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Updated Jun 6, 2023, 5:34pm EDT
politicsNorth America

What we’re talking about when we talk about Biden’s age

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The Scene

DES MOINES, Iowa – Todd Wilson came to the GOP Roast and Ride fed up with Donald Trump’s “antics” and eager to find an alternative nominee.

Would that nominee be running against President Joe Biden? Well. That was a tough question, too.

“I’m not sure Biden’s going to make it to the election,” said Wilson, 53. “I feel bad for him. I’m not sure his wife is really on his side.” His partner, Angie, speculated that Democrats already had a plan to swap out Biden, most likely for “Robert Kennedy or Tulsi Gabbard.”

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This was a popular view at the kickoff of the GOP’s summer campaign season, shared by voters and Republican politicians.

“I just look at the physical strength and the mental awareness of the president, and I see a president who is supported by very few Democrats right now,” Sen. Joni Ernst, the host of the annual fundraising event, told Semafor. “They’re gonna have to have a candidate that has mental toughness, physically tough, that can actually go up against a Republican candidate in a debate and win. And I don’t think Democrats have that right now.”

In many ways, Republicans seem to be already looking past him. The half-day event was held hours after Biden signed a deal to cut spending and raise the debt limit, never once mentioned onstage. His stumble at the Air Force Academy’s graduation wasn’t even milked for laughs.

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David’s view

There’s no serious Democratic challenge to Biden. The Democratic Party’s political apparatus is behind Biden – the Democratic National Committee has endorsed him, as has Sen. Bernie Sanders. Democrats have pushed Iowa further down the primary calendar and put South Carolina at the top, on Biden’s recommendation.

The party’s much-discussed bench of potential candidates, refreshed after 2022, isn’t moving. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s new Fight Like Hell PAC is structured to raise money for Biden and other federal candidates, which is what you’d expect a Biden co-chair to do — the PAC couldn’t, and won’t, be used to start up a presidential campaign.

But public polls still find a substantial share of Democrats open to a Biden alternative, a factor driven almost entirely by the president’s age. 68% of voters said he was too old for another term in a Washington Post/ABC News poll that stirred some liberal panic last month. Republicans frequently speculate that they’ll either face another Democrat in 2024 or that he’ll die in office.

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“We are running against Kamala Harris,” Nikki Haley told Fox and Friends on Monday, picking up a theme from her recent speeches. “Make no bones about it. The New York Times knows it. Every liberal knows it.”

Some liberals do fret about it. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s presidential campaign, pointedly ignored by Biden, has polled around 20% when Democrats are asked about their limited field. That’s given Kennedy some credibility among non-Democrats who agree with the candidate on substance (anti-vaccine, anti-woke, pro-crypto) and ask if the party is rigging the race for a flawed incumbent over an outsider who, in former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s formulation, “can and will” win a fair primary.

Kennedy’s loudest support has come from people who share his views about the “lockdown liberals” running the Democratic Party — i.e., people who aren’t Democrats. Kennedy himself is also uninterested in pushing the age question, even when interviewers give him an opening. During a live Monday interview with Sirius XM host Michael Smerconish, at a theater in Norristown, Penn., Kennedy said it was “not to his advantage” for Biden to debate him, but didn’t question whether he could handle it.

Grace O’Callaghan, who met Kennedy at the Norristown event, said that she liked the candidate’s criticism of “imperialism,” but was less sure what to think about his anti-vaccine stance. Biden’s age, she said, fed her curiosity about a possible alternative, even though she’d voted for him and been satisfied with his performance so far.

“I feel good about him now, but what if he gets sick?” said O’Callaghan, 59. “Joe: You’ve done it. It’s time to step aside.”

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Know More

The age talk does serve a political purpose, especially on the right: It’s a way to use a broad voter concern as a foot in the door for more traditional partisan attacks. Republicans talk about Biden either as a spent force who won’t last out the presidency — leaving a less popular Harris in charge — or a puppet who Democrats want on the ballot so they can control him.

“If Joe Biden can fog up a mirror, he’d be the nominee,” conservative radio host and presidential candidate Larry Elder told Semafor at the Roast and Ride. “We’re not just voting for Joe Biden, we’re voting for Kamala Harris. It’s highly likely that if it’s Biden that’s elected, he will not serve out the whole term.”

Criticism of Biden on the right, dating back to 2020, usually portrays him as not running things. It’s politically convenient: Sure, Biden might code as centrist on the surface, the argument goes, but it’s the young AOC fans on his staff who are passing giant stimulus bills that drive up inflation or appointing progressives to run the government.

Vivek Ramaswamy, who said that an RFK, Jr. nomination would be “better for the country,” compared Biden to Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman, who won his seat last year while still suffering the after-effects of a stroke.

“I think the managerial class views him as right now the most convenient tool they have in their arsenal to actually advance their agenda,” Ramaswamy said of Biden.

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Room for Disagreement

Biden has been underestimated for years, and some commentators are fed up with his portrayal as a hapless old man, which didn’t stop him from winning the Democratic nomination or general election in 2020. In National Review, Charles Cooke argues to his fellow conservatives that Biden’s in “a good position to get re-elected” barring an economic crisis, or a more dramatic decline in his health.

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Notable

  • The New York Times went long on the age question on Sunday, with a front page story about how Biden had grown “a little slower, a little softer, a little harder of hearing, a little more tentative in his walk, a little more prone to occasional lapses of memory,” while still able to take command of meetings and devour briefings.
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