WASHINGTON — The president of the United States tripping and falling is never a good moment in the throes of a re-election campaign. But when the president is 80 years old and already faces concerns that he’s too old for another term, it’s something of a crisis.
Joe Biden’s aides realized they had a problem last month when the president tripped over a sandbag — hard — at the Air Force Academy’s graduation ceremony. Afterward, during a post-event recap, a few aides tried to figure out what may have gone wrong and how to make sure that such an embarrassing and dangerous incident “never happens again,” according to two people familiar with the discussion.
“You can’t be too careful,” one said.
Biden’s answer to voters who question whether he’s up to the rigors of a second term is simple: “Watch me.” The trouble is, voters are watching, and what they’re seeing is hardening impressions that it’s time for him to step aside, polling shows. Apart from being the most taxing job on the world stage, the presidency is also the most public, and signs of advancing age are tough to miss.
Apparent to anyone paying attention is that the Biden they may remember from the Robert Bork Supreme Court confirmation hearings of 1987, or the vice presidential debate with Sarah Palin in 2008, is a different man today. His gait is less steady, his speech not as fluid. He has confused Iraq with Ukraine and Rolling Fork, Mississippi, with “Rolling Stone.” At a conference last year, he looked out at the audience and called for a congresswoman who had recently died in a car crash.
“The Democratic Party needs to be responsive to what people are saying about Biden and their concerns that they have with his age,” said one congressional Democrat, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk freely about the president’s fitness. “The number of text messages that I got after the president fell … I mean, my phone was blowing up. People are like, ‘Oh, this is so bad.’”
Faced with life’s unbending reality — no one gets any younger — Biden’s advisers have been trying to blunt concerns about his age since his 2020 campaign. The challenge gets trickier by the day as the oldest president in history embarks on one last race against a Republican Party eager to pounce on every miscue.
Any misstep is bound to be magnified when voters are already prone to believe Biden should consider retirement. Biden aides aren’t promising that he won’t stumble again.
“Physically, he’s quite frail and he falls off his bicycle, or whatever,” said a former Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk more freely. “He doesn’t have the stamina levels of an Obama or a younger president. People worry about his physical frailty and running from age 82 to 86” — the age Biden would be at the end of a second term. “That is really old by European standards. Really, really old. We don’t have anyone that age.”
Biden’s advisers appear to be taking steps to minimize the job’s physical toll while simultaneously ramping up a twofold strategy to parlay an electoral weakness into a strength. They are arguing that Republicans are merely recycling an argument that the now 77-year-old Donald Trump made during the 2020 presidential race and fell flat with voters; and they’re noting that Biden’s decades of experience have allowed him to score legislative victories that eluded younger predecessors such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
“When you take stock of the unprecedented results President Biden’s experienced leadership has delivered ever since Republican officials began crying about his age in early 2019, it’s hard not to conclude that their whining is anything but a good luck charm,” said Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman.
In a preview of what voters will see more of if Biden wins re-election and serves into his mid-80s, the White House seems to be making concessions to his age. An iconic image of the modern presidency is the chief executive walking up the stairs to a majestic Air Force One, then turning at the doorway and waving. More and more, Biden is forgoing the long staircase for the shorter stairway that takes him up through the plane’s belly. (A work-around of this sort isn’t without precedent. John F. Kennedy, who at the age of 43 was the youngest president ever elected, suffered chronic back pain and was once photographed using a “cherry picker” to hoist him aboard Air Force One.)
Biden’s use of the shorter staircase, which, of course, reduces the risk of a televised fall that goes viral, has more than doubled since Biden’s tumble at the commencement ceremony, according to an analysis by NBC News. In the weeks prior to tripping onstage, Biden used the shorter set of stairs to get on and off the presidential aircraft 37% of the time. In the past seven weeks he’s used them 84% of the time, or 31 out of the 37 times he’s gotten on and off the plane.
On Thursday, during a short trip to Philadelphia to deliver a speech on the economy, Biden used the shorter set of stairs to board the plane at Joint Base Andrews, the military facility outside Washington, where the president’s plane is housed. When he arrived in Philadelphia, he used the large staircase to descend from the plane, but when he departed from the same airport a few hours later, he climbed aboard using the lower steps.
The White House did not directly answer a question about whether Biden was using the shorter staircase to minimize the chance of a fall. An aide said the choice comes down to the weather, the airport and whether the press wants a photo on the tarmac with official greeters. (There was no rain Thursday when Biden took the shorter staircase at Joint Base Andrews.)
Biden seems to be preserving his energy in other ways. It’s customary on foreign trips for the president to schmooze with other leaders at dinners once the meetings are over. Less formal and structured than the events preceding them, the dinners offer a chance for leaders to bond, talk through differences or amplify a point. On two recent international trips, Biden has chosen to skip the nighttime socializing.
When he didn’t attend a dinner during the NATO summit in Lithuania earlier this month, aides said he was preparing for meetings and a major speech the next day and noted he’d already been overseas for four days. He was a no-show at a dinner with his counterparts in Bali last fall.
Asked about the missed dinners, White House aides said his absence had nothing to do with fatigue. They said Biden must tend to domestic issues many time zones away even when he is overseas. In Bali, they pointed to his efforts to marshal a unified allied response in the middle of the night when it appeared a Russian missile might have struck Poland as proof that he wasn’t drained by his travels.
In any case, said Jonathan Finer, a deputy national security adviser at the White House, “The dinners at these events are about relationship building. He has done the work over a long period of time to build these relationships outside of the summit. So, it’s less important for him to spend downtime with the other leaders than it is for people who are newer to the scene or have not invested in building these relationships.”
Other age-compensating measures are logistical, and probably familiar to many who’ve reached a certain stage in life: extra-large font on his teleprompter and note cards to remind him of the points he wants to make in meetings.
Republicans see Biden’s age as a vulnerability they intend to exploit. Trump has posted video of Biden falling off his bike and tripping during the commencement ceremony. In private meetings, Biden’s political operation has strategized about the best ways to deflect that line of attack, a former White House official said. Allies floated the idea of throwing a big 80th birthday bash, for instance, last November to show he was openly embracing the milestone rather than shying away from it, a person familiar with the matter said. But Biden opted for continuing his tradition of a small family gathering with Jeni’s ice cream.
Biden has also started joking about his age in self-deprecating ways, while emphasizing that with longevity comes a certain life wisdom. Advisers see that as a selling point they’ll emphasize throughout the campaign.
“Joe Biden’s age is his superpower, and as I’ve seen firsthand, his fastball is as good as ever,” said Jeffrey Katzenberg, the movie mogul and co-chair of Biden’s campaign.
It doesn’t hurt that Biden may be heading toward a rematch with Trump. Trump’s own fitness came into question during his term when he walked haltingly down a ramp at West Point and used two hands to drink a glass of water. A physical exam released in 2019 showed that Trump was clinically obese at 243 pounds, though in “very good” health overall, according to his doctor.
“As someone who just turned 80, I strongly believe that we need someone younger, whether it’s on the Democratic side or the Republican side,” said Dan Coats, a former director of national intelligence in the Trump administration who once served with Biden in the Senate. “The weight of the world falls on the shoulders of the president, and right now, we have two disabled presidents,” Coats added, referring to Biden and Trump. “Age plays a major factor in this, and people have to think about what the next generation will provide.”
Running for president is exhausting even for the spryest of candidates. Rare are those who make it through the gantlet unscathed. Biden largely escaped the ordeal during the 2020 campaign because Covid-19 limited most in-person events. Now, incumbency affords him conveniences that ease the burden of the campaign trail: no serious primary challenge, helicopters and motorcades that whisk him from place to place and ample support staff 24 hours a day.
Biden gets the most attentive health care imaginable, and his annual physicals have not revealed serious health concerns. Nonetheless, his physician, Kevin O’Connor, is always observing him “like a hawk, whether he wants it or not,” according to one close adviser.
Still, advisers dismiss the idea that he’s encased in bubble wrap, insulated from the job’s demands. They cite instances of Biden getting awakened to deal with a fresh crisis; plowing through briefing papers and making hand notes in margins; and rousing his staff during long flights home on Air Force One to talk business.
Around 7 or 8 p.m., aides leave him with a couple of hundred pages of reading material and then provide updates before 7:30 a.m.
Stefanie Feldman, the White House staff secretary, describes a moment during the marathon flight home from Biden’s meetings on the NATO trip when he unexpectedly came back to the staff cabin.
Aides were “passed out from exhaustion,” she said, and “the president came out and wanted to thank everyone for their work. I was kicking people to wake them up and engage with the president, who wanted to engage with his staff. If only I had the energy of an 80-year-old President Biden.”
Marty Walsh, the former secretary of labor, recalled an instance in 2021 when he was riding with Biden to an event at a Hummer plant in Michigan, and the president began dictating revisions to his planned speech off the top of his head.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I wish more people could see this,’” he said.
“The president isn’t falling down every day, for crying out loud,” Walsh continued. “If you’ve ever given him a hug, you’re going to feel the man is solid. He’s in good shape.”
In a social media age when presidential slip-ups are grist for viral videos, Biden’s advisers recognize he has little room for error. Any president can forget a name or place, mangle a sentence or tumble over a tripping hazard. And they have. With Biden, displays of frailty are bound to get more scrutiny given the propensity of many voters to believe he shouldn't run again.
Advisers recognize this dynamic as well as the political cost of the next awkward moment.
They gave a collective groan when Biden fell at the Air Force Academy, knowing the episode wouldn’t soon be forgotten. It turns out the sandbag had been camouflaged so that it would blend in, making it easier to miss, a senior White House aide said.
“It happened in seconds,” another aide said, “but it’s going to be in front of us for months and maybe years.”