For months, headlines have focused on concerns surrounding President Joe Biden’s age and health. Polls indicate voters believe he’s too old to serve a second term; at least one Democrat is preparing to challenge Biden, in part because of age concerns; Biden’s stumbles (both verbal and physical) are quickly spread around social media and turned into articles; and there was even an Axios piece, which team Biden widely scoffed at, detailing the president’s “don’t-trip plan.”
Biden’s reelection campaign wants to change the narrative — or at least bring Donald Trump into the conversation.
In recent weeks, Biden’s campaign has begun highlighting the former president’s gaffes: Trump mixing up who the current president is; Trump “slurring” words during speeches; Trump making statements that don’t quite make sense. The effort is intentional, and due in part to a growing frustration among Biden’s campaign and allies with regard to what they see as an unequal media focus on the president’s age and health.
“If you guy’s are going to fucking cover every stumble of Joe Biden, then Donald Trump deserves the same scrutiny,” one national Democratic strategist close to the Biden campaign told Semafor, listing out some of Trump’s verbal missteps. “When Joe Biden does that, there’s wall-to-wall coverage of it.”
The president’s own team, along with Democrats backing his reelection bid, have long sought to dismiss age and health questions. Biden himself has declared his age simply means he’s more knowledgeable, and those around him argue that voters ultimately will make their decision based on other factors. At times Biden has also joked about it, including a pointed nudge to reporters at the White House Correspondents Dinner to give Trump the same treatment. But his campaign is definitely taking the topic more seriously as of late, with ads and speeches that emphasize Biden’s stamina on trips abroad. Biden is not getting any younger before Election Day, and it’s unlikely the issue will ever fully go away. But the goal of the attacks on Trump isn’t to convince voters Biden’s suddenly found the fountain of youth: It’s to build a counternarrative about his opponent’s age that might give some reluctant voters permission to stick with the incumbent.
“I think it is shoring up a little bit of a defense on an attack — and an attack that feels like [it] plays into a false equivalency,” said Tim Hogan, a Democratic consultant who argued that Biden’s recent Israel trip shows he has the endurance for a second term, versus Trump’s “rambling” rallies. “There is not a voter who could rationally look at the age of these two candidates, and say, ‘Well, I’m going with one or the other.’”
Poll after poll is clear on this: Voters think Biden is old and that it’s a problem. Polls also consistently show that it’s not just about a number when it comes to the president: It’s also about whether he has the mental and physical ability for four more years in office. And as much as Democrats would like it to be strictly a media problem, Biden looks demonstrably older than he did when he was vice president and it would be strange if voters didn’t have questions about electing a president who would still be in office at age 86.
That said, Trump has shown at least some concern about the age angle damaging him as well, given he’s less than four years younger — during an interview in September, the former president argued that Biden wasn’t “too old,” rather just “grossly incompetent.” Both candidates appear acutely aware that any remarks from them on age or health will draw immediate attention.
Room for Disagreement
While Biden is visibly older in his public speaking, Semafor’s David Weigel noted that authors who have examined his presidency have tended to portray him as an engaged decision-maker behind-the-scenes. Biden “buries himself in details” and “takes technocratic charge” of issues, biographer Franklin Foer told Semafor. Foer added that, contrary to his image as a cloistered president, Biden frequently delivers speeches that make little news because “he doesn’t say anything insane.”
The View From Trump's Campaign
“The Biden campaign is desperate because they’re getting absolutely crushed in the polls. Their days of hurting Americans and trying to turn our country into a dumpster fire are over,” Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said in a statement to Semafor. Trump himself regularly mocks Biden’s competence while on the campaign trail.
“Yes, Trump is almost as old as Biden,” Andrew Sullivan wrote in a column last month urging Biden to end his campaign. “But he has the energy and stamina and obsessiveness of the truly mentally ill.”
Ron DeSantis is homing in on both Trump and Biden’s age: During a CBS News interview in September, the Florida governor argued that “the presidency’s not a job for someone that’s 80 years old” and that the subject is “absolutely a legitimate concern” for voters. Nikki Haley has also called for politicians over 75 to take a mental acuity test.