Birthdays can be bittersweet — particularly when you’re the oldest president in U.S. history.
As Joe Biden celebrates turning 81 on Monday, the occasion will highlight how age has become his greatest liability entering the final campaign of his 53-year political career and a likely rematch with his predecessor, Donald Trump.
While the White House insists that Biden remains healthy enough to serve as commander in chief, recent polls show him trailing Trump across key swing states, with voters citing deep concerns about his health and acuity.
A Bloomberg News/Morning Consult survey this month found voters in seven swing states more likely to associate old age with Biden than any other topic. In an open-ended question asking what they had heard about the candidates lately, hundreds of respondents cited Biden’s age. Fewer than a dozen did the same for Trump.
Those perceptions have been fueled by high-profile moments including his fall at an Air Force Academy graduation, staircase stumbles boarding Air Force One, the revelation he was using a medical device to aid his breathing during sleep, and a series of verbal gaffes. Taken together, they have fanned uneasiness among Democrats that the man who has cast himself as the bulwark against Trump’s return is just one illness or injury from plunging his campaign – and the nation – into calamity.
White House aides have created a safety net of small accommodations, including regularly using a lower set of stairs for boarding Air Force One, to avoid giving fodder to opponents or the news media. Secret Service agents and staff are careful in cramped backstage settings, using flashlights and verbal warnings to guide the president’s path, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The president also interacts less frequently with the White House press corps, holding far fewer formal press conferences or off-the record sessions on Air Force One and only sitting for a single interview with a daily news print journalist.
Aides say his press strategy is deliberate, reflecting the changing media landscape. And while Biden’s wariness of the press is a stark departure from Trump — and his own time as vice president — those traveling with the president maintain his gift for gab hasn’t diminished, and that he often spends long flights peppering sleepy staffers with questions.
Biden allies also call the focus on the president’s age and health unfair, considering his chief rival, 77-year-old Trump, is medically obese and disdainful of exercise beyond the golf course. And while Trump regularly mocks Biden’s acuity on the campaign trail, he’s prone to slips of his own.
In recent weeks, Trump has incorrectly identified which city he is in, implored his supporters not to vote, and erroneously suggested he was running against or had run against former President Barack Obama. The miscues have become fodder for rivals including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has suggested on the campaign trail that Trump has lost a step.
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