White House again forced into damage control effort to dispel concerns about Biden’s age

It’s the recurring threat President Joe Biden’s reelection bid will never be able to fully outrun.

The White House was forced into a fresh damage control effort Wednesday to defend the 81-year-old commander in chief’s acuity as he embarked on a grueling foreign trip and as the race gets nastier by the day.

The latest episode was sparked by a Wall Street Journal article that cited descriptions – disputed by the White House – of the president’s state of mind and fitness from what it described as more than 45 interviews with both Democrats and Republicans. The president was depicted as speaking so softly in one meeting about Ukraine that he was almost unintelligible to some participants. Other sources questioned whether he was fully in command of key details of his own policies.

Democrats accused Republicans quoted or referred to in the account of making false claims and contradicting previous statements to damage Biden politically. Washington Sen. Patty Murray, for instance, complained on X that her comments to the Journal about the president’s strong engagement in a meeting on Ukraine in January were not used by the paper.

Biden has managed to tamp down previous kerfuffles over his age and capabilities this year with a robust public performance at his State of the Union address in March. He so surpassed Republican expectations that some in the party absurdly flipped from portraying him as doddering and incompetent to suggesting he must be drugged up.

But all it takes is one halting on-camera moment or media report to revive the frenzy over Biden’s age. This was inevitable as soon as the president decided to run for a second term that would begin when he is 82 and would end when he’s 86.

Biden’s team habitually dismisses any concern over his capacity, and his doctors have certified him fit for duty. Democrats often claim this is an issue hyped up by the media, while pointing out that presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump isn’t young either – he turns 78 next week. This particular Wall Street Journal article may be a Beltway drama that isn’t occupying the minds of most voters. But they are concerned about Biden’s age. And the question of the president’s fitness for office is a legitimate one even if Republican efforts to portray him as weak and incoherent have obvious political motivations.

In an ABC News/Ipsos poll in February, for instance, 86% of Americans thought Biden was too old to serve another term. That included 59% of Americans who thought both he and Trump were too old and 27% who thought only Biden was too old.

Voters can also see it for themselves. The president has clearly slowed in office. He does often speak quietly and mangle his words more than he did even as a gaffe-prone senator and vice president. The job of commander in chief is one of the most exacting in the world, involves constant life-and-death decisions and comes with no genuine days off.

Public speculation about the capacity of the president is also a highly sensitive issue — and is often indulged in by pundits with no medical expertise. Millions of Americans have some familiarity with the indignities of aging. That may offer Biden some sympathy, but it’s also a reason why many have concerns about an octogenarian serving as commander in chief.

Biden defiant about his capabilities

Biden — who was one of the youngest senators in US history and is now its oldest sitting president — bristles when asked whether he’s too old to be president, or would be late in his second term when he’d reach his mid 80s. “I can do it better than anybody you know. You’re looking at me, I can take you too,” Biden quipped to a reporter in a recent Time Magazine interview. “Watch me. Look, name me a president that’s gotten as much done as I’ve gotten done in my first three and a half years.”

Massimo Calabresi, Time’s Washington bureau chief, said that during their meeting, Biden came across “very much as he appears on TV,” adding, “He is older than when he started in office. It’s visible if you just look side by side on the tape.” In his story, Calabresi wrote: “The President, with his stiff gait, muffled voice, and fitful syntax, cut a striking contrast with the intense, loquacious figure who served as Senator and Vice President.”

The debate over Biden’s age is rendered more complex since he’s running against a 77-year-old. Trump might come across as more energetic than his successor, whom he’s dubbed “Sleepy Joe,” but the former president himself often appeared to be snoozing during his criminal trial in New York. The campaign trail version of Trump raises other concerns — not least because of his volcanic demeanor and estrangement from the truth. But Trump, like Biden, has recently bungled names, misidentified people and offered nonsensical public comments.

Asked about the Wall Street Journal report by Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Trump on Wednesday said, “We have a chance of going into World War III because of our leader. So I don’t want to get into what state he’s in,” adding, “It’s not something for me to talk about.” The former president went on to say Biden was not “mentally sharp enough” to do the job, before adding, “and I don’t believe he was 20 years ago, either.”

Fitness for office is often in the eye of the beholder. The Republicans who insist Biden is too diminished see no reason why a twice-impeached convicted felon who has echoed Nazi rhetoric and is promising to use presidential powers in a personal quest for “retribution” against his enemies should not return to the Oval Office. Biden is increasingly focusing on Trump’s mental capacity. He has told audiences in fundraising events recently that “something snapped” after Trump lost the 2020 election and that he’s “clearly unhinged.”

Has Biden slowed or is he ‘savvy and effective’?

The Journal article, headlined “Behind Closed Doors, Biden Shows Signs of Slipping,” detailed anecdotes about the president’s attentiveness in meetings. It said that Democrats and Republicans reported that he has slowed and that some of his engagement and energy fluctuated and that he had good days and bad days. The Journal noted, however, that most of those who were critical of Biden’s performance were Republicans.

The paper quoted former Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy saying, “He’s not the same person.” Current House Speaker Mike Johnson worried the president’s memory “had slipped about the details of his own policy,” the Journal wrote, citing six people who had been told about the speaker’s views. (The White House denied Biden had misspoken during that exchange.) Neither speaker is a disinterested observer. Both have vested political interests in playing into Trump’s claims that Biden is too old or absent to serve.

The White House responded to the Journal story by saying in a statement that “Congressional Republicans, foreign leaders and nonpartisan national-security experts have made clear in their own words that President Biden is a savvy and effective leader who has a deep record of legislative accomplishment.” White House spokesman Andrew Bates added: “Now, in 2024, House Republicans are making false claims as a political tactic that flatly contradict previous statements made by themselves and their colleagues.”

There is no current public evidence that Biden is unable to carry out the most onerous duties of his job that include making vital decisions to ensure the country’s national security, especially in emergencies and at times of crisis. Still, the public facing part of the presidency is also important. A fair-minded person cannot help but note that Biden is not the same dynamic room-filling force that he was for years.

The break that Biden and his aides enjoyed from questions about his age after his barnstorming State of the Union address followed a previous age-related frenzy. Special counsel Robert Hur’s February report into Biden’s handling of classified documents described him as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” and a transcript of the encounter showed Biden occasionally flustered and searching for dates. But the totality of the encounter doesn’t support Republican claims of advanced cognitive decline.

The report, however, was followed by a disastrous press appearance that served more to highlight questions of age than dampen them. “I know what the Hell I am doing,” the president said. But at one point, he compounded his problem when he meant to talk about the president of Egypt in a comment about the Middle East crisis but mistakenly said “the president of Mexico.” On other occasions in February, Biden twice referred to dead European leaders — François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl – when referring to conversations with their modern-day counterparts.

Biden’s stamina will be tested in the long haul to November’s election. In the coming weeks, he has the kind of schedule that would exhaust anyone. He’s due to return from France on Sunday, and is expected to fly to California for fundraising, before crossing the Atlantic again for the G7 summit in Italy next weekend. Even for someone with their own plane, it’s a heavy lift at 81.

Then he faces the most critical phase in his reelection campaign so far: his June 27 debate with Trump on CNN, which represents the most high-profile test of a sitting president’s capabilities on live television since a much younger Ronald Reagan confronted similar questions in his 1984 reelection race.

Presidents have great power. But even they cannot turn back the ravages of time. So it will not be long before Biden is once again called on to insist that he’s not too old to serve.

This story has been updated with additional reaction.

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