WASHINGTON — He’s been 198. And just under 103. “Try to be 110,” he joked. Once she was even 270 years old. However, it looks like she is 29.
Jokes aside, as 80-year-old President Joe Biden likes to say, it’s been around a long time.
In the past two weeks, Biden has been making jokes about his age more often than usual, according to an NBC News analysis of his comments.
He delivered a version of the joke—he’s old and he knows it—during events on gun safety and international diplomacy, at fundraisers and in a speech on abortion rights. The most direct approach, as Biden ramps up his re-election campaign, is a shift from the way he typically tried to downplay his age: by pointing out that he’s «been around a long time.»
It also comes as voters are increasingly expressing concern about Biden taking the White House.
A recent NBC News poll found that 68% of registered voters have major or moderate concerns about Biden having the necessary physical and mental health to be president. Biden, the oldest president in US history, who would be 86 at the end of a second term, knows he cannot ignore the problem, his aides said.
As the president’s 80th birthday approached in November, White House officials began looking for ways to humorously downplay the number, according to a former Biden White House official. The conspicuous milestone invited additional media scrutiny of Biden’s age and within the West Wing he began a more deliberate strategy to address it in earnest.
«Joking about age allows you to simultaneously reap the benefits of experience and humorously dispel any doubts about fitness,» the former official said.
The president took the approach of self-deprecating humor after discussions with advisers and allies about how best to try to neutralize his most glaring political weakness, a Biden aide said, since it’s something he can’t change.
Many of the president’s recent age jokes were off-the-cuff, the aide said, adding to prepared remarks Biden makes on the fly when he feels an opportunity to lighten the audience’s mood.
“I know I don’t look that old,” Biden joked at an event on gun violence on June 16. «I’m just under 103.»
White House officials argue that the president’s record answers questions about his age.
“No president has ever come to the job with more experience, and President Biden has parlayed that experience into a record of achievement few presidents have matched,” White House communications director Ben LaBolt said in a statement when he he asked about Biden’s jokes about his age. .
Biden’s use of his age as a punchline appears to have accelerated since June 13, when he told attendees at a White House event for US diplomats that one of his friends told him to address the issue by trying to «connect the age and wisdom.
“I know I look like I’m only 29 years old,” Biden said at the event, drawing laughter from the crowd. «But I’ve been here a long time.»
Since then, the president has deployed various versions of the light-hearted tactic. He has used it most often at campaign fundraisers when he addresses wealthy Democratic donors without the glare of news cameras.
“Many of you have been helping me for a long, long time,” Biden said last week at a fundraiser in Atherton, California. He then called out a longtime and influential Democratic donor in the audience saying, «I go back 217 years, to Joe Cotchett.»
Jokes about the president’s age always draw laughs, transcripts of his comments show. And he often returns to the topic at hand with a single line, «jokes aside.»
“I know I am 198 years old,” Biden told abortion rights activists last Friday as he took executive action aimed at protecting access to contraception. «But jokes aside.»
Claiming last week that he knows as much about US foreign policy as anyone alive, including Henry Kissinger, Biden explained: «That’s what I’ve done all my life, for the last 270 years.»
That’s the older Biden seems to have been done in jest, though at a Social Security and Medicare event in February he said he had served in the US Senate for 270 years, which would have put him at 299.
While he has repeatedly reminded since entering the White House that he was 29 when he was first elected to public office, the youngest Biden appears to have gotten is a bit older. “I’m 34 years old,” he quipped at a recent fundraiser in Connecticut, which, of course, wouldn’t make him old enough to be president.
Biden often uses his line about being around for a long time to highlight something in American politics that he finds highly unusual or particularly vexing. At a recent fundraiser, she mentioned that Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama, withheld military promotions, for example. “I don’t remember it happening before. And I’ve been around. I know I don’t look like I’ve been here,” she said with a laugh. “But I’ve been around. I’ve been here a long time.
Biden has also made light of his age to show empathy. “Many of you are tired,” she said at the June 16 event of repeatedly facing acts of gun violence. «I get it. Try being 110 and doing it again.»
After the laughter and applause subsided, he added, «Jokes aside, a lot of people are frustrated.»
Biden is not the first politician to try to downplay his age. Former President Ronald Reagan and Republican presidential candidates Bob Dole and John McCain did the same when running against younger opponents.
«Controlling public spending is not just about Republicans or Democrats,» McCain said during an appearance on «Saturday Night Live.» “It’s about being able to look your kids in the eye. Or in my case, my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren, the youngest are close to retiring”.
McCain was 71 years old, while his opponent in the general election, Barack Obama, was still 40 years old. Dole, at 73, ran against Bill Clinton, 50, in 1996.
“My cholesterol is better than Clinton’s. My weight is better than Clinton’s. My blood pressure is better than Clinton’s. But I’m not going to make health an issue in this campaign,» Dole once joked.
Reagan, 73, joked during a debate with Democratic candidate Walter Mondale, who was 56, «I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.»
Biden’s political dynamic is a bit different. There is hardly much of an age difference between him and his 2020 rival and potential 2024 opponent, Donald Trump, who is 77 years old. Yet White House officials often complain that Biden is more scrutinized for his age than Trump. In the recent NBC News poll, 55% of registered voters said they have major or moderate concerns about Trump having the mental and physical health necessary to be president, compared to 68% who feel the same about Biden.
Biden also combines a strategy of deliberate spontaneity, peppering his routine remarks with off-the-cuff jokes about his age, and poking fun at himself during high-profile events or speeches where he’s expected to be funny.
The president drew multiple criticisms at his own age during his April remarks at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, beginning with the line «I believe in the First Amendment, not just because my good friend Jimmy Madison wrote it.»
«You say that I am old?» added the president. «I say that I am wise.»