all because of the prime minister”. They batted that around that idea for a few seconds — there hadn’t been an England semi-final win while the Tories were in power, and so on and so forth — until it became stale and Starmer moved on the conversation with, “I thought we had a really good meeting today at NATO.”

“Very good,” Biden concurred, but didn’t add much more than that.

Starmer then cycled through the usual stuff a British prime minister has to say at an event like this – it’s good to have “a bigger NATO, a stronger NATO, with the resolve that we need”; the US and the UK have a “very special relationship” — while Biden mainly nodded along. One had the sense that Starmer was somewhat guiding him in conversation, as he then prompted the president to talk about giving Jens Stoltenberg the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“I don’t think he was expecting that,” Starmer said, charitably prompting the president to describe the moment he bestowed the honor upon the NATO secretary general.

“He’s still in a job,” he then joked. Apparently mishearing, Biden replied, “He’s done a great job, great job…” and trailed off.

Though the president appeared on much better form than he did during the debate or on ABC News, his frailty in comparison with Starmer was pronounced. He got in a couple of jokes and some nice turns of phrase, but they often came out a little stilted or a little late. Starmer — admittedly riding high from an electoral victory but also undoubtedly jetlagged, and hardly the most charismatic politician to have ever entered the world stage — seemed comparatively bursting with energy.

In the UK, Starmer represents hope and optimism after 14 years of increasingly bizarre Conservative rule. And indeed, he has much in common with his American counterpart. Starmer ran on a very Biden-esque platform: a firmly centrist “return to normalcy”, a winding-back of right-wingers’ worst excesses and a reinstatement of basic economic fairness. Boring, middle-aged white men in suits are so often the safe beacons around which both countries tend to gather themselves during tumultuous times.

The US now finds itself subject to an election being fought between Old Man Yells at Cloud About Immigrants and Old Man Who Would Yell at a Cloud if his Throat Wasn’t So Sore. Biden has spent the past couple weeks since his disastrous debate trying desperately to reassure the nation. It isn’t working.

Once upon a time, Republicans were all about targeted interventionism and America The Policeman of the World. But this week, as the summit was hosted in Washington, they echoed the isolationist rhetoric of Trump. They stamped their feet about other NATO members not paying enough. They made silly asides about European social care supposedly being financed by American taxpayers. That medal must be weighing heavily around Stoltenberg’s neck; while he is indeed still in a job, he might not be for long if Trump wins the 2024 election.

If you’ve ever suffered from imposter syndrome in your own career, just remember that an 81-year-old man who needs directions to the podium thinks he can probably handle another four years in the most powerful job in the world. And honestly, wouldn’t we all like to hand the nomination to sweet-seeming, good-hearted Joe Biden, the way Keir Starmer handed him this media appearance? Wouldn’t we, if it meant nothing?

The fact of the matter, however, is that it very much means something. Most likely, Biden staying at the top of the ticket means Trump. Trump means telling Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” with NATO members who don’t pay enough money. Trump means policies sold to the highest bidders, oil barons courted, abortion bans and the resultant, inevitable deaths. It would be easy to let this man — sitting comfortably in that seat in the Oval Office, smiling that megawatt smile, comfortable but coasting — ride right into the election. But would it be right?


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