Briefing

The new debate about Joe 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:

The latest:

In late October, Biden addressed concerns voters might have about his age or mental dexterity. In an interview with MSNBC, Biden said it's "totally legitimate" for voters to question if his age should preclude him from a re-election bid. He urged voters to decide for themselves if his health shows signs of decline when determining if they would back him in 2024.

"I think the best way to make the judgment is to watch me," he said. "Am I slowing up? Am I going at the same pace?" 

Biden jokingly stated he had a hard time adjusting to the fact that he'll be turning 80 on Nov. 20 but insisted that his overall health is still in good shape. 

The president went through a series of health screenings, including neurological examinations, right before his last birthday, The Associated Press reports. His primary care physician Dr. Kevin O'Connor vouched for Biden's physical and mental condition in a six-page memo released by the White House. 

Though he doesn't feel like his health is an issue, Biden addressed the possibility of future health concerns getting in the way of running a second time.

"It could be, I am a great respecter of fate. I could get a disease tomorrow, drop dead tomorrow," he continued to MSNBC. "In terms of my energy level, in terms of how much I am able to do, I think people should look and see, does he still have the same passion for what he is doing? If they think I do, then it is fine. If not, they should vote against me."

Why is Biden's age so noteworthy?

President Biden is 79 years old — at age 78, he became the oldest person to assume the presidency in U.S. history. By the end of his term, he'll be 82. Despite not having made an official announcement, Biden has repeatedly stated that he intends to run for re-election. That would make him 86 by the end of his second term, 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 always the case. 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.

Then, over the summer, 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", 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.

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.

The latest Issue & Insights/TIPP Poll found that 64 percent of all voters had concerns about Biden's mental capacity. 52 percent of Democrats expressed concerns about his mental health. The survey was taken from October 5-7, with 1,376 respondents and a margin of error of +/- 2.8.

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