Just lean in, Joe: Biden needs to embrace his old age

The Ronald Reagan strategy is not working. It’s time for Biden to get serious about his biggest vulnerability

Published September 18, 2023 5:52AM (EDT)

U.S. President Joe Biden walks on the south lawn of the White House on September 04, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden walks on the south lawn of the White House on September 04, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

On September 12, 1960, just as the general election campaign for president was heating up, Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy addressed the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Before an audience of Protestant ministers, the senator—who had authored the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Profiles in Courage" four years earlier—displayed his own brand of political courage in confronting an issue that had dogged him through the Democratic primary and remained, to some voters, a liability: his Catholicism. "Contrary to common newspaper usage," he said, "I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President who happens also to be Catholic."

Kennedy's speech set a precedent in modern presidential politics: that sometimes, in the face of stiff political headwinds, a candidate must confront their perceived electoral vulnerability head-on and then leave it to the voters to decide.

Forty-eight years later, another politician gave a personal speech during a hotly contested presidential primary that is credited with saving his candidacy. At the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Senator Barack Obama confronted the topic of race and his historic candidacy. He had endured racially-coded whispers about his citizenship and eligibility for the presidency. Even some of his supporters expressed fears for his and his family's personal safety. He was facing sustained scrutiny and criticism for his ties to Reverend Jeremiah Wright, his longtime pastor who had made comments from the pulpit that were, to some, inflammatory. Obama spoke in a mixture of candor and hope that met the moment: "This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years…But I have asserted a firm conviction—a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people—that, working together, we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union."

Kennedy's and Obama's speeches were both rare moments in modern politics. When else can you remember a viable candidate acknowledging a potential electoral liability—not to mention deeply personal parts of themselves—by looking it directly in the face? 

Now, another presidential candidate faces a similar quandary—except this time, he's the sitting president. 

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There's no way around it: Joe Biden is old. He looks old. He acts old. The present Biden is not the same Joe from 2020. As with any president, regardless of age, there is no doubt that the presidency has aged him. At 80, Biden displays elderly characteristics that are familiar to voters of all political stripes. He is markedly less steady on his feet. He now must take extra care in negotiating stairs he used to bound up with confidence. His once sonorous voice, capable of issuing booming blasts of indignation, has grown somewhat quieter and more phlegmy. Never a crisp, economical speaker, he sometimes rambles as he did last week at a press conference in Vietnam when attempting to make a point about climate change deniers by using his favorite comparison to the plot of a John Wayne film. According to the White House physician, he has non-valvular atrial fibrillation, acid reflux and osteoarthritis. 

Despite this, Biden persists with vigorous bicycle rides. We are told that he works out five days a week using an elliptical and weights. His overseas trips, such as February's surprise visit to Ukraine, are physically taxing, a fact that aides point to in defending his physical and mental stamina. Most importantly, again according to his physician (and to any truly impartial observers), there are no indications that his mental capacity or cognition, beyond the normal effects associated with aging, have been affected. 

Presidents have a moral duty to speak to the legitimate concerns and anxieties of voters.

But all of this is beside the point. More important, at least in political terms, is the perception of his age among voters across the political spectrum. In a recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll, 77% of respondents said he is too old for a second term, including 69% of Democrats. This is a marked increase from an ABC News-Washington Post poll released in May that showed 68% of Americans felt he was too old to run again. Some liberal opinion columnists have expressed doubts about his candidacy, calling for a primary challenge or for Biden to shun reelection altogether and make way for a new generation of political leaders. On Wednesday, when Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) announced his intention to retire in 2024, he noted age was a factor in his decision: "At the end of another term, I'd be in my mid-80s." Romney called on both Biden and 77-year-old former president Donald Trump to follow his lead and "stand aside" for younger candidates. 

Frustratingly for Biden, few journalists and commentators are scrutinizing the advanced age and health of Trump, who is only three years his junior (and notoriously relies on an unhealthy diet of red meat and fast food) and recently went nearly a month with no campaign appearances. The national conversation about Biden's age is also playing out against the backdrop of two far more alarming cases. Since suffering a fall in Washington this March in which he suffered a concussion, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has seemed to be in marked physical decline. He appears to have lost weight, and it was later disclosed that he had fallen two more times: once during a diplomatic trip to Finland, and another time in Washington at Reagan National Airport. The Republican leader is also less confident when he speaks. Twice—once in July at a Capitol press conference, and again last month during a gaggle in Kentucky—McConnell seemed to freeze for an alarming, protracted amount of time after being asked a question. Although the Capitol physician recently gave assurances about McConnell's health, which quelled the concerns of some in the Senate Republican caucus, questions continue to be raised about his condition. He has pledged to complete his term as leader through 2024 and his Senate term, which ends in 2026 when he will be 85.

Even more serious is the case of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), 90, who returned to work in May following a debilitating case of shingles and encephalitis, and longstanding reports about her cognitive decline. Back in Washington, Feinstein has exhibited a clearly diminished capacity on several occasions, including an interaction with a Slate reporter in which she seemed to forget she had been absent from the Senate and, later, appeared confused about voting on a defense appropriations bill before receiving assistance from a fellow Democratic senator. She has announced she will not run for reelection in 2024. 

Over the past year, Biden has attempted to deflect attention from his age and respond to concerns with humor. In doing so, he is following the example of Ronald Reagan, who famously dispensed with the issue in the 1984 election cycle. During his first debate with former vice president and Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, the 73-year-old Reagan delivered a halting performance, mangling facts, appearing befuddled and sparking grave concerns about his condition. He arrived at the next debate prepared with a now-famous zinger. When the question of his age was raised by Baltimore Sun reporter Henry Trewhitt, Reagan responded with mock indignation and a twinkle in his eyes. "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I refuse to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."

The audience laughed. Mondale laughed. And Reagan laughed all the way back to the Oval Office that November. The quip seemingly inoculated him from the issue, which was, in retrospect, sadly relevant considering his later Alzheimer's diagnosis and speculation from his son Ron that he exhibited signs of cognitive decline during his second term

So far, the Reagan strategy is not working for Biden. Despite his numerous attempts to embrace the subject with humor, such as his jokes at the White House Correspondent's Dinner in April, a decrease in concern about his age has not been reflected in polling numbers. The narrative of the aged Biden continues to be resurrected regularly in news and opinion coverage. His trip last week to Hanoi—which came on the heels of the G-20 summit in India during which he persuaded leaders to assist in financing poor nations, shored up the international coalition backing Ukraine against Russian aggression and inked an agreement with Vietnam to counter China—was overshadowed by the rambling answer he gave at a press conference.

The political environment has also changed since 1984. While Democrats largely refrained from making age a central issue against Reagan, today's Republicans are going to great lengths to highlight it at every turn. Conservative commentators including Sean Hannity have inflamed fears about Biden's health, and social media has long been rife with speculation and outright disinformation. On his recent trip to Maui to see the wildfire devastation, cameras caught him in a downcast moment, his eyes looking toward the ground. Right wing pundits, including Hannity,  shared the image and accused him of falling asleep when, in fact, he had not. 

But it isn't just Republicans. Democrats and independents alike are concerned about the effect Biden's age might have on his job performance. Many liberal commentators have questioned the wisdom of another campaign and whether he would be the strongest candidate to field against the eventual Republican nominee. Some of those fears have subsided in light of Trump's likely nomination—the thinking goes that if Biden beat him once, he can do so again—but they are still there, bubbling, and on occasion surfacing. Earlier this week, while hailing Biden's legislative accomplishments, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius called for Biden to forego reelection. He expressed his fear that, in running, "Biden risks undoing his greatest achievement—which was stopping Trump." Chief among his reasoning, Ignatius wrote, is the president's age.

What's clear is that the issue of Biden's age is not going away—nor should it. Despite the grumblings from the White House, it's a fair question, particularly considering that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the average life expectancy for American males is 73.5 years. Instead of joking about it, hoping the chatter will dissipate and dismissing concerns out of hand, Biden should follow the lead of his predecessors and give an address on aging, one that will kick-start a national conversation that is much needed, not only in our politics but also in our personal lives. 

Kennedy and Obama knew that the central question voters had about their candidacies was this: can I come to terms with, can I accept, what I most fear? In their speeches, both had the confidence to allow themselves to, as the Poynter Institute's Roy Peter Clark observed about Obama, become characters in narratives about religion and race. They had the confidence to act as mirrors for the public. Whether he likes it or not, Biden now occupies the same position. He reflects the declining conditions of our aging parents and grandparents, as well as fears for our own mortality. Like Kennedy with religion and Obama with race, Biden should refuse to allow such a complex, vital topic as aging to be reduced to a caricature created by fear. 

Presidents have a moral duty to speak to the legitimate concerns and anxieties of voters. A speech on aging would not only serve to educate the public, it would give Biden his best opportunity to wrest control of the narrative and demonstrate his strength and awareness of voters' worries. While it likely would not earn him any mainstream Republican voters, the address could serve to assuage the anxieties of Democrats, independents and conservatives opposed to Trump.

In the days before his inauguration, Biden vowed that his administration would lead with "science and truth" in fighting COVID-19. This speech would allow him to extend that promise to discussing and researching an issue that will, at some point, affect us all. He should acknowledge the studies that paint a complex picture of what happens to our brains when we age, including the fact that certain areas of cognitive function—such as "understanding the global implications of specific issues"—actually improve. He could lean on a point made in a recent Washington Post article about his and Trump's ages: "Actuarial tables suggest they are far more probable than not to live through a second term if elected, and experts in aging say there is little reason to doubt their continued health during that time, given the enormous benefits of their socioeconomic status, including access to high-quality health care." Everyone ages differently, and Biden could point to the stories of everyday Americans who continue to lead active and productive lives well into their late 80s and 90s. Sometimes, he should say, age actually is just a number.

Crucially, he should also make a pledge to never lie or conceal information about his health, which would serve as a contrast with Trump's most recent apparent lie about his health. (When he was booked in Atlanta on 13 felony accounts related to his efforts to overturn Georgia's results in the 2020 election, Trump claimed to weigh 215 pounds. Muhammad Ali, who at 6'3" was the same height as Trump, clocked in at 214 in his prime.) Biden should remind the public about the guardrails that have long been set in place surrounding presidential health, and point to his confidence in Vice President Kamala Harris to fulfill those duties. 

Is such a speech likely? Biden's team is famously insular, and such a shift to more creative thinking is unlikely for a White House whose messaging often seems adrift. To be fair, such a bold move would come with risks, not the least of which is giving voice to an issue the vast majority of voters currently see as a weakness. Biden notably lacks the political dexterity of Kennedy and Obama, but he and his team should determine that the benefits of a speech, in which he would seize the initiative on an important issue for voters, outweigh the risks. 

An address would also feed the Republican fear machine, which would doubtless bill it as a last-ditch effort to prop up a drooling Biden unable to digest his tapioca pudding. But isn't that the point? He needs to project confidence and strength. What better way to do so than to stare your weakness directly in the face?

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The speech would also call attention to the question of presidential succession and to a familiar refrain being repeated in the Republican primary, most famously by Nikki Haley: that a vote for Biden is a vote for President Kamala Harris. At the moment, the vice president remains less popular among voters than Biden, and questions have been raised by conservative and liberal pundits alike about her aptitude for assuming the presidency in the event of Biden's death or incapacitation. But such a moment could also be used to continue the process of elevating and redefining Harris, who seems to have begun turning a corner with more assured appearances and interviews, and by giving well-received speeches on abortion rights and the importance of teaching Black history

There is also the question of whether it would change the narrative. At the time of their respective addresses, Kennedy and Obama were both fresh on the presidential scene—relatively new in Kennedy's case, as he had made a quixotic bid for the vice presidential nomination at the 1956 Democratic National Convention when nominee Adlai Stevenson threw open the selection of his running mate to the convention floor, and brand new in Obama's case, as he had only been elected to the Senate in 2004. While Kennedy and Obama were attempting to define their candidacies and political brands before others had the chance to, Biden is, of course, no stranger to presidential politics. Perceptions of him have long since settled into the concrete of conventional wisdom. But therein lies the opportunity. 

Confronting his age head-on in a national address could serve to remind voters what they liked about Biden in the first place, and what polls indicate still resonates: his candor. For decades, he  has constructed his political image as an unfiltered straight-shooter who "stands up for what he believes in." From the infamous "big f**king deal" observation to Obama at the Affordable Care Act signing ceremony, to pre-empting his boss by endorsing marriage equality in an interview in 2012, Biden has often been able to cut through the political noise with frankness. Leading a national conversation on aging would maintain his brand of candid talk.

Joe Biden has always led with his mouth and heart. Now, more than ever, he should harness those impulses and speak to voters. In this case, candor is good politics.

By Jason Kyle Howard

Jason Kyle Howard is the author of "A Few Honest Words: The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music" and coauthor of "Something's Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal." His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Oxford American, Salon, The Nation, The Millions, Utne Reader, and on NPR. He directs the creative writing program at Berea College and serves on the faculty of Spalding University's Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing.

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