The same week President Joe Biden endured more scrutiny over his age and capabilities than at any point in his presidency, his likely 2024 opponent Donald Trump was fresh off publicly confusing the names of world leaders and spent campaign speeches going on cruel tangents or offhandedly upending the post-World War II international security order.
The Biden campaign has groused over the news coverage of the two candidates, arguing the mainstream press sensationally ran with what they slammed as a biased report from Special Counsel Robert Hur last week on the president’s handling of classified documents—while giving Trump a pass.
But the president’s re-election team isn’t just complaining. They’re preparing to ramp up their attacks on Trump’s capabilities by pushing out video clips online and reframing one of the central concerns of the 2024 campaign around the idea of “fitness” for office instead of mental acuity, according to a source familiar with the campaign’s plans.
The Biden campaign wants to make the case that the president’s missteps are innocuous and consistent for his gaffe-prone political career, while Trump’s are far more sinister and have grave, potentially life-and-death consequences.
Across social media platforms, the Biden-Harris HQ accounts will lead the charge on this front, increasing their use of video clips showing Trump saying outlandish or menacing things on the campaign trail, such as his comments over the weekend encouraging Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to NATO countries who don’t pay enough on defense spending.
Trump has frequently mixed up the names of world leaders, referring recently to Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban as the leader of Turkey. He mixed up Nikki Haley and Nancy Pelosi, at length, during a New Hampshire rally last month. He insists people need photo I.D. to buy groceries.
While Biden and top campaign hands have downplayed the relevance of his age as an issue, his allies and supporters are anxious to directly counter GOP attacks on his capability and to weaponize Trump’s repeated gaffes and misstatements.
“We need to be three steps ahead of the Republicans. We cannot let anything fester,” Douglas Wilson, a senior adviser to the Biden 2020 campaign in North Carolina, told the Daily Beast.
Wilson emphasized the need for Democrats to stop ignoring Biden’s age as an issue. “Us Democrats and the White House still believe we’re in the year 2005, and the Republican Party is normal,” Wilson said. “Those days are over. The Republicans are the we’re not fuckin’ around crew.”
The Biden campaign points to Trump’s rhetoric as far more severe compared to the president’s longstanding struggle with name recollection—though it’s been an especially rough stretch for the president lately.
Last Wednesday, he again mistook a well-known world leader for a deceased predecessor—saying he spoke to the longtime German chancellor Helmut Kohl in 2021, when Kohl died in 2017 and Biden likely meant to refer to Angela Merkel.
“The man has been changing one name for another since he introduced Barack Obama as ‘Barack America’ 16 years ago,” the source close to the Biden campaign told The Daily Beast.
But Hur’s defining of Biden as “a sympathetic, well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory”—a stinging remark which often drew more attention than the decision not to charge Biden—immediately raised the stakes for how the campaign communicates about his age.
Hours after the special counsel report dropped last Thursday, the president responded forcefully in a press conference, getting visibly angry over Hur’s claim that the president didn’t remember when his son Beau had died. The report also claimed Biden could not pin down which years he was serving as vice president.
Although the president’s campaign has made many of the same arguments over how Trump tried and failed to paint Biden as senile in 2020, public polls routinely show the depth of voter skepticism about his age. Coming off the release of the Hur report, a new ABC News/Ipsos poll found 86 percent of voters think Biden is too old to be president—up from 74 percent in September of last year.
For the Biden campaign, though, success may not look like reversing public perception that the 80-year old president is too old to serve another four years. Instead, it may look like making the 2024 election a referendum on Trump’s extreme rhetoric, positions, and baggage—something the president’s team did successfully in 2020.
Now that Biden is the incumbent, that task will be much harder, especially with Republicans relentlessly hammering his competence at every turn. For months, the GOP has been grabbing every snippet it can of the president appearing confused or saying something bizarre and blasting them out to Trump’s super fans, mainly through the RNC Research account, led by the party’s rapid response team.
Democrats say now is the time for their party to be equally relentless.
Michael Blake, an early Obama campaign senior staffer, said the Biden campaign must hammer home the difference between the president doing his job, while “Trump can't remember the difference between Nikki Haley and Nancy Pelosi,” he said.
Regina Romero, the mayor of Tucson, Arizona, and a Biden campaign surrogate, told The Daily Beast she thinks the president can defeat Trump again by running on his record, describing the former president as “unhinged,” running around “making outrageous and false claims, undermining our democracy at every step.”
In their plan to negate Trump on the age and capacity argument, the Biden campaign will use its digital operation to take more swipes at Trump with every chance they can get. The tactic was on full display over the weekend following Trump’s comments on NATO and Russia.
The Biden-Harris HQ account grabbed a clip and teed up Biden to quote it in a post on his own campaign account. “You want to know why Ukraine is important?” Biden’s post read. “Because as you can see, Putin and his useful lackeys have their eyes on bigger prizes.”
Along with the Biden War Room accounts, the Democratic National Committee is expected to be another big player in the clip wars, according to the source familiar with the planning.
The Biden campaign is also joining TikTok, a decision the source close to the campaign said was months in the making and will be a key component in their plans to counter Trump.
The president’s allies hope the push will help Democrats reclaim control over how the two candidates’ ages have become a dominant storyline in the campaign.
“The age conversation and the negativity around it is being framed by the Republican side. Embrace it,” said Blake, the founder of Kairos: Democracy Project, a nonprofit aimed at boosting turnout among young voters and voters of color. “Embrace it in a comical manner.”
One venue where Biden plans to use humor to address the age concerns is in non-traditional media venues, such as celebrity podcast sitdowns like the one he did a month ago with Conan O’Brien.
The campaign may not change their approach to avoiding sit-down interviews with mainstream press, however. There is skepticism there’s any amount of media hits he could do to make his age not a talking point on the right, the source close to the Biden campaign said.
And for the Biden campaign, complaining about what they see as a double standard in press coverage has become a near-daily occurrence. In a press release on Monday, the campaign tallied the number of minutes from TV news and stories from newspapers that were spent on Biden’s age versus Trump’s NATO comments, driving home how much the former was covered compared to the latter.
“The American people deserve a press corps who cover his candidacy, his comments, and his policy positions with the seriousness and ferocity this moment requires,” wrote TJ Ducklo, a senior communications adviser on the campaign.
Still, Wilson said, the Biden campaign cannot afford to do anything but address the aging concerns head on.
“Until the president shows us he physically cannot do this job,” Wilson said, the Biden campaign has to go on offense over his age. Even if there are limits to sitdown interviews, Wilson said the president would have benefited from taking up CBS on their standing invitation for a pre-Super Bowl interview that would have aired on Sunday.
The risk of not getting Biden in front of voters, he noted, will be felt most acutely among the less politically engaged segment of the electorate which often decides the election.
One tactic the Biden campaign has found successful—and plans on leaning into in the coming months—is having the president sit down with notable community leaders in private, closed press events, according to the source familiar with the discussions. Those types of meetings get picked up by local news, and whoever sat down with Biden can attest to his mental sharpness afterward.
Wilson had one more bit of advice for the Biden campaign: be a little more shameless, and back Biden the way Republicans defend Trump.
“But Dems need to just go ahead on with it, and say ‘We support this guy. You know why we support this guy? He’s a good and decent man. Yes, he’s an older guy, but he can’t help that,’” Wilson said.
What Democrats really hope for is the age issue to become moot—allowing real contrasts to emerge on issues that should decide the election.
“Their age difference is negligible,” said Romero, the Tucson mayor. “Their policy differences are not.”