WASHINGTON — Again and again, Democratic voters who backed Joe Biden in the party's 2020 primary and now want him to step aside cite the same overriding reason: age.
“Biden is too old,” a woman in her 60s told NBC News pollsters in a survey released earlier this month, ahead of his announcement Tuesday making his 2024 campaign official.
“Too old,” said a man in his 70s.
“He’ll be 86 by the time it’s over,” said a woman in her 50s, noting the age Biden would be if he wins re-election and serves out a second term. “We need new people in there.”
As the oldest president in history runs for re-election — Biden is 80 — age looms as one of his most glaring vulnerabilities. Republicans are weighing how far to push the issue in the 2024 campaign without alienating older Americans who tend to be dependable voters. In this early stage of the race, Republicans seem split on whether they can effectively sow doubts about Biden’s longevity.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., an ally of former President Donald Trump, said of Biden: “I’m not going to say he’s too old. I’m going to say that his policies are not working. If he were 35, they wouldn’t be working.”
Biden addresses age criticism after launching re-election bidApril 26, 202300:56
Inside the White House, aides recognize that an octogenarian boss poses a unique dilemma. They can’t make him younger absent a “time machine,” as one White House adviser ruefully noted. What they’ve done instead is try to demonstrate the president is active and fit. Biden dons a pair of aviator sunglasses at every turn. A video released announcing his re-election campaign carries a snippet of him jogging in his suit jacket. (Missing from the video montage, of course, are images of Biden tripping on the stairs to Air Force One or falling off his bicycle in Delaware.)
The White House has produced a spreadsheet showing that Biden’s travel schedule through the first four months of the year — including an unannounced visit to the Ukrainian war zone in February– eclipsed that of a far younger president, Barack Obama, at a comparable period in the 2012 campaign.
"It doesn’t— it doesn’t register with me. I took a hard look at it before I decided to run. And I feel good," Biden said Wednesday at a joint news conference with his South Korean counterpart, Yoon Suk Yeol.
Donald Trump, now 76, and allied political action committees spent millions in ads homing in on Biden’s age in 2020, with little to show for it: Trump lost. But Trump is persisting in painting Biden as diminished. Another GOP presidential candidate, 51-year-old Nikki Haley, floated a proposal to give politicians over the age of 75 (both Biden and Trump fit that bill) a mental competency test.
Tempting as it may be to highlight Biden's age, Republicans can't expect to sweep back into the White House on that argument alone, some GOP strategists caution. The issue of abortion rights turbocharged Democratic turnout in the midterm elections last year and also figures to be a galvanizing issue in 2024. If the choice comes down to Biden and Trump, Democrats may swallow any misgivings about Biden in hopes of quashing any comeback from the twice-impeached ex-president.
“I would caution Republicans about thinking that this [Biden’s age] is a silver bullet or even likely to be decisive in 2024,” said Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom coalition and a longtime Republican strategist.
A core argument from the White House is that Biden’s age is not a liability but a strength. With age comes judgment that a younger president can’t match, as Biden advisers see it.
“You had to have this kind of experience and wisdom when you see what happened in Ukraine and you assemble a coalition to repel [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s aggression,” said Ron Klain, Biden’s former White House chief of staff, referring to Biden's response to Russia's invasion of its democratic neighbor over a year ago. “I think with his age comes a lot of experience, a lot of wisdom. I think that wisdom has served the American people very well.”
One drawback of a political career spanning a half-century, however, is that voters can see for themselves the imprint of advancing age.
One Democratic lawmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss Biden’s age, said: “You see him sometimes and there’s no denying he’s 80 years old. It makes you concerned. You want to make sure he doesn’t fall. You want to protect him. I feel like I’m around a grandparent where you’re just cherishing the last little bit of time you have with them.”
In a word cloud generated from poll responses given to NBC News by the 44% of Democratic primary voters who said Biden shouldn’t run again, the phrases that jumped out were “too old,” “age,” “younger,” “mental health” and “ineffective.”
One reason for the lackluster appraisal may be that Biden's larger message isn't getting out, his advisers say. Most people don't seem well-versed in what the White House views as historic accomplishments having only slim majorities in Congress for the first two years of his term – and now a divided Congress.
He has shepherded into law transformational changes that will help wean the U.S. from fossil fuels, modernize roads and bridges, and reduce prescription drug prices, Democratic strategists contend.
"That’s what’s so frustrating,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who worked with Biden’s 2020 campaign and who is not involved in the NBC News poll. “We’re three years into this presidency and people haven’t seen the results. Half the people can’t name anything” Biden has accomplished.
If the Biden campaign can better convey his record, Lake said, "It's a twofer: Results are what we have to get out to get re-elected, and results are the biggest antidote to [questions about Biden’s] age.”
Infrastructure projects often take years to complete. High inflation and gas prices, though, remain front and center. The NBC News poll suggests that only 38% of adults approved of Biden’s handling of the economy. If that number were to improve, voters would be more inclined to overlook Biden's age, Democratic strategists said.
“People don’t care about how old someone is if they feel their president is getting things done for them and making a difference in their lives,” said Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt, who conducted the NBC News survey along with Republican pollster Bill McInturff. “People don’t wake up in the morning saying Joe Biden is old. They wake up in the morning saying, ‘I need to provide for my family and feel good about my future.’”
Complicating matters is a saga involving longtime Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D.-Calif. At 89 and having missed dozens of votes, Feinstein is facing calls to resign. Her prolonged absence from the Senate is an unhelpful reminder of what happens when elderly politicians refuse to bow out, one Biden ally said.
“Feinstein has elevated the age concerns and I do think it’s hurting us,” the ally said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk more freely. “It’s part of the backdrop that has made people think: ‘See, there are people who are too old.’”
A reassuring reality for Democrats is that age hasn’t proved to be a winning message. Ronald Reagan, at 73, memorably deflected questions about his age when he said during a presidential debate with Democrat Walter Mondale in 1984 that he wouldn’t exploit, “for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Reagan was happy to be photographed chopping wood at his Santa Barbara ranch and riding horses to demonstrate he was still robust, even after an assassination attempt in his first year in office. He won re-election in a landslide.
Trump himself had trouble weaponizing the issue in the 2020 race. Trump’s campaign spent more than $3 million airing a 30-second ad that directly focused on Biden’s cognitive state and health.
“Joe Biden does not have the strength, stamina and mental fortitude required to lead this country,” a narrator says against a backdrop of unflattering pictures of Biden.
Voters seemed unmoved; they had their own reservations about Trump's fitness.
An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll released the month before the 2020 election asked voters whether Biden or Trump would be better when it comes to the mental and physical health needed to be president. They rated about the same: 41% preferred Biden; 40%, Trump.
"Who is the most reliable voting bloc in America? It's older Americans," said a national Republican strategist involved in the 2024 presidential race, speaking anonymously to talk more freely. "The idea that we're going to attack people for being older is just not very good politics."