Biden Should Take Voters’ Concerns About Age Seriously
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Only 47 percent of Democrats want to see Joe Biden on the ballot in 2024, according to the latest Associated Press poll. That’s not because they think he’s done a bad job in office. Democrats tend to like President Biden and continue to give him good marks on handling the economy and foreign policy.
But many Democrats, particularly younger ones, are worried that he will simply be too old to be effective in a second term, which would end when he is 86. “My problem with him running in 2024 is that he’s just so old,” one Democrat told pollsters.
That may be deeply unfair — people age at different rates — and in Mr. Biden’s case, it’s impossible to deny that politics and conspiracy theories, rather than facts, fuel at least some of the concern. But candidates shouldn’t pretend, as Mr. Biden often does, that advanced age isn’t an issue. Mr. Biden is 80 now, the oldest American to serve as president, and even supporters, including the political strategist David Axelrod, have expressed deep worries that his age will be both a political liability in 2024 and a barrier to a successful second term. If Mr. Biden runs again, as he recently said he intends to, questions will persist about his age until he does more to assure voters that he is up to the job.
Mr. Biden’s age makes him an outlier even in an era when the nation’s political leadership is getting older. The current Senate, where the average age is 63.9 years, is the second oldest since 1789. The House, where the average age is 57.5 years, is the third oldest. By comparison, the average age in the United States is 38.8 years.
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Concerns about age — both in terms of fitness for office and being out of touch with the moment — are legitimate, as Mr. Biden acknowledged in an interview in February with ABC News. His standard line, repeated in that interview, is: “The only thing I can say is, ‘Watch me.’”
But Mr. Biden has given voters very few chances to do just that — to watch him — and his refusal to engage with the public regularly raises questions about his age and health.
The usual White House method of demonstrating a president’s mastery is to take tough questions in front of cameras, but Mr. Biden has not taken advantage of that opportunity, as The Times reported on Friday. He has held fewer news conferences and media interviews than most of his modern predecessors. Since 1923, only Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan took fewer questions per month from reporters, and neither represents a model of presidential openness that Mr. Biden should want to emulate. His reticence has created an opening for critics and skeptics.
The president also needs to talk about his health openly and without embarrassment, and to end the pretense that it doesn’t matter. Those who are watching him with an open mind have seen a strong performance this year. His State of the Union address on Feb. 7 shattered the Republican attempts to portray him as doddering. With a passion rarely seen at one of these speeches — let alone in his political history — Mr. Biden presented a remarkably effective defense of his presidency and gave a preview of what is likely to be an imminent re-election campaign.
The Times reported last summer that Mr. Biden’s overall energy level has declined, and he continues to stumble over words in his public appearances. But those flaws alone don’t signal a politician who is too old to run again. His first term, in fact, is already full of accomplishment: The economy has added 12.6 million jobs since he took office, inflation is cooling, and he has signed significant legislation to fight climate change, improve access to health care, and make investments in manufacturing and infrastructure. He has stood up to Russia’s destructive campaign in Ukraine, and rallied the West to Ukraine’s side.
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Nonetheless, as Mr. Biden nears his actuarial life expectancy, concerns about his ability to handle the demands of campaigning and a potential second term are unlikely to disappear. Only a combination of performance and complete candor will change the minds of skeptical voters. Old age remains a sensitive topic, and many people, particularly men, are reluctant to discuss personal infirmities for fear of demonstrating weakness or being pushed aside by impatient younger generations. There is good reason for the federal government’s prohibition of age discrimination in employment — a protection that begins at age 40. Ageism is real.
That law, however, doesn’t apply to people who are running for office. Voters have every right to ask questions about the medical condition of a candidate who wants their support. In 2016 both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton gave the public very few details about their health. (Mr. Trump released a particularly preposterous doctor’s letter claiming he would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”)
Mr. Biden acknowledged during the lead-up to the 2020 campaign that he was “chronologically” old but said it was up to voters to decide whether that was important. In that election, against an opponent who was only four years younger, the answer was clearly no. In November 2021, he released a medical report that said he was a “healthy, vigorous 78-year-old” and noted nothing more serious than a stiffened gait due to spinal changes and some acid reflux that caused him to cough.
His most recent health summary, released on Feb. 16, said much the same thing, describing him as a “healthy, vigorous 80-year-old male who is fit to successfully execute the duties of the presidency.” But his cognitive abilities went unmentioned. That’s something he should discuss publicly and also demonstrate to the voters, who expect the president to reflect the nation’s strength.
If he runs again, Mr. Biden will need to provide explicit reassurance to voters; many of them have seen family members decline rapidly in their 80s. Americans are watching what Mr. Biden says and does, just as he has asked them to do.
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