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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The White House brushed off questions about Biden’s age. Then the debate happened.

Biden, 81, admitted Friday that he is no longer a young man and that he has lost a step debating, even as he made a more forceful case for himself at an energized rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, than he had on the debate stage in Atlanta the night before. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

By Peter Baker

Ever since President Joe Biden announced last year that he would run again, those in his inner circle closed ranks and brushed off the obvious question: No, they insisted, he was not too old to seek reelection.

The news media, they said, was unfairly fixated on his age. Republicans were posting wildly distorted video clips on social media making him look more feeble than he actually is. Hand-wringing Democrats fretting over the prospect of an octogenarian president turning 86 by the end of a second term were just “bed-wetters.”

Then the debate happened. And now the days of denial at the White House are over. No longer can the president’s confidants simply wave away concerns about his capacity after his unsteady performance at Thursday night’s showdown with former President Donald Trump. Struggling to contain a brushfire of alarm within the Democratic Party, his team is now forced to confront the issue head on.

Biden, 81, admitted Friday that he is no longer a young man and that he has lost a step debating, even as he made a more forceful case for himself at an energized rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, than he had on the debate stage in Atlanta the night before. The Biden team seized on validation from Democratic allies such as former President Barack Obama and U.S. Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina to reject calls on the president to cede the nomination to a younger candidate.

But many distressed Democrats, including some in his own administration, were left wondering how it had come to this and, fairly or not, faulted the president’s team for letting it happen: How could those closest to Biden not have talked him out of running? How could they have agreed to debate knowing that he might stumble so badly? How could they not have prepared him better for the predictable challenges during a week hidden away at Camp David?

“Last night was kind of shocking because we’d heard they’d been preparing and so on,” David Axelrod, who was a senior adviser to Obama, said Friday morning. “And the first 10 minutes were a disaster, and it’s hard to understand how that happened.” As it turned out, he added, “this was a great opportunity to allay people’s concerns and it had the opposite effect.”

Until now, Biden’s allies have often gone after those who raised questions about the president’s age. When the special counsel Robert Hur decided not to press charges against Biden for mishandling classified documents, he issued a report explaining that one factor was that the president would strike a jury as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.” Biden’s team excoriated Hur for going beyond the bounds of his job and unfairly denigrating the president.

Axelrod was among those Democrats who had long warned of the risks of running a presidential candidate who got his start in national politics the same year that the video game Pong was introduced, candor that earned him the pique of Biden’s advisers.

But Axelrod said in an interview Friday that he did not want to second-guess them. “I’m not going to disparage their thinking,” he said. Age is “a funny thing,” he said, and “it may be at the time they were saying what they were saying that he was in a different place.”

When it comes to his age, Biden can present differently depending on the moment. The two views were on display in the two events Thursday and Friday, and they were, much like their timing, a case of night and day.

The fired-up Biden at the Raleigh rally was the one that his closest advisers see — the one with the energy to travel nine time zones from an international summit to a political fundraiser, the one who asks sharp questions and grills unprepared aides, the one who makes wise decisions on difficult policy issues and stands up for decency against a demagogue.

The tamped-down Biden onstage in Atlanta the night before was the one his advisers do not like to see, or choose not to — the one who shuffles to the lectern, mangles his words, loses his train of thought, makes mystifying comments and stares blankly with his mouth agape rather than projecting the aura of authority and strength expected of a commander in chief.

“I think the problem is this is episodic,” said Elaine Kamarck, who worked in the White House under President Bill Clinton and is a longtime member of the Democratic National Committee. She recalled sitting just feet from Biden at an event last spring and being impressed with how masterful he was at discussing policy, remembering names and speaking without notes.

“I thought this man doesn’t have dementia, this man is fine,” she said. “That man was not the man on television last night, unfortunately. I think the problem is it comes and goes and, at this stage of life, people have good days and bad days, and, unfortunately, he had a very bad night last night.”

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