It isn’t like Joe Biden’s age was a state secret, or suddenly crept up on us.
People are well aware we have an 80-year-old president.
But in the last couple of weeks, his behavior as an octogenarian has morphed into a dominant political issue by following a certain pattern.
First, of course, there were the polls. Once surveys by CNN and the Wall Street Journal showed that a majority of Democrats view Biden as too old to serve a second term, the media chatter grew louder. No longer could this be written off as partisan Republicans caricaturing Biden as a doddering fool.
After all, two-thirds of his own party was practically begging him not to run.
Second, the television pundits kept talking about the numbers, and the coverage of the numbers, to the point where they were impossible to ignore. The question of Biden’s mental and physical acuity somehow morphed from an occasional issue to an overriding one.
Finally, some of the leftish intellectuals who had supported Biden last time turned on him pretty forcefully. This added some gravitas to the indictment.
And suddenly the press magnified every mumble, moving the entire debate from political nuisance to existential crisis.
At just that moment in time, it didn’t help that Biden, taking press questions at the G-20 summit, became confused about who to call on and said out of nowhere, “I don’t know about you, but I’m going to go to bed.”
There is crucial context here – Biden had pulled an all-nighter, working through without sleep – but that was utterly lost.
There is nothing Biden, who I’ve known since the 1980s, can do about the march of time, but he could appear more in charge by engaging more with journalists (with sleep), or doing more spontaneous events. The way the staff keeps him cosseted (such as staying silent for five days during the Maui catastrophe) adds to the impression that his own inner circle doesn’t trust him.
I’ve heard Biden give sophisticated answers to complicated questions, so his depth of knowledge is not really an issue. But he sometimes has trouble processing a question or articulating an answer, which is hardly shocking at his age.
But what matters in presidential politics is optics. And if you’re a commentator who happens upon Biden, just channel-surfing, who doesn’t need access to the White House, you don’t have to use euphemisms.
Here’s veteran liberal journalist Joe Klein, now almost 77, writing on his Substack:
“It was shocking, and sad. He seemed so old. His eyes were slits, he turned the pages of his very prepared remarks haltingly. He slurred his words, slightly. His physical condition overwhelmed the message…
“So it’s sad to watch him now, past his sell-by date. His campaign seems creaky, contrived…
“He is running as a void: he isn’t Trump. That may be enough to win, but I’m sensing — or maybe it’s just me feeling this — a growing frustration among Democrats. A growing desire for…energy. Biden is a ghost of what the country needs right now.”
Ghost. Now there’s a haunting metaphor.
Andrew Sullivan, a moderate conservative who backed both Barack Obama and Biden and detests Trump, puts it this way:
“Every time you see Biden walk, he seems, well, in his eighties: he’s slow, careful, stilted. Every time you hear him speak, he’s also just a little off, eyes now barely visible in the ancient, botoxed, fillered face, words often slurred, a ghostly white mane peeking over his collar in the back, occasionally rallying to the point, or strangely loud-whispering.”
The Substack piece continues: “Yes, Trump is almost as old as Biden. But he has the energy and stamina and obsessiveness of the truly mentally ill.
But up against Biden, he seems like raw energy.”
The evidence that the incumbent president has lost it, in Sully’s view, is the fact Trump is still viable, running neck and neck in the polls: “His ability to survive and actually thrive these past three years is staggering. It’s part of a political genius his enemies continue to under-estimate.”
Ross Douthat, an anti-Trump conservative, says in his New York Times column that “maybe some voters now just assume that a vote for Biden is a vote for the hapless Kamala Harris.” But the conundrum is that the younger Dems eyeing the White House, like Gavin Newsom, won’t challenge their party’s leader. “All Democrats can do is ask Biden to show more public vigor, with all the risks that may entail,” he writes.
The common theme here is that Biden did what he promised as a transitional figure and now it’s time to gracefully retire.
Throw in the increasingly sour mood of the country and it’s hard to see how the president changes the atmosphere.
Of course, all those Democrats who say they don’t want Biden to run may vote for him anyway if Trump is the only alternative. But a crucial percentage of them may just stay home.
Perhaps by next year, with the former president mired in courtroom dramas, Biden will shed his reluctance to attack a rival facing four indictments–which right now would only make the prosecutions look more partisan.
I have been saying for a couple of years now that Biden barely makes use of the bully pulpit. He has to find a way to change that. Even on his weekends in Delaware, he can step in front of a camera at any time and start driving the news cycle.
If he keeps personifying a passive presidency, too many voters may conclude that his age is the reason why.