by Niall Stanage - 09/06/23 6:00 AM ET
The issue of President Biden’s age isn’t going anywhere.
Concerns around the oldest president in history are growing sharper, if anything, as he begins his reelection campaign in earnest.
A NewsNation/Decision Desk HQ poll released Tuesday found 80 percent of respondents saying they were “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about Biden’s ability to serve effectively during a possible second term, given his age.
If the president wins reelection, he will be 82 at the time of his second inauguration and 86 at the conclusion of his term. The next-oldest president at the end of his term was President Reagan, who left office in January 1989 aged 77.
Tuesday’s poll showed even 60 percent of Democrats expressing concern about Biden’s capacity to serve a second term.
Those findings were broadly in line with an Associated Press/NORC poll released last week, which found 77 percent of adults believe Biden is too old to effectively serve a second term; 69 percent of Democrats shared that view.
“The problem with Biden being 80 is that he is acting more and more like a senior citizen without all of his faculties,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor emeritus who specializes in political communications.
Biden’s general demeanor, Berkovitz added, “reinforces that he is an old 80-year-old, not a spry, competent 80-year-old.”
The polling numbers on age will worry the president’s allies given the range of other problems that he faces.
Biden’s approval ratings are mediocre, and the public has so far proven resistant to giving him credit for his economic record, despite the White House’s best efforts.
Biden’s economic management has legitimate bright spots, including historically low levels of unemployment. But the scars inflicted when inflation reached its highest level since the early 1980s last year have not been erased, even though the pace of price rises has slowed markedly since then.
Meanwhile, the age issue will be eagerly amplified by political opponents and their media allies if Biden makes any slip-ups during a taxing election campaign.
The template has already been established in the extensive coverage given to Biden’s fall at a U.S. Air Force Academy graduation event in Colorado in early June.
Verbal misfires — as when he twice in 24 hours referred to the war “in Iraq,” when he meant “in Ukraine” earlier this year — deepen the perception problem.
A new book about Biden by Franklin Foer, “The Last Politician,” has generated its own share of headlines about the president’s age. The book depicts Biden complaining about his staff cleaning up a comment he made during a speech in Warsaw, Poland, last year.
Biden had implied that Russian President Vladimir Putin would have to be removed from power. His aides later clarified that the United States was not calling for regime change in Moscow.
“Rather than owning his failure, he fumed to his friends about how he was treated like a toddler. Was John Kennedy ever babied like that?” Foer writes.
At Tuesday’s White House media briefing, Fox News correspondent Peter Doocy noted again that Biden was the oldest president in history and asked press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, “Why does White House staff treat him like a baby?”
Jean-Pierre responded, “No one treats the president of the United States, the commander in chief, like a baby. That’s a ridiculous claim.”
The press secretary went on to assert that, in relation to the war in Ukraine, Biden’s age was actually an asset.
“The value of his experience and wisdom resulted in rallying the free world against authoritarianism,” she said.
This is an argument made in broad terms by Biden himself, and by outside allies.
Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg told this column: “What we’ve learned with President Biden is that age is both an asset and a liability. The liability is obvious, but with age comes wisdom and experience. It has allowed Biden to be a very successful president in a very rancorous and challenging time.”
Rosenberg further asserted that Biden’s experience was partly responsible for him “being able to pass ten years’ worth of legislation in just two years” before Republicans took control of the House this January.
Concerns about Biden’s age could also become at least a degree less damaging if former President Trump becomes the GOP nominee, as looks likely for the moment.
Trump, 77, is just three years younger than Biden.
Most polls, including the NewsNation/Decision Desk HQ and Associated Press/NORC surveys, show fewer voters to be as concerned with age in relation to Trump, however.
Still, the former president’s extreme divisiveness and high unfavorably ratings could give Biden an advantage he would not have against a younger, less polarizing opponent.
Some independent observers also contend that the media focus on Biden’s age is excessive.
Danielle Vinson, a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University, argued: “There has been a lot of partisan coverage in conservative media that focuses on every gaffe that he makes. But, quite honestly, every president makes gaffes, and some of them are quite young when they do so. George W. Bush had an interesting relationship with the English language, for example.”
Though that may be true, the numbers in recent polls tell their own story.
Biden’s best hope is to try to show his vigor, and to hope concerns about his age will be supplanted by other topics.
But if his age becomes a disqualifying factor for even a sliver of voters, it could spell deep trouble for his reelection hopes.