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Is Joe Biden Too Senior of a Statesman?
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Is Joe Biden Too Senior of a Statesman?

Some Democrats worry while others brush the question off.

President Joe Biden laughs during the White House Correspondents' Association dinner on Saturday. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Joe Biden’s most formidable opponent in 2024 may be himself. That’s how many Democrats see it.

“Do I wish he was younger? Yeah, I do,” said a supportive House Democrat who represents a battleground district. 

As the 80-year-old president of the United States begins his reelection bid, Democratic insiders say they aren’t fretting any more than usual about the myriad political challenges Biden faces, such as a volatile national economy or his underwater job approval. It’s Biden’s advanced age that concerns many in his party.

Democrats don’t buy into Republican taunts that Biden is cognitively or physically impaired and being ordered around by senior staff. And they say they are confident the president can do his job and campaign for a second term without the “benefit” of a pandemic to keep him off the trail for extended periods, as was the case in 2020.

But Democrats say they worry because at Biden’s age, anything can happen, even to people who don’t occupy the most mentally taxing job on the planet. 

“His biggest issue will be his health. If he has a health scare, that’s going to create anxiety for people and they’re going to want another option,” said a Democratic operative in a red state, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. 

Privately, even some Democrats in Biden’s orbit share the concern. One party operative who served as a senior official in President Barack Obama’s administration said some fear exists that Biden could experience a health episode in the few months preceding the general election that could require him to be replaced on the ticket.

While other elected Democrats, party operatives, and grassroots activists who worry tend to discuss their trepidation in hushed tones, Biden himself appears to recognize the nagging unease about his age.

“One of the things people are going to find out—they’re going to see a race and they’re going to judge whether or not I have it or don’t have it,” Biden said Wednesday during a White House news conference one day after announcing his reelection bid. “I respect them taking a hard look at it; I take a hard look at it as well. I took a hard look at it before I decided to run. I feel good, I feel excited about the prospects.” 

Plenty of Democrats quite younger than the president dismiss hand-wringing about his age as unjustified.

“I fundamentally have no concerns because I’ve been in meetings with the president and he unquestionably has the mental capacity to lead our country,” said Rep. Ritchie Torres, 35, of New York. Added a second House Democrat, in his 40s: “He rides his bike. He tries to take care of himself. He’s had a good first term. Very good, actually. Let him do his thing.”

Some of Biden’s biggest supporters are frustrated on his behalf by the persistent questions about his age, including Democratic operatives aiding the reelection effort. They point to key legislative accomplishments: a bipartisan infrastructure bill sought after by Donald Trump but never realized; a bipartisan package to spur domestic microchip manufacturing; and trillions of dollars for social programs prioritized by grassroots liberals. And they are especially quick to highlight Biden’s robust travel schedule.

From January 4 through March 14, the president traveled outside of Washington 21 times. Not counting the eight stops in either the D.C. metropolitan area, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania or Virginia, Biden made 10 trips across the continental United States, from the West Coast, to the Midwest, to the Southeast, plus foreign journeys to Mexico, Poland and war-torn Ukraine. His trip to Kyiv from Poland required a grueling, 20-hour round-trip train ride. 

How does that compare to past presidents? Democrats point out that during a similar period in 2011—January 12 through March 14— a 49-year-old Obama left Washington just 13 times, and five of those trips were to communities in metropolitan D.C., Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania. The rest of the 44th president’s eight stops were in states across the country. Biden was the vice president during Obama’s two terms.

The Biden campaign is confident carrying out normal presidential duties will quell concerns about his age. “The most important thing for the president to do right now is to be the president,” a knowledgeable Democratic insider said. “It presents a strong foil to the Republican primary.”

“Yes, there is an age factor there. But look what he’s doing. Look how he’s out there,” said Biden ally Doug Jones, the Democratic former senator from Alabama. “It just doesn’t seem to affect him one bit.” Meanwhile, the White House is practically daring Republicans to make Biden’s age a line of attack in the upcoming campaign.

“They attacked him for his age before he beat them in 2020,” deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said. “They did the same before he beat them in 2022. They even tried it when he got the better of them in the State of the Union about Social Security and when he showed high endurance in a war zone. I’m not sure what they think they’re accomplishing.”

Biden’s distinction as the oldest White House occupant in history caused considerably more grumbling on the left last year. The Democratic party was expecting a drubbing in the midterm elections, a historical regularity for first-term presidents. Nervous Democrats were attributing the party’s struggles to Biden’s age, making it known they preferred new leadership atop the 2024 ticket.

But Democrats performed well in critical battleground states last November, growing their Senate majority, narrowly losing the House and winning governor’s races in Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania in what amounted to a third consecutive disappointment for the Republicans in a national election. Biden followed that up with a rousing State of the Union address and active foreign trips to Ukraine and Ireland. In toto, it was enough to assuage many previously angst-ridden naysayers. 

“There’s always a ton of anxiety amongst the president’s party leading into the midterms,” said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. “At this point, I think it’s really rather clear that he’s the best, strongest candidate we have.”

Smith’s conclusion is backed up by some evidence. In a YouGov poll conducted for The Economist, Biden’s favorability and job approval ratings among Democrats were both 86 percent. And in polls gauging a hypothetical Biden-Trump rematch where Biden leads, the Democratic president has a higher share of the vote than Trump has in polls where the Republican frontrunner leads. That is a crucial metric.

But worrisome signs remain for the president. To begin with, Trump was running neck-and-neck with Biden nationally in the RealClearPolitics average despite political and ethical baggage—and despite polling that shows Trump to be even more unpopular than Biden. (When it comes to how old they are, some of these same polls show voters concerned about both candidates. Trump will be 77 in June.) 

According to an NBC News poll fielded in April, prior to Biden’s reelection launch, “70 percent of all Americans—including 51 percent of Democrats—believe he should not run for a second term. Forty-eight percent of them cited the president’s age as a “major reason” for disapproving of his 2024 campaign; an additional 21 percent said it was a “minor reason.” In other words, while many Democrats are content with Biden as their nominee, voters generally remain skeptical. 

That could matter if Trump is defeated in the GOP primary by a younger rival; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is 44 and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is 51, for instance. Even silver-haired former Vice President Mike Pence, 63, would look youthful next to Biden. 

“If it’s a generational fight, campaigns are about the future,” Democratic strategist Dane Strother said. “That could be a problem.”

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.