Many voters think Biden is too old for a second term. The White House isn't worried
Republican strategist Sarah Longwell spends a lot of time these days talking to swing voters.
"They're pro-Biden, they like Biden," Longwell said, describing the current mood of focus group participants who voted for former President Donald Trump in 2016, but shifted to vote for President Biden in 2020. "And in our most recent focus group, they liked [Biden's] State of the Union."
And yet, six of the nine participants in that most recent panel did not want Biden to run for a second term next year.
"I hate to say it and sound like an ageist — his age is getting really up there," said one member in the focus group, a video of which Longwell Partners shared with NPR. "Do we want to elect a president and have him die in office?"
"I agree," another panelist chimed in. "Give that man a break!"
Longwell said this is a constant theme in her weekly focus groups. Biden's age is regularly brought up, unprompted, by the swing voters she talks to.
"Immediately when they start thinking about 2024, the first place they go is his age. They are simply worried he is too old for another term," she said.
Biden, now 80, became the oldest living president the day he was sworn into office. He would be 82 at the start of a second term, and 86 at its end.
"I've had a lot of people say things like, 'Well, he's going too be closer to 90 by the end of his second term than 80,'" Longwell said.
Age will be an attack line in the 2024 race
A recent Associated Press poll found that, despite Biden's lengthy list of legislative accomplishments and his party's historically-strong showing in last year's midterms, just 37% of Democrats want the incumbent Democrat to run for reelection. Other surveys have found similar results, and many voters say Biden's age is a factor.
Biden's political opponents have long made Biden's age an attack line. Often it has boomeranged against them – online and cable news insinuations that Biden is suffering from mental failings often made debate performances and major speeches seem stronger-than-expected.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's kick-off speech for her 2024 presidential campaign made it clear, though, that those attacks will likely pick up over the next year. Taking a dig at both Biden and 76-year-old Trump, Haley called for "mandatory mental competency tests" for candidates over 75.
Biden's response to all this is often, "watch me."
"The test of whether the president is capable of being president is watching the president be president," said White House communications director Kate Bedingfield.
Bedingfield told NPR she's confident Biden's track record in office can overcome any concerns voters have. And, she argued, there's a flip side to Biden's half century in office. "I think we live in a volatile world. We live in a chaotic world," she said. "I think people are looking for stability and strong leadership. And I think that experience and wisdom is part of that."
Biden is very healthy for a person of his age
Biden, who works out five days a week, is fit and healthy, according to his just-completed annual physical. Dr. Kevin O'Connor said in his summary of the exam that "the president remains fit for duty, and fully executes all of his responsibilities without any exemptions or accommodations." Biden's results and baseline trends were largely unchanged from previous years' physicals – a key sign of health for older adults, according to aging experts.
S. Jay Olshansky, a public health professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has researched presidents and aging — and found that despite the stress of the job, they actually live longer than average lives. ("The good news," he said, "is we don't die from gray hair and wrinkled skin.")
Biden, who has faced a lifelong stutter, often stumbles during speeches. The latest physical again noted his gait has gotten stiffer over the years, due in part to a foot injury.
"The real question is not the shuffling, Olshansky said. "It's his cognitive functioning. And will that change? I don't know the answer to that, and don't think anybody else does, either."
Olshansky, who reviewed the summary of the physical released by the White House, said all public factors point to Biden living a very long life. He said his main takeaway was how consistent Biden's numbers and results were with previous years' medical reports.
But he says the age question is "absolutely" a fair question. "No question about it. Once you get up into that age range the risks are high that something can go wrong," Olshansky said.
Biden's team sees the next election as a choice, not a referendum
Biden's team thinks about the age question the same way they think about his underwater approval ratings: in the end, they argue, the next campaign will be a choice, not a referendum held in a vacuum.
They're confident, especially after the November midterms where swing voters rejected extreme Republican candidates, that Biden voters worried about age will end up more worried about the return of Trump or Trumpism than Biden's advanced age.
Biden often cites a phrase he credits to his dad: "Joey, don't compare me to the almighty. Compare me to the alternative."
Indeed, even though just three of the voters in Sarah Longwell's focus group initially said they wanted Biden to run again, all nine raised their hand for Biden when asked who they would support in a potential Biden-Trump rematch.
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