When he did not attend a dinner during the NATO summit in Lithuania earlier this month, attendees said he was preparing for meetings and a major speech the next day, noting that he had already been abroad for four days. She did not show up for a dinner with her counterparts in Bali last fall.
When asked about the missed dinners, White House aides said their absence had nothing to do with fatigue. They said Biden must attend to domestic matters many time zones away, even when she is abroad. In Bali, they pointed to his efforts to mount a unified Allied response in the middle of the night when it looked like a Russian missile might have hit Poland as proof that he wasn’t exhausted by his travels.
In any case, said Jonathan Finer, White House deputy national security adviser, “dining at these events is about building relationships. He has done the job over a long period of time. to build these relationships off the top. So it’s less important for him to spend downtime with the other leaders than it is for people who are newer to the scene or haven’t invested in building these relationships.»
Other age-compensating measures are logistical and probably familiar to many who have reached a certain stage in life: extra-large print on your teleprompter and note cards to remind you of points you want to make in meetings.
Republicans see Biden’s age as a vulnerability they want to exploit. Trump has posted a video of Biden falling off his bike and stumbling during the graduation ceremony. In private meetings, Biden’s political operation has strategized on the best ways to deflect that line of attack, a former White House official said. The allies floated the idea of hosting a large 80th birthday party, for example, last November to show he was openly embracing the milestone rather than shying away from it, a person familiar with the matter said. But Biden opted to continue his tradition of a small family gathering over Jeni’s ice cream.
Biden has also begun to joke about his age in a self-deprecating way, while emphasizing that with longevity comes a certain wisdom of life. The advisers see it as a selling point that they will emphasize throughout the campaign.
“Joe Biden’s age is his superpower, and as I’ve seen firsthand, his fastball is as good as ever,” said Jeffrey Katzenberg, the movie mogul and Biden campaign co-chairman.
It doesn’t hurt that Biden is heading towards a rematch with Trump. Trump’s own fitness was called into question during his tenure when he staggered down a ramp at West Point and used both hands to drink a glass of water. A physical exam released in 2019 showed Trump was clinically obese at 243 pounds, though he was generally in «very good» health, according to his doctor.
“As someone who just turned 80, I strongly believe that we need someone younger, whether it’s on the Democratic or Republican side,” said Dan Coats, a former director of national intelligence in the Trump administration who once served with Biden in the Senate. “The weight of the world falls on the shoulders of the president, and right now we have two disabled presidents,” Coats added, referring to Biden and Trump. «Age plays a big factor in this, and people have to think about what the next generation will provide.»
Running for president is exhausting for even the most active candidates. Rare are those who make it through the gauntlet unscathed. Biden largely escaped the ordeal during the 2020 campaign because Covid-19 limited most in-person events. Now, ownership brings you conveniences that ease the burden of campaigning: no serious headline challenges, helicopters and caravans that fly you from place to place, and extensive 24-hour support staff.
Biden receives the most attentive medical care imaginable, and his annual physicals have revealed no serious health problems. However, his doctor, Kevin O’Connor, is always watching him «like a hawk, whether he wants to or not,» according to a close adviser.
Still, advisers dismiss the idea that he’s encased in bubble wrap, insulated from the demands of the job. They cite cases where Biden woke up to a new crisis; leafing through briefing documents and taking handwritten notes in the margins; and cheering his staff on long flights home on Air Force One to talk business.
Around 7 or 8 p.m., attendants drop you a couple hundred pages of reading material, then give you updates by 7:30 a.m.
Stefanie Feldman, the White House staff secretary, describes a moment during the marathon flight home from Biden’s meetings on the NATO trip when she unexpectedly returned to the staff cabin.
The attendees were “passed out from exhaustion,” he said, and “the president came out and wanted to thank everyone for their work. He was kicking people to wake them up and compromise with the president, who wanted to compromise with his staff. If only he had the energy of an 80-year-old President Biden.”
Marty Walsh, the former labor secretary, recalled a case in 2021 when he was traveling with Biden to an event at a Hummer plant in Michigan, and the president began dictating revisions to his planned speech without thinking.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I wish more people could see this,’” he said.
“The president doesn’t fall every day, from yelling out loud,” Walsh continued. “If you’ve ever given him a hug, you’re going to feel like the man is solid. He is in good shape”.
In a social media era where presidential slip-ups are the source of viral videos, Biden’s advisers acknowledge he has little room for error. Any president can forget a name or place, mess up a sentence, or stumble over a tripping hazard. And they have. With Biden, displays of fragility will surely receive increased scrutiny given the propensity of many voters believe that I shouldn’t run again.
Advisers acknowledge this dynamic, as well as the political cost of the next awkward moment.
They gave a collective groan as Biden went down at the Air Force Academy, knowing the episode would not soon be forgotten. It turned out that the sandbag had been camouflaged to make it inconspicuous and easier to miss, a senior White House aide said.
“It happened in seconds,” another attendee said, “but it will be in front of us for months and maybe years.”