The Real Reason for All the Biden Age Talk
Lopsided dynamics for Republicans, Democrats, and the press.
JOE BIDEN IS OLD. THIS MAY COME as a surprise to you, but it’s true. He started his presidency at the age of 78, older than Ronald Reagan was when he left the White House. Now Biden is 81, and if re-elected would start his second term at 82. His age was the subject of heated discussion all weekend thanks to the publication last Thursday of Special Counsel Robert Hur’s report on Biden’s inappropriate storage of classified documents after his vice presidency. Hur’s announcement clearing Biden of criminal charges included a description of the president—“a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” who didn’t remember what year he left the vice presidency or what year his son Beau died—that sparked days of news and opinion articles, cable news panels, and Sunday-show chatter.
The New York Times, for example, put multiple articles about Biden’s age at the top of their homepage the day after Hur’s report came out, including news and analysis pieces. They added three more the next day, also at the top of the homepage, along with an editorial—not their first on the subject of Biden’s age—plus multiple columns and newsletters.
For what it’s worth, I’m half Biden’s age and I can’t remember off the top of my head the year of the most important deaths in my life. I can sometimes reason my way toward an answer—for example, I remember my oldest kid doing a very toddler thing at a funeral—but I don’t just know the year. I also don’t know how much Biden telling prosecutors that he doesn’t remember was actual forgetfulness or standard evasions, like when Donald Trump as president said he “can’t recall” repeatedly in his written responses to Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Still, yes: Biden is old. He’s always had gaffes, he’s always worked to hide his stutter, and now he’s having overt senior moments. He looks and sounds like an old man, and polls show that his age is voters’ biggest concern about him.
But what’s most striking about this discussion is how lopsided it is. It raises concerns about Biden but does not weigh them against concerns about Trump. Elections, after all, are about weighing tradeoffs.
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Trump, it turns out, is also old. He’s 77 now, and if elected in November, he would be the oldest president ever by the end of the term. He is louder and higher energy than Biden, which some interpret as comparatively youthful, he’s always said nonsensical things, and now he’s having overt senior moments.
It’s possible to go through the two men’s lapses tit for tat. Biden, defending himself last week against the accusations of befuddlement, compounded the bad press by mentioning Mexico when he was talking about Egypt. A few days earlier, he referred to the leader of France, Emmanuel Macron, as “Mitterand,” the name of the former French president who died in 1996.
But last October, Trump referred to Hungarian President Viktor Orbán as “the leader of Turkey.” He has said he’s running against “Obama” multiple times. Last month, Trump confused Nikki Haley with former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, lying that Haley was responsible for the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol, an even more ridiculous lie than his lie blaming Pelosi for it.
Biden and Trump are both old, they’ve both clearly lost a step. In this election, age and mental acuity are, at worst, a wash—at least as things stand now.
But the two men differ on so much else—character, respect for rule of law, posture toward NATO—that fixating on their one shared weakness, and even then only focusing on one of them, is odd. Biden, for all his faults, is running to preserve constitutional democracy and America’s role as the linchpin of global stability. Trump is running to put himself above the law, breaking the republic in the process.
Why Republicans Are Talking About Biden’s Age
Again, the issue is not the discussion of Biden’s age but the disproportionate focus on it. It’s worth speaking clearly about the reasons for this dynamic among Republicans, among Democrats, and in the press.
For Republicans, Biden’s age is just about the only true thing they can attack him on. In early 2023, it looked like the economy would be a liability for the president. But with solid growth, low unemployment, rising wages, and tamed inflation, it’s looking strong enough now that Trump is preposterously trying to claim credit for the stock market reaching new highs.
Immigration and the border will be a major Republican line of attack this year. But Biden recently agreed to tougher border security and asylum laws, and congressional Republicans rejected it at the behest of Donald Trump. The political attack relies on lying that Biden wants “open borders.”
Meanwhile, attacks on Biden’s son Hunter have fallen flat, because he’s not in government, has no apparent influence, and the accusations against him basically amount to Imagine Hunter did what Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump actually did.
Biden’s age, however, offers Republicans a line of attack with a basis in fact, and it plays into voters’ existing concerns.
Age talk is a double-edged sword: In emphasizing Biden’s age, Republicans also inherently lower expectations for Biden, including for debates. Typically, campaigns try to lower expectations for their own candidate, setting up post-event spin that they outperformed. With Biden, his opponents insist he’s a drooling dementia patient who can’t string a sentence together, then he waltzes over that low bar, as in the 2020 debates.
Why Democrats Are
It’s worth noting that Republicans are not alone in emphasizing Biden’s age. Democrats keep bringing it up, mostly out of fear that a weakened Biden will open the door to a second Trump presidency.
Some elements of the Democratic coalition have always disliked Biden and they now wish he’d step aside for a more progressive candidate. Some worry about Biden’s re-electability, and wish he’d step aside for a younger candidate. But there’s nothing close to a consensus alternative among Democrats, Vice President Kamala Harris’s net approval is even lower than Biden’s, and he’s running, so it’s moot anyway.
As a result, Democrats’ Biden age discourse is often second- or third-order. There’s concern about his age among voters, yes, but more expressions of concern about that concern. There isn’t enough, there’s too much, you’re not allowed to say it, you won’t shut up about it, etc.
For example, the New York Times quotes Obama strategist David Axelrod lamenting that the special counsel’s comments on Biden’s memory go “to the core of what is plaguing Biden politically.” Interestingly, the Times article introduces Axelrod as “one of the Democratic Party’s leading figures warning about how voters view Mr. Biden’s age.” Note the language: not warning that Biden’s age means he might not be up to the job, but warning that voters see it as a negative.
When Axelrod says “it’s a problem,” he means a problem for Biden campaign strategists and communications, not for America per se (except to the extent it makes a Trump victory more likely). And the advice on how to address that problem is for the campaign to recognize that it’s a political weakness and work to counter it.
Why Journalists Are
For the media, Biden’s age is good for horserace coverage and “both sides” credibility. Biden is in fact old, it’s not a matter of opinion. And the evidence that voters care about it makes it a legitimate subject for discussion from a level of remove.
Still, mainstream media organizations, such as the New York Times, place a lot of value on being fair, objective, and politically neutral—which in a practical sense often translates to publishing a comparable amount of negative-sounding coverage about Democrats and Republicans. With Biden and Trump differing on basic questions such as “Is the president above the law, like a dictator?”—Biden says no; Trump says yes, at least if it’s him—this forced balance leads to distortions.
To make the levels of negative coverage remotely similar, Biden’s age and mental acuity have to, on their own, balance out many things (including Trump’s age and mental acuity). Think of it this way:
So coverage in the press often inflates Biden’s age as an issue and effectively downplays the importance of Trump’s malfeasance, since there’s so much of it.
If you despise Joe Biden and will never vote for him no matter your opinion of Donald Trump, I won’t tell you otherwise. If you think Biden’s age is a negative, and that, all else equal, it’d be better to have a younger president, I agree. But if you think old and sometimes forgetful is worse than or equal to old, sometimes forgetful, corrupt, bigoted, anti-democracy, criminal, serially lying, and encouraging political violence, or that these things deserve approximately equal attention, that’s nuts.