Politics

Biden Won’t Directly Address the 2024 Age Issue


Biden takes an exacting interest in the mechanics of his nascent campaign, insisting on approving advertisements and interviewing would-be staffers. He is, however, less willing to be handled, which makes it difficult for his advisers to raise such a sensitive matter.

Biden has conducted little polling on how to reassure voters about his age, complains bitterly about his intra-party critics who raise the issue in public and is unwilling to consider hearing aids, according to Democrats close to him.

He can’t slow the march of time, of course, and nor can he fully defuse the issue. But Biden can do more than to ad-lib a joke about being 110 years old. His own supporters and lawmakers are all but pleading with him to take the matter seriously, because simply saying “watch me,” as he often retorts when asked about his age, is precisely the problem: people are and it’s still the overriding issue troubling them the most about his candidacy.

Nobody, at least outside Biden’s inner circle, is more acutely aware of the threat posed by the president’s perceived limitations than those Democrats facing difficult reelections themselves, who invariably hear about voters’ alarm about Biden when at home. Rep. Hillary Scholten, who represents a historically Republican slice of Western Michigan, said Biden could be helped by an intraparty challenge because he’d be able to demonstrate his fitness.

“Only positive things could come from an open and competitive primary in the presidential election,” said Scholten, who wants Biden to run again. “It is a detriment to all of us if we are ignoring the concerns of the public around the president’s image.”

Democrats, she said, should “get more people out there, what are we afraid of? It’s problematic that we’re ignoring it. It makes us look out of touch, it makes us look afraid.”

With filing deadlines looming and nearly every ambitious Democrat falling in line behind Biden for fear of weakening him, and their own future prospects, ahead of a rematch against Donald Trump, a full-scale primary is unlikely. Yet Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) is still weighing a bid, and the Democratic lawmaker group texts are filled with admiration that somebody is at least highlighting the donkey in the room — if acknowledging that they could never say so publicly.

While Phillips is not yet ready to embark on a clean-for-Dean candidacy in New Hampshire, he’s warming to the idea ahead of the filing deadline there later this month and would likely plant a flag in the historically quirky state if he runs.

Phillips has telephoned a handful of Democratic strategists with high-level presidential experience to seek their opinions and is pursuing inspiration from an even higher power in the party: he was seen recently in the Capitol toting a copy of John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage.

With Robert F. Kennedy Jr. now embarking on an independent candidacy, the Minnesotan could pose the only challenge Biden faces in New Hampshire, where the president is not competing because of the party’s calendar change but could be the beneficiary of a write-in campaign organized by prominent local Democrats.

Not all House Democrats are so enamored with Phillips’ musings — Rep. Sydney Kamlager-Dove (D-Calif.) upbraided him at a recent caucus meeting, I’m told by attendees. He’s resigned from a junior House leadership position and is now facing the possibility of a primary of his own in his Twin Cities-area district from a member of the Democratic National Committee, an affiliation Phillips does not find coincidental.

Most House Democrats, though, are more anxious about Biden than they are about their colleague from Minnesota.

Last month at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, many lawmakers watched livestreams of focus groups with voters in Nevada and Michigan. Nearly all of them responded to questions about Biden the same way voters do in every focus group: by bringing up his age. (Though one attendee was heartened that the voters also cited Trump’s age and complained that both are too old.)

Every Democratic consultant I’ve talked to in recent weeks said that’s the only refrain they pick up on Biden.

One pollster, who late last month oversaw a focus group of North Carolina swing voters, said the first word or phrase the attendees used about Biden was “some combination of ‘old, slowing down’ or, if they were harsher, ‘dementia or feeble.’”

This pollster had to push participants to get any more impressions of Biden and there was scant recall of his accomplishments.

Democratic lawmakers couldn’t be more direct about how imperative it is for the president to try to assuage voters’ trepidation about his capacity to serve.

“I think you got to be as public as you possibly can in addressing issues, and that’s how you can settle it,” Sen. Jon Tester, the Montana Democrat, said about Biden’s age. “But it’s not going to be easy because he is [going to be] 82 years old.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) was even more to the point. “I think it’s important to confront it.”

Biden’s high command has plainly made a cost-benefit analysis that there’s far less to be gained than there is to lose by increasing the president’s public profile. One strong public performance that few may see would, at this moment in the political calendar, do less to bolster his image than another spill such as the one he suffered earlier this year at the Air Force Academy would exacerbate doubts about his capacity.

He does few interviews, and mostly with friendly interlocutors, rarely holds full-dress news conferences and his aides mitigate his international travel by lightening his schedule after the trips.

Biden has travelled more domestically since announcing his reelection bid because, unlike the internet-dependent Trump, the president must hold in-person fundraisers around the country to build his war chest. That Biden speech honoring the late John McCain in Phoenix, for example, was scheduled in concert with an Arizona fundraiser.

When he’s not on the road for finance trips, many of his messaging events take place in metropolitan Washington or Philadelphia, which he can easily get to from his Delaware home (Biden will, once again, return to Philadelphia this Friday for an economic event).

Biden’s decision to skip the San Francisco memorial service for Dianne Feinstein — his longtime colleague and early 2020 supporter — because it would have required a quick there-and-back surprised Democrats on both coasts.

More worrisome to them than Biden’s travel are his difficulties delivering an effective argument, particularly on the economy. Even when handed good news, as he was last week with the higher-than-expected jobs report, the president is unable to leverage it to make an affirmative case for himself or against Republicans.

Asked by a reporter why, despite the broad availability of work, Americans weren’t feeling better about the economy, Biden didn’t offer an empathetic response about the cost-of-living challenge posed by inflation. And he didn’t use the question to lash Republicans for their lack of solutions or ties to detested special interests. He answered by grumbling about press coverage and recounting an old saw about a dog in a lake.

Yes, Biden being Biden, he may have offered the same answer 20 years ago. Yet he wouldn’t have looked and sounded like he did last week — and the political moment wouldn’t have demanded that he, yes, do better.

To all this, Biden defenders can be counted on to trot out the argument that his critics have been mostly wrong about his political and legislative prospects since early 2019, before he even entered the primary. Said argument has the added value of being mostly true.

Yet like the claim that, because he beat Trump once he’s best suited to do so again, this argument is compelling right up until the moment it’s not.

In their more honest moments, even the most dedicated Biden defenders not on his payroll will nervously wonder if in the future they’ll look back at this moment and realize that the electorate had concluded he was too old for another term —- and he ignored the flashing red lights to barrel ahead anyway.

Most Democrats, though, are more fixated on the here and now and how exactly Biden can assuage doubts about his fitness. Of course, there’s no consensus on what he can do.

Some prefer a light touch, Ronald Reagan in that 1984 debate joking about Walter Mondale’s “youth and inexperience,” but with more consistency.

“Reagan didn’t go to Georgetown and give an hourlong address about the issue,” said Paul Begala, the longtime Democratic strategist.

Other influential Democrats, though, believe Biden owes the electorate more than humor.

One figure with extensive West Wing experience said the president should sit for a “60 Minutes” interview with the first lady and take every question about his age directly, explaining that they love the country and would never embark on another race if he was not up for it.

It may all seem like so much advice from the gallery, the same crowd that Biden likes to say never really got him, man.

At some point, though, Biden will need to grapple directly with the question: How can you assure the country you’re capable of serving another four-year term?

The president likes to cite the old line from former Boston Mayor Kevin White — compare me to the alternative not the Almighty — but I’m reminded of the bumper sticker from when the ethically flexible Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards was running against Klansman David Duke: “Vote for the Crook: It’s Important.”

Next year, it may be Biden running against the crook, and perhaps one about to be sentenced, but will he be willing to say: Vote for the Codger: It’s Important?



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