Joe Biden’s age is back at the top of the political agenda.
On Thursday, a special counsel report found that Biden appeared to have “significant limitations” regarding his memory. Then, at a press conference called to dispel those concerns, Biden only exacerbated them by confusing the presidents of Egypt and Mexico.
Is there anything Biden can do at this point to convince voters that at age 81, he’s not too old to serve another term as president? After all, he’s not that much older than his likely opponent, 77-year-old Donald Trump, whose age and mental capacity have also been the subject of some debate. But fairly or not, voters seem more fixated on Biden’s abilities than Trump’s, and this week’s news has only heightened those concerns.
So, we reached out to some of the smartest strategists and insiders from both parties to collect their best ideas for how Biden might convince American voters and politicos that he still has what it takes to be president.
Here’s what they suggested.
‘Do a 60 Minutes interview to discuss it’
By Matt Bennett
Matt Bennett is executive vice president for public affairs at Third Way.
The president cannot continue to treat questions about his age like they are nonsense manufactured by his opponents or an unfair attack. Some are using them that way, but many voters have legitimate questions about his ability to do the job into his mid-80s. When the White House has faced headwinds on other issues, like immigration, they’ve adopted a new strategy. They should do so here, ending the impromptu back and forths and addressing the age issue squarely and in context.
We would recommend he and the First Lady do a 60 Minutes interview to discuss it. That would allow him to go on the offensive by ending his defensiveness. He should be forthright about the impact that age has had: He has less energy than he used to, it exacerbates his speech impediment and he sometimes forgets things, as everyone does.
But then, he can flip the question from a referendum to a choice: “Donald Trump and I are about the same age. And both of us do forget things occasionally. But I remember more about what makes this country great and how to save the soul of America than Trump has ever known. I like to think that along with some humbling, my age has brought experience, wisdom, deeper empathy. Age and experience also have offered me the ability to find and recruit a talented and ethical team to help me lead and serve this country. For Trump, age has brought confusion, chaos and anger. And apparently, it has deepened his preference for surrounding himself with unethical and inexperienced toadies. Because to Trump, personal fealty and a commitment to his destructive vision for America are all that matter to him. I have learned a lot in my decades in public service, and it has made me a better president; Trump has learned nothing, and his refusal to change would make him the worst person we could possibly pick to lead this country.”
‘Ultimately, advanced age is not an issue that can be spun’
By Beth Myers
Beth Myers served as a senior advisor on Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign for president and as campaign manager for his 2008 presidential race.
Joe Biden is already the oldest living president in U.S. history. His advanced age has been raised as an issue by Democrats and Republicans alike. Now, a special prosecutor has gone one step further and raised the specter of the president’s loss of mental acuity, and by implication, questioned his fitness to serve. This is vigorously denied by the president and by many around him. But despite these denials, American voters recognize that their president is elderly and may experience limitations.
To dispel these concerns, the president could submit to a cognitive assessment or appear more regularly in unscripted public events, like the pregame Super Bowl interview which he declined for the second year in a row. But ultimately, advanced age is not an issue that can be spun. The president’s friends and advisers must address their own hard truth: Voters will assess the president’s age and continued fitness for office from what they see and hear — from both sides — in the campaign to come.
‘The administration is better served shifting the debate’
By Alice Stewart
Alice Stewart is a political commentator for CNN and has served as an adviser on numerous Republican presidential campaigns.
Moving forward, the Biden administration needs to focus on the president’s strengths, as well as his weaknesses, and make sure future responses are at the right time of day, with the right tone and tenor, and with a teleprompter.
There is no denying the fact that there are bipartisan concerns about President Biden’s fitness for office. In a recent CNN poll, just 25 percent of respondents felt that Biden has the stamina and sharpness to serve as president. For that very reason, from a crisis communications standpoint, it’s better to engage in short-term, strategic silence than to hold a miasmic media avail and remove all doubt.
The administration is better served shifting the debate from the president’s memory to the special counsel’s so-called politically motivated gratuitous criticism. The best way to put questions about the president’s memory to rest is to release the transcripts of the interviews for the report.
‘Put Biden on the road’
By Jarvis Stewart
Jarvis Stewart is a managing partner at Cover Communications and a Democratic media strategist.
President Biden’s press briefing following the special counsel’s report was most certainly not his best. While many agree the report took great liberties and colored outside the lines when assessing Biden’s mental and cognitive state, the fact is, if handled strategically, the Biden White House and his campaign could use this opportunity to redefine and redirect the conversation.
My initial advice is for Biden not to appear agitated and angry. Find the balance between being angry by the descriptions in the report and the passionate, folksy and tough Joe Biden from Scranton. Candidly, let surrogates throw the hard, fierce punches instead.
Secondly, I would immediately put Biden on the road to re-engage with key Democratic voters, not only in solidly blue states but states that will be competitive in the fall. Show he’s not afraid to drill down and hear the concerns of voters on the ground. The White House cannot allow political pundits and “clickbait” headlines to control the narrative. Voters need to see firsthand he’s capable, “locked in” and focused on managing critical domestic and foreign policy issues.
‘Don’t worry about the political class’
By Rose Kapolczynski
Rose Kapolczynski has more than four decades of experience as a campaign and communications strategist and is past president of the American Association of Political Consultants.
Get out of D.C. for a few carefully planned, small, friendly events to remind swing voters of your shared values, compassion and competence on top priority issues such as the economy. Show the base some love on these trips, too, to create positive moments and lay a stronger foundation for your voter turnout efforts for the fall.
Most voters don’t know a Macron from a Merkel and don’t care. Don’t worry about the political class — they’re paid to be critics, not cheerleaders. And remember that when voters realize the choice is between another term of Trump chaos and President Biden, it’s a whole new ballgame.
‘He doesn’t have many options’
By Alex Castellanos
Alex Castellanos is a Republican strategist, a founder of Purple Strategies and a veteran of four presidential campaigns.
Seven things Joe Biden can do to prove he is still fit to serve:
- Mid-March Wrestlemania deathmatch with his beach chair.
- Challenge Putin to a winner-take-all game of “Call of Duty.”
- Say, “Here’s the deal,” and do three Tyreek Hill end-zone flips while walking to the chopper.
- Press conference to recite names of all the dead U.S. presidents he’s met since George Washington, forwards and backwards.
- Successfully reach the summit of Air Force One steps with the aid of Nepalese mountaineer Tenzing Norgay.
- Go bar hopping with a cool dude like Mitch McConnell.
- Remember where he hid the nuclear football.
Realistically, he doesn’t have many options. As Golda Meir said, “Old age is like a plane flying through a storm. Once you’re aboard, there’s nothing you can do.”
‘Cut a campaign ad that talks straight’
By Bill Scher
Bill Scher is a contributing writer to Politico Magazine, the politics editor for the Washington Monthly and co-host of “The DMZ,” an online show and podcast with conservative writer Matt Lewis.
After Biden’s roller-coaster press conference, The New York Times’ Glenn Thrush observed, “He got wrong Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s country but he also offered a cogent, even-handed analysis of the situation in Gaza.” Fair-minded voters will excuse minor verbal slips, which can happen at any age, so long as they are convinced the president is ably handling the inherent complexities of the job.
For the public to feel reassured that Biden is still capable of handling the pressures of the presidency, they need to see more Biden, not less. Here’s how:
1. Participate in more in-depth interviews: Biden should do interviews that go deeper than a 15-minute press conference or drive-by gaggle can. Show off foreign policy chops on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS” or “The Amanpour Hour” for the entire hour. Get into the economic weeds on NPR’s Planet Money.
2. Give a peek behind the curtain: Past presidents have participated in TV specials intended to show what a typical day in the White House is like. Now is as good a time as any for Biden to do the same.
3. Be transparent about the realities of aging: Cut a campaign ad that talks straight about what’s tough about getting older, alongside what’s gained. Own up to feeling a little stiffer, sounding a little raspier and having a harder time containing a stutter. Acknowledge he hears the calls to step aside and thinks about it every day — because he doesn’t want to do the job if someone else can do it better. But then connect with others who also feel they’re being unduly pressured to go out to pasture when they still have something to give — namely, invaluable accumulated experience and wisdom.
‘Biden should embrace the totality of his extraordinary life journey’
By Michael Starr Hopkins
Michael Starr Hopkins is a Democratic strategist who has served on the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Delaney.
President Biden should address the nation in a primetime Oval Office speech directly tackling the concerns over his age head-on. He should acknowledge that at 81 years old, he does not have the same sharpness he did even a few years ago. However, with age comes wisdom and experience that cannot be replicated.
Biden should remind voters of his lifetime of public service and the steady, principled leadership he has shown going back to his decades in the Senate. Despite some forgetfulness or occasional verbal stumbles, he should show that his moral character and compassion for ordinary Americans has never wavered.
He can point to his successes marshaling major legislation like the infrastructure bill as evidence of his effectiveness. Biden should note how his steady hand guided the country out of potential economic ruin brought on by Covid. He should double down on the core promises he brought to the Oval Office — healing divisions, restoring decency and normalcy, defending democracy here and abroad.
While the president cannot boast the vigor of youth, his wisdom and humanity have only grown — traits badly needed in these tumultuous times. Rather than trying to seem younger than his age, Biden should embrace the totality of his extraordinary life journey culminating in the presidency. If occasional senior moments are the price for his tested leadership, that is a trade-off most American voters will gladly accept.
‘Transform his image from an old man to a seasoned statesman’
By John Conway
John Conway is director of strategy at Republican Accountability Project.
Everyone knows Joe Biden is old, and there is no getting around it. Instead of trying to fight it, Biden needs to lean into it. He needs to talk about his decades of experience, how he has been working for the American people since the year “The Godfather” won Best Picture, and transform his image from an “old man” to a “seasoned statesman.” Biden can’t, as Reagan did, make a joke about how he “won’t exploit, for political purposes, [his] opponent’s youth and inexperience.” But he can channel the spirit of that joke and turn a weakness into an asset.
But he can’t do it alone — he needs an army of surrogates who can flood the airwaves touting his accomplishments daily. One of the things we hear in focus groups is how unaware most voters are of what the Biden administration has accomplished and how they don’t hear enough about what’s going on in the White House. Trump had Jim Jordan going on Fox News talking about how he was the greatest president in history and had the lowest unemployment rate in history. Almost no one is doing that for Biden, or at least, not nearly as effectively. This needs to change.
‘President Biden must first unite a Democratic Party that he has fractured’
By Waleed Shahid
Waleed Shahid is a Democratic strategist who has previously worked on the campaigns of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders and Summer Lee.
A party divided against itself cannot win. President Biden must first unite a Democratic Party that he has fractured over issues like funding Israel’s war in Gaza, immigration policies reminiscent of Trump’s era and skyrocketing cost of living. While nearly half of Biden’s voters in 2020 say Israel has committed a genocide in Gaza, Biden has continued to criticize progressives and provide Israel with billions of dollars in weapons funding. Democrats under 45 years old are also likely concerned about his harsh, Trump-like policies on migrants at the border and are more likely to lack the financial resources to confront challenges like rising costs of rent and groceries.
Biden must embrace a balanced foreign policy and make a positive case for immigration, aligning closer to the core values of the Democratic Party. Addressing cost of living concerns like the soaring costs of groceries through price stabilization measures can resonate with younger, non-college voters who predominantly work in the service sector.
With his approach to climate, student debt and economic policy, Biden has broken in really important ways with the Democratic Party’s failed, Wall Street-friendly economic policies of the Clinton and Obama presidencies. President Biden’s been successful by representing a broad coalition, but right now, he’s not representing a majority of Democrats who helped put him into office to put an end to Trumpism. If Biden continues to fund Israel’s occupation and war in Gaza, he will break a fundamental trust, and no amount of lecturing about the greater evil in 2024 will repair it.
Sending billions in unconditional military aid to Netanyahu’s far-right government to pursue a policy of collective punishment against Palestinians makes a mockery of Biden’s claim to fight Trump-style authoritarianism. I pray, for all our sakes, that the Biden administration corrects course — because our country cannot afford to pay the bill for disregarding Palestinian lives should it come due in 2024.
By adopting a holistic approach that prioritizes diplomacy, compassionate governance and economic relief, Biden can mend the generational rift within his party, proving his capability to lead a united and forward-looking Democratic coalition into the future.
‘Take the path he has avoided so far and engage’
By Jeff Greenfield
Jeff Greenfield is a contributing writer at POLITICO Magazine covering U.S. politics. He’s a five-time Emmy-winning network television analyst and has written multiple books about American politics.
“Victory has a thousand fathers,” JFK said after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, “but defeat is an orphan.” To which the Biden campaign might say, “… and political trouble brings a thousand kibbitzers,” each providing surefire guides to fixing the president’s age problem.
Much of the advice will bring to mind the way an economist fixes a leak: “First, assume a wrench.” Biden does not have a ranch near Santa Barbara, as Ronald Reagan had, where he can be seen riding horses and clearing brush; nor will a clever quip about his friendship with the Founding Fathers ease the concern. A vigorous schedule of freewheeling interactions with the press sounds great; the problem is that for three years, Biden’s team has shunned that idea, up to and including a pre-Super Bowl interview; and his performance Thursday night suggests they were wise to set such limits.
But if implausibility is no bar to advice, here’s what I suggest: Build a time machine, go back to 2015 or so, and convince Barack Obama not to put all of the Democrats’ chips behind Hillary Clinton. Obama, who once boasted that he was a better political strategist than his strategists, made a remarkably myopic judgment. For all of her many assets, she was the “ideal” candidate for Donald Trump to run against. By contrast, a 72-year-old Biden, without Clinton’s liabilities, would have been far more likely to send Trump down to a defeat big enough to end his presidential prospects once and for all.
Assuming this is dismissed as “unrealistic,” there is no masterstroke; instead, Biden will have to take the path he has avoided so far and engage — with voters and with the press — fully embracing the risks of further “slips.” Reassuring comments from his allies that he is engaged and focused in private carry with them the dreaded judgment that attaches to all politicians who are less-than-stellar public performers: “He’s great in small groups.” The single biggest obstacle to Biden’s reelection — the number “8” in his age — has now become a threat big enough to require him to step into the harsh spotlight of public scrutiny and prove the doubters wrong.
‘Aggressively deploy surrogates’
By Victor Shi
Victor Shi co-hosts the iGen Politics podcast, serves as strategy director for Voters of Tomorrow, and has interned at the DNC, White House and Center for American Progress.
President Joe Biden’s age is no secret. He knows it, his campaign knows it, and so does my generation. But as Biden’s youngest delegate in 2020 at 17 years old, I did not support him because of his age or his speaking skills — I supported him because I believed in his promise to get things done for my generation. And my support has not wavered since because, over the last three years, Biden has done exactly that: delivered on his promises for a generation often ignored by elected officials and that is hungry for change.
To tackle the dominant narratives about his age being problematic, I have two suggestions, not as a Joe Biden supporter, but as someone who has worked on campaigns and in communications for the past three years.
First, acknowledge the elephant in the room: President Biden is old. He makes mistakes. He stumbles. But, at every turn, remind voters this election is a binary choice between an old man who occasionally makes gaffes (Biden) and an old man who not only trips over his own words, but also faces 91 criminal counts, is a proven sexual abuser and has promised to be a dictator on Day One (Trump).
Second: Aggressively deploy surrogates like Vice President Kamala Harris and real Americans across every form of media who can talk about Biden’s policies, how their lives have improved because of them and all he promises to do if reelected. Most voters don’t care about age. They care about how their lives have changed and how they will get better. President Biden has undoubtedly changed many lives for the better and promises even more in a second term — now it’s time to sell it loudly and proudly, giving people something to believe in.
‘Let Biden be Biden — gaffes and all’
By Maria Cardona
Maria Cardona is a veteran Democratic strategist, principal at the Dewey Square Group and a CNN/CNN Español political contributor.
The Biden campaign should (and I believe they will) continue to let Biden be Biden — gaffes and all. His empathy, his authenticity and his humanity are his superpowers. He was fierce in his fight this week, when he scolded the special counsel about the nasty report language about Biden’s memories of when his son died. Voters love seeing this fight, they can relate to it, connect it with his fighting for them and their families, waking up every day thinking about how to make their lives better. Contrast that with Donald Trump who every day wakes up angry at the world, thinking about retribution, how to get back at his political enemies and whose priority is fighting for vengeance — not fighting for others.
Everyone has gaffes. (Jesse Watters on Fox, right after criticizing Biden for mixing up the name of the president of Mexico, called Kristi Noem the governor of South Carolina instead of South Dakota!) The contrast will be the thing that wins the day now and in November. Donald Trump, with 91 counts, 4 indictments, who is a sex offender, fraudster and an insurrectionist, vs. a report from an overzealous SC who did not charge him in over 300 pages and in them forgets on page 215 what he wrote on page 1.
And then the Biden campaign needs to continue to emphasize POTUS’ performance — President Biden outflanked Republicans on what they said was their top issue this week, the border — which they ended up walking away from. Biden showed Americans just how feckless, unserious and unfit to lead and solve problems Republicans are because they prioritize genuflecting at the altar of Donald Trump instead of serving the American people. Same you’ve seen from Biden passing big bills that couldn’t be passed. He has also rallied the world to support Ukraine and started pivoting to pushing Israel to do better and right by Gaza — so important to young people!
Emphasize contrast — always the contrast. This election is a choice. And there is no comparison between which candidate is ready to continue to and has already served the American people successfully, fiercely and committedly and wants to finish the job of expanding our economic recovery, protecting our rights and freedoms and strengthening our democracy — and a candidate who wants to finish the job of destroying our democracy and fighting only for himself.
All of this means taking on the age issue head-on, not shying away from it, showing who he is at his core, which is much more important than a number, and that his wisdom, his experience, his chops, his knowledge, along with his accomplishments, will win the day. As I heard a focus group voter say recently, “Yeah Biden is old, but so is Donald Trump. I would rather have old and steady than old and crazy!”
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