Sunday, May 26

Opinion | Biden’s Age Is a Campaign Problem, Not a Governing One

Last fall I found myself at a dinner party that included a former Biden administration official and a Democratic donor, and the conversation turned, naturally, to President Biden’s age and his prospects for re-election. The ex-official said that from inside the White House, where people experience the policymaking process firsthand, Biden was overwhelmingly seen as an effective leader who should run again. The donor, on the other hand, saw Biden mostly at the fund-raisers where watching the president’s meandering speeches left him terrified about the upcoming campaign. The gulf in their perceptions, I think, speaks to the fact that Biden’s age has impaired his ability to campaign much more than his ability to govern, which has created an impossible dilemma for the Democratic Party.

I have argued since 2022 that Biden shouldn’t run again because he’s too old, but there’s never been much sign that his advanced age affects his performance in office. I’m not aware of any leaks from the White House suggesting that Biden is confused, exhausted or forgetful when setting priorities or making decisions. It’s not just Democratic partisans who find Biden more impressive up close than his frail, halting image in the media would suggest. As Politico reported of the ousted House speaker Kevin McCarthy, “On a particularly sensitive matter, McCarthy mocked Biden’s age and mental acuity in public, while privately telling allies that he found the president sharp and substantive in their conversations.” There are obviously things Biden does that I disagree with; I wish he’d take a much harder line with Israel over civilian casualties in Gaza. But while his reluctance to publicly criticize Israel might stem from an anachronistic view of the country — Biden likes to talk about the Labor Zionist prime minister Golda Meir, who left office 50 years ago — his position is a mainstream one in the Democratic Party and can’t be attributed to senescence.

Because Biden has delivered on many Democratic priorities, there was never any real push within the party to get him to step aside, forfeiting the advantages of incumbency in favor of a potentially bruising primary contest. But it’s obvious to most people watching the president from afar that he looks fragile and diminished and that his well-known propensity for gaffes has gotten worse. Poll after poll shows that voters are very concerned about his age. That’s why the special counsel Robert Hur’s gratuitous swipes at Biden as someone who might seem to a jury like a “sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” have caused an epic freakout among Democrats. His words brought to the surface deep, terrifying doubts about Biden’s ability to do the one part of his job that matters above all others, which is beating Donald Trump.

That’s true even though the report by Hur, a former Trump appointee tapped by Merrick Garland to investigate Biden’s handling of classified documents, looks like a partisan hit job. (Democratic attorneys general have a terrible habit of appointing Republican special counsels in an effort to display their own impartiality — a type of moral preening that Republican administrations rarely fall victim to.) With Hur deciding not to charge Biden with any crimes, his comments about Biden’s age, particularly his claim that Biden couldn’t remember the year his son Beau died, seemed designed to shiv him politically. If so, it worked.

Some Democrats are now comparing the media fixation on Biden’s age to the saturation coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails eight years ago, and there are similarities. Betty Friedan wrote that “housewifery expands to fill the time available,” and the same is true of bad political news. Trump’s scandals are so multifarious that each one tends to get short shrift, while his opponents’ weaknesses and missteps can be examined at length precisely because there are fewer of them. This asymmetry worked to Trump’s advantage in 2016, and it’s helping him now.

But there’s also a crucial difference between Clinton’s emails and Biden’s years. Clinton’s vulnerability was never really about her insufficient care with information security protocols. Instead, the emails became a symbol of a powerful but inchoate sense, magnified by disproportionate press attention, that she was devious and deceptive. Biden’s age is a much more straightforward issue; people think he’s too old because of how he looks and sounds. Pretending it’s not a problem isn’t going to make voters worry about it less; it’s just going to make them feel they’re being lied to.

Instead, Biden’s campaign should be candid about the challenges of aging — which, of course, the increasingly incoherent Trump shares — while doing its best to demonstrate that Biden’s judgment and grasp of complicated issues are still strong. That means doing a lot more interviews and events, especially those focused on policy questions, letting the American people see the version of Biden visible to those who work with him. He’ll almost certainly make plenty of verbal slips, but as they pile up, they might start to seem like old news, especially if he’s not defensive about them.

And if he’s not up for a major change in strategy? It might sound extreme, but in that case, he should find some medical pretext to step aside in time for a replacement to be chosen at the Democratic convention. Biden’s greatest contribution to this country was saving us from another Trump term. If his unwillingness to face his own limitations now clears the way for Trump’s restoration, it will be not just a mistake but a tragedy.