For an aging president, a birthday with a bite
By Peter Baker
For many of a certain age, there comes a point when marking yet another birthday, taking note of yet another passage of the calendar, is not greeted with the same enthusiasm it once was. And that’s for people who are not even running for president.
For President Joe Biden, who turned 81 Monday, another birthday may bring more liability than revelry, offering one more reminder of his age to an already skeptical electorate. Unlike other presidents who have celebrated birthdays with lavish political events, Biden plans to observe his milestone privately with family in Nantucket, Massachusetts, later this week.
The best birthday gift the oldest president in American history could hope for would be a strategy for assuaging voters’ concerns, but that has been hard to come by. Biden and his team have taken the approach that his record of domestic legislation and international leadership should belie any worries about his capacity, even though polls have shown consistently that that line of argument has not been persuasive, at least not yet.
Some Democrats argue that Biden needs to do more to draw the contrast with his likeliest Republican challenger, former President Donald Trump, who at 77 has exhibited confusion in public lately. Trump has warned that the country is on the verge of World War II, mixed up the leaders of Hungary and Turkey, and boasted of beating former President Barack Obama in the polls when of course Obama is not running. If Trump wins next year and serves out four years, he would take over the status as the country’s oldest president.
Others, including some current and former administration officials, said Biden’s staff members should stop treating him like an old man they do not trust and let him interact with the public and reporters more. Some said the president needed to start getting out on the campaign trail more to show his vigor, deploy more humor to defuse the matter and even boast about his age rather than ignore it.
Others, however, said he needed to be protected even more, allowed more time to rest and not sent on so many draining international trips — what some cheekily call the “Bubble Wrap” strategy, as in encasing him in Bubble Wrap for the next 12 months to make sure he does not trip and fall.
If some of this is contradictory, it may be because there is no easy answer, much as Democrats have been obsessing about Biden’s age. One thing the White House cannot do is make him younger. In a recent New York Times/Siena College poll of battleground states, 71% said Biden was “too old” to be president, including 54% of his own supporters. By contrast, 39% said that about Trump.
“He doesn’t look and speak the part,” said John Judis, a longtime political analyst and author with Ruy Teixeira of “Where Have All the Democrats Gone?” published earlier this month. “He’s not a commanding or charming presence on a presidential or presidential election stage.”
Judis said he thought Biden had demonstrated “astonishing success” in passing major legislation building infrastructure, lowering the cost of medicine and combating climate change, and added that he planned to vote for the president. But he noted that presidents were expected to be both the head of government and the head of state — a prime minister and a king, if you will — and that the public performance part had eluded Biden.
“I think a lot of voters, and young people in particular, who are not at all put off by his political positions or accomplishments, are put off by his utter failure as a regal persona,” Judis said. “And I don’t know how that can be fixed. Not by bicycling. Biden’s best hope in that regard is the voters’ perception of Trump as a bad or even evil father who wants to wreck the family.”
Nothing irritates White House officials more than discussion of Biden’s age, which they view as an obsession of the news media that does not correspond with the energetic and mentally sharp president they describe inside the Oval Office. While Biden shuffles when he walks, talks in a low tone that can be hard to hear and sometimes confuses names and details in public, they note that he maintains a crushing schedule that would tire a younger president.
In the past few weeks alone, he has devoted countless hours to managing the Israel war with Hamas while also hosting separate summit meetings with leaders from Asia, Europe and the Western Hemisphere. He made a one-day trip to Israel, flying across the world and back without stopping in a hotel room, and they said he has worked the phone endlessly to deal with high-stakes foreign crises.
Asked about his forthcoming birthday, the White House did not directly address the age issue Sunday but chose to focus on the president’s accomplishments, making the point that his long experience in Washington has paid off.
“Because of President Biden’s decades of experience in public service and deep relationships with leaders in Congress, he passed legislation that has helped to create more than 14 million jobs, lower prescription drug costs, invest in America’s infrastructure and technology and led to the strongest economic recovery in the developed world,” Ben LaBolt, the White House communications director, said in a statement.
Some party strategists argued that age had dominated the discussion about Biden lately in part because the president had not yet fully engaged in the contest against Trump. At the end of the day, they said, Democrats and independents who may be leery of a president who would be 86 at the end of a second term will conclude that it is better to support an octogenarian they agree with than another soon-to-be octogenarian they consider a threat to democracy, abortion rights and other issues that matter to them.