Briefing

The newly-resurfaced debate on Biden's age and mental fitness

Why people are suddenly focusing on Biden's age

Much of the talk around whether President Biden should run for a second term in office revolves around his age and perceived mental sharpness compared to younger potential candidates. Why is this subject in focus lately, and what do his critics and defenders say? Here's everything you need to know:

Just how old is Biden?

President Biden is 79 years old. By the end of his term, he'll be 82. And he insists he's running for re-election, which would make him 86 by the time he left office, eight years older than the average life expectancy for an American male. Ronald Reagan began his second term at the age of 73 and is widely believed to have suffered from Alzheimer's toward the end of his presidency.

The median age of American presidents on Inauguration Day is 55.

Is he showing signs of cognitive decline?

Not necessarily. Biden frequently stumbles over his words, but that could be at least partially because of his stutter. Journalist John Hendrickson described Biden's stutter — and his lifelong struggle to control it — as the president's "most visible weakness" but also "the main source of his grit and determination." Senior care experts note that some forms of dementia can lead to stuttering and that childhood stutters sometimes re-emerge among elderly people, especially if they experience an increase in confusion or anxiety.

In a January op-ed for The Hill, Marc Siegel noted that "at least 15 percent of those over the age of 75 have some cognitive impairment," that the president has several risk factors that could increase the likelihood of cognitive issues, and that the doctor's report following Biden's most recent physical found "a significant worsening in the president's gait, which in some cases can be related to degenerative disease in the brain or the spinal cord." The report concluded that Biden was "fit to successfully execute the duties of the Presidency."

Why is this subject getting increased attention lately?

The subject is now seemingly considered fair game among political pundits, but that wasn't the case until fairly recently. In August 2021, CNN's Chris Cillizza wrote that, by raising concerns about Biden's mental acuity, Republicans were engaging in "the sort of gross, lowest-common-denominator politics that drive people away from public life." The argument among many Democrats was along the lines of Biden is fine, dammit, and any suggestion to the contrary is a dirty, partisan smear tactic.

Then, Jim Geraghty noted in National Review, sometime in late June the dam began to crack. Suddenly, Geraghty wrote, the president's "age, memory, and mental state ... became an acceptable subject for quiet and subdued expressions of public concern."

An early example of this trend was a June 11 report in The New York Times, which bore the headline "Should Biden Run in 2024? Democratic Whispers of 'No' Start to Rise." The Times noted that Biden has "built a reputation for gaffes[,] has repeatedly rattled global diplomacy with unexpected remarks that were later walked back by his White House staff, and ... has sat for fewer interviews than any of his recent predecessors."

In a June 16 piece in The Atlantic, Mark Leibovich argued that Biden should not seek a second term. If Biden were an airline pilot, he "would be enjoying his 15th year of retirement," Leibovich wrote. Due to concerns about "stamina and mental acuity," the FAA mandates that pilots retire at the age of 65

"Democrats and the media suddenly discover the President is old," The Wall Street Journal's editorial board quipped on June 19.

To Geraghty, this was obvious all along. "We can see that the president rarely does more than one public event each day, and rarely attends events at night. We can see that the president goes home to Delaware almost every weekend ... We can see that about four months passed between Biden's sit-down interviews with NBC's Lester Holt and then his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel's show," he wrote. Geraghty also transcribed a particularly rambling passage from Biden's conversation with Kimmel: "You turn on the TV, look at the ads, when's the last time you saw biracial couples on TV? When's the last time you saw the way, I mean, people are selling products, they do ads and sell products and they say products when people they appeal to people," the president said before Kimmel took back the reins.

Then, over the weekend, that crack in the dam widened. On July 9, The New York Times ran the headline "At 79, Biden Is Testing the Boundaries of Age and the Presidency." According to the Times, administration officials and advisers "uniformly reported that Mr. Biden remained intellectually engaged." The Times also conceded, however, that Biden "sometimes loses his train of thought" or "appears momentarily confused," has repeatedly referred to Vice President Kamala Harris as "President Harris," and "several times called Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, 'John,' confusing him with the late Republican senator of that name from Virginia."

The Times also published a letter to the editor from a nonagenarian who expressed concerns about "the way [Biden] walks, as if afraid he might just topple over; the way he delivers a speech, running his words together, not enunciating clearly;" and "his overall demeanor that seems to suggest he'd rather be anywhere else."

Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro suggested that these concerns about Biden's age acuity may have been borne to the surface by progressives' disappointment with his lukewarm response to the Supreme Court's rollback of abortion rights. Several conservative Twitter users wrote that it seemed as if a "memo went out" over the weekend, letting the media know that the Democratic establishment was no longer willing to back the aging and unpopular Biden in 2024.

"It took about one week for them to go from ''Leave Joe Biden [alone] and give him a break' to 'Dump this senile old man and take our chances in 2024'," Spectator World editor Stephen L. Miller tweeted Tuesday.

What does polling show?

When Biden was still a candidate, his relatively strong debate performances and pandemic-driven minimalist campaigning strategy inspired confidence that, despite his age, Biden was still in full command of his faculties. Just before the 2020 election, voters "believed [Biden] was mentally fit by a 21-point margin," Politico reported.

That confidence didn't last. By Nov. 2021, 48 percent of voters said Biden was mentally unfit for office. Three months later, that number was up to 54 percent.

A July 2022 poll found that 64 percent of likely Democratic 2024 primary voters don't want Biden to be the party's nominee. Of that group, only three percent cited concerns about Biden's "mental acuity," but 33 percent mentioned his age, which could be another way of saying the same thing.

The same poll showed Biden's job-approval rating at 33 percent.

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