WASHINGTON — Time and time again, Democratic voters who endorsed Joe Biden in the the party’s 2020 primary and now they want him to step aside citing the same overriding reason: age.
“Biden is too old,” a woman in her 60s told NBC News pollsters in a survey released earlier this month, ahead of her announcement Tuesday making her 2024 campaign official.
“Too old,” said a man in his 70s.
“He’ll be 86 when I’m done,” said a woman in her 50s, noting how old Biden would be if he wins re-election and serves a second term. «We need new people there.»
As the oldest president in history is running for re-election (Biden is 80), age looms as one of his most glaring vulnerabilities. Republicans are weighing how far to take the issue in the 2024 campaign without alienating older Americans who tend to be reliable voters. At this early stage in the race, Republicans seem divided on whether they can cast doubt on Biden’s longevity.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, RS.C., an ally of former President Donald Trump, said of Biden: “I’m not going to say he’s too old. I will say that his policies are not working. If he was 35 years old, they would not be working ”.
Inside the White House, aides acknowledge that an octogenarian boss poses a unique dilemma. They can’t make him younger without a «time machine,» as one White House adviser ruefully noted. Instead, what they have done is try to show that the president is active and fit. Biden wears a pair of aviator sunglasses at all times. A video posted announcing his re-election campaign carries a snippet of him run in his suit jacket. (From the video montage, of course, there is missing footage of Biden stumbling on the steps of Air Force One or fall off your bike in Delaware).
The White House has produced a spreadsheet showing that Biden’s travel schedule for the first four months of the year, including an unannounced visit to war zone Ukraine in February, dwarfed that of a much younger president, Barack Obama, in a comparable period in the 2012 campaign.
«No, I don’t. I thought about it carefully before I decided to run. And I feel good,» Biden said Wednesday at a joint news conference with his South Korean counterpart Yoon Suk Yeol. .
Donald Trump, now 76, and allied political action committees spent millions on ads focused on Biden’s age in 2020, with little to show for it: Trump lost. But Trump is persistent in portraying Biden as diminished. Another GOP presidential candidate, Nikki Haley, 51, introduced a proposal to give politicians over the age of 75 (both Biden and Trump fit that bill) a mental competency test.
As tempting as it is to highlight Biden’s age, Republicans cannot hope to return to the White House on that alone, some GOP strategists warn. The issue of abortion rights boosted Democratic turnout in the midterm elections last year and also looks to be a stimulant issue in 2024. If the election comes down to Biden and Trump, Democrats may swallow any misgivings about Biden with the hope of quashing any return of the twice-accused ex-president.
“I would caution Republicans about thinking this [Biden’s age] it’s a silver bullet or even likely to be decisive in 2024,” said Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Liberty coalition and longtime Republican strategist.
A central argument of the White House is that Biden’s age is not a liability but a strength. With age comes judgment that a younger president cannot match, as Biden’s advisers see it.
“You had to have this kind of experience and wisdom when you see what happened in Ukraine and you form a coalition to repel [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s aggression,» said Ron Klain, Biden’s former White House chief of staff, referring to Biden’s response to Russia’s invasion of his Democratic neighbor more than a year ago. “I think with his age comes a lot of experience, a lot of wisdom. I think that wisdom has served the American people very well.»
One drawback of a political career spanning half a century, however, is that voters can see for themselves the imprint of advancing age.
A Democratic lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss Biden’s age, said: “You see him sometimes and there’s no denying he’s 80 years old. He makes you worry. You want to make sure he doesn’t fall. You want to protect it. I feel like I’m close to a grandparent where you’re just appreciating the last bit of time you have with them.»
In a word cloud generated from polling responses given to NBC News by 44% of Democratic primary voters who said Biden should not run again, the phrases that stood out were «too old,» «too old,» «, «younger», «mental». health” and “ineffective”.
One reason for the lackluster evaluation may be that Biden’s broader message isn’t getting across, his advisers say. Most people don’t seem well versed in what the White House considers historic achievements, having only a slim majority in Congress for the first two years of his term, and now a divided Congress.
He has promoted transformative changes in the law that will help move the US away from fossil fuels, modernize roads and bridges and lower the prices of prescription drugs, the Democratic strategists argue.
“That’s what’s so frustrating,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who worked with Biden’s 2020 campaign and who is not participating in the NBC poll. “We have been in this presidency for three years and the people have not seen the results. Half the people can’t name anything”, Biden has achieved.
If the Biden campaign can better convey his record, Lake said, «it’s a double: Results are what we have to get to get re-elected, and results are the biggest antidote to [questions about Biden’s] age.»
Infrastructure projects often take years to complete. However, high inflation and gasoline prices continue to be front and center. The NBC News poll suggests just 38% of adults approved of Biden’s handling of the economy. If that number were to improve, voters would be more inclined to overlook Biden’s age, the Democratic strategists said.
«People don’t care how old someone is if they feel like their president is doing things for them and making a difference in their lives,» said Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt, who conducted the NBC News poll along with Republican pollster Bill McInturff. “People don’t wake up in the morning saying Joe Biden is old. They wake up in the morning saying, ‘I need to support my family and feel good about my future.’”
To complicate matters, there is a saga involving Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D.-Calif. At 89 and having lost dozens of votes, Feinstein is facing calls to resign. Her prolonged absence from the Senate is a useless reminder of what happens when older politicians refuse to stand down, a Biden ally said.
“Feinstein has raised concerns about age and I think it is hurting us,” said the ally, speaking on condition of anonymity to speak more freely. «It’s part of the background that he’s made people think, ‘Look, some people are too old.'»
A reassuring reality for Democrats is that age has not proven to be a winning message. Ronald Reagan, at 73, memorably dodged questions about his age when he said during a presidential debate with Democrat Walter Mondale in 1984 that he would not exploit, «for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.» .
Reagan was happy to be photographed chopping wood on his Santa Barbara ranch and riding a horse to show he was still going strong, even after an assassination attempt in his first year in office. He won re-election in a landslide.
Trump himself had trouble putting the theme together in the 2020 race. The Trump campaign spent more than $3 million airing a 30-second ad that focused squarely on Biden’s cognitive status and health.
“Joe Biden does not have the strength, stamina, and mental toughness to lead this country,” a narrator says against a backdrop of unflattering images of Biden.
The voters seemed impassive; they had their own reservations about Trump’s physical condition.
A NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll published the month before the 2020 election asked voters whether Biden or Trump would be better when it comes to the mental and physical health needed to be president. They rated about the same: 41% preferred Biden; 40%, Trump.
«Who is the most trusted voting bloc in America? It’s older Americans,» said a national Republican strategist involved in the 2024 presidential race, speaking anonymously to speak more freely. «The idea that we are going to attack people because they are old is not very good politics.»