At 79, Biden is testing the limits of age and the presidency

WASHINGTON — When President Biden leaves Tuesday night for a four-day tour of the Middle East, he will presumably be more rested than he would have been had he followed the original plan.

The trip was initially added to another trip last month to Europe, which would have meant an arduous 10-day trip abroad until it became clear to Biden’s team that such a long trip could be unnecessarily taxing for a 79-year-old president. years. , or “crazy,” as one official put it.

Aides also cited political and diplomatic reasons for rearranging the additional stops as a separate trip weeks later. But the reality is that managing the calendar of the oldest president in the history of the United States presents different challenges. And with Biden insisting he plans to run for a second term, his age has increasingly become an uncomfortable topic for him, his team and his party.

Just a year and a half into his first term, Mr. Biden is already more than a year older than Ronald Reagan at the end of two terms. If he mounts another campaign in 2024, Biden would ask the country to elect a leader who would be 86 by the end of his term, testing the outer limits of age and presidency. Polls show that many Americans consider Biden too old and some Democratic strategists don’t think he should run again.

It is, unsurprisingly, a touchy subject in the West Wing. In interviews, some sanctioned by the White House and some not, more than a dozen current and former senior officials and advisers uniformly reported that Biden remained intellectually engaged, asking intelligent questions in meetings, grilling advisers on points in dispute, calling them late. at night, picking out that weak point on page 14 of a memo and rewriting speeches like his statement on abortion on Friday to the last minute.

But they acknowledged that Biden looks older than he did a few years ago, a political liability that cannot be resolved with traditional White House ploys like staff reshuffling or new communications plans. His energy level, while impressive for a man his age, is not what he was, and a few aides watch him in silence. He often drags his feet when he walks, and helpers fear that he will trip over a wire. He stumbles over words during public events, and they hold their breath to see if he gets through without a mistake.

Although White House officials insist they don’t make special arrangements like the Reagan team did, they are privately trying to protect Biden’s weekends in Delaware as much as possible. He is usually a president for five or five and a half days a week, although he is called at any time on any day as needed. He stays out of the public eye at night and has participated in fewer than half the press conferences or interviews of his recent predecessors.

When Biden fell while getting off a bike last month, White House officials ruefully noted that it was among the top stories of the week, never mind that the president works out five mornings a week, often with a trainer. physical, or that many men his age hardly ride a bike anymore.

Biden himself has said that it is reasonable to ask questions about his physical condition, even as he assures Americans that he is in good shape. Even for some fans, though, the question is whether that will last another six years.

“I think it’s inappropriate to seek that job after you’re in your 80s or in your 80s,” said David Gergen, a top adviser to four presidents. “I just turned 80 and in the last two or three years I have realized that I think it would not have been wise of me to try to run an organization. You’re not as smart as you used to be.

We all age differently, of course, and some pundits place Biden in a category of “super-aging” who stay unusually fit as they age.

“Right now, there is no evidence that Biden’s age should matter one iota,” said S. Jay Olshansky, a longevity specialist at the University of Illinois Chicago who has studied the candidates’ ages in 2020. “If people they don’t like his policies, they don’t like what he says, okay, they can vote for someone else. But it has nothing to do with how old she is.”

Still, Professor Olshansky said it was legitimate to wonder if that would still be the case at age 86. “That’s the right question,” he said. “You can’t sugarcoat aging. Things go wrong as we get older and the risks increase as we get older.”

The White House rejected the idea that Biden was anything more than a seven-day commander-in-chief. “President Biden works every day, and because CEOs can perform their duties from anywhere in the world, it has long been common for them to spend weekends away from the White House,” said Andrew Bates, deputy secretary of state. press, after this article was published. Posted online.

The president’s medical report in November indicated that he had atrial fibrillation but was stable and asymptomatic. Mr. Biden’s “ambulatory gait is noticeably stiffer and less fluid than it was approximately a year ago,” the report says, and gastroesophageal reflux causes him to cough and clear his throat, symptoms that “certainly appear to be more frequent and more pronounced.” . .”

But overall, Dr. Kevin C. O’Connor, the president’s physician, called him “a healthy and vigorous 78-year-old man who is fit to successfully execute the duties of the presidency.”

However, questions about Biden’s physical condition have affected his public reputation. In a June poll by the Harvard Center for American Political Studies and the Harris Poll, 64 percent of voters believed he was proving too old to be president, including 60 percent of those 65 or older. plus.

Biden’s public appearances have fueled that perception. Her speeches can be flat and listless. He sometimes loses his train of thought, has trouble calling up names, or seems momentarily confused. More than once, he has promoted Vice President Kamala Harris, calling her “President Harris.” Biden, who overcame a childhood stutter, stumbles over words like “kleptocracy.” She has said Iranian when she meant Ukrainian and repeatedly called Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, “John,” mistaking him for the late GOP Sen. of that name from Virginia.

Republicans and conservative media gleefully highlight such moments, posting viral videos, sometimes exaggerated or distorted to make Biden look even worse. But the White House has had to retract some of her offhand comments, such as promising a military response if China attacks Taiwan or declaring that President Vladimir V. Putin “cannot stay in power” in Russia.

Biden was famous for his tendency to make mistakes even when he was younger, with his aides pointing to his marathon meetings with families of mass shooting victims or his rope work during a trip to Cleveland last week as evidence of his resilience.

Mike Donilon, a senior adviser who started working for Biden about 40 years ago, said he didn’t see any change. “On the way back from long trips when the staff is exhausted, you’ll want to spend four hours planning how we start internal politics, when all the much younger staff wants to do is sleep,” he said.

Biden is not the first president to grapple with questions of age. The topic came up repeatedly under President Donald J. Trump, who is four years his junior. Trump’s reduced vocabulary, tendency to ramble, sometimes incoherent comments, reduced office hours and difficulties processing information led critics to conclude that he was on the decline.

Until now, the oldest president was Reagan. When a poor performance in the 1984 debate briefly threatened his re-election, he bounced back in their next meeting by joking that he would not exploit “my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

“Reagan understood this problem, as much intuitively as he had thought about it,” said biographer Lou Cannon. “And he said to me, ‘Age will be a problem if I act old and it won’t be if I don’t.'”

In Reagan’s final years, a new group of aides secretly assessed whether he would need to be removed from office under the 25th Amendment’s disability clause, but ultimately concluded he was still fit. (Five years after leaving the White House, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.)

Still, aides tried to limit their agenda, closely supervised by the first lady, Nancy Reagan. “That’s one of the first lessons we had, not to program too much,” recalled Tom Griscom, one of those helpers. They should also not send excessive information documents at night. “After a couple of weeks,” he said, “he got a message from Mrs. Reagan asking us not to send as much at night because he would read everything,” and he stayed up late.

Biden advisers say he is resisting that move and pushing in the other direction. “He’s pushing additions to his schedule all the time, whether it’s new CEO calls or late-night meetings with members,” said Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, the deputy chief of staff who oversees the schedule. the.

But attendees are cautious about exposing him to the coronavirus. Helpers are tested once a week and wear colored wristbands on the day of their test; if they plan to attend a meeting with the president on another day, then they should also get tested that morning and wear N95 masks.

The White House seems equally determined to shield Mr. Biden from impromptu interactions with the media. He has held only 16 press conferences since taking office, less than half as many as Trump, Barack Obama and George W. Bush have had at this stage and less than a third as many as Bill Clinton and George HW Bush have had. according to Martha. Joynt Kumar, longtime student of presidential media strategy.

Similarly, Biden has given just 38 interviews, far fewer than Trump (116), Obama (198), the younger Bush (71), Clinton (75), and the older Bush (86). Biden has been more accessible by answering a few questions informally after a speech or other event, which she has done 290 times, compared to 213 for Trump and 64 for Obama.

During his trip to Europe last month, foreign leaders followed suit while treating him protectively like a distinguished elderly relative. In a photo opportunity, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany gently pointed Mr. Biden in the direction of the cameras. Just before a meeting, a reporter twice yelled a question about getting grain out of the Ukraine. When Biden couldn’t hear the question, Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, came to his rescue. “We’re working on it,” Mr. Johnson replied.

At times, Mr. Biden kept a tight schedule. The day he flew to Madrid for a NATO summit, he met with various leaders and ended with a dinner hosted by King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia of Spain. However, another day he skipped evening festivities with other leaders and his public schedule ended with a 3:30 pm event.

But aides said he was busy and stayed up working late every night of the trip out of sight, just as they say they expect him to next week when he hits the road again in Israel and Saudi Arabia.

jim tankersley, Michael D. Shear Y katie benner contributed report.

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