Democrats Have to Stop Living in Denial About Biden’s Age

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

Democrats are in need of a reality check. The stakes are too high for us to indulge in the kind of denial, self-deception, and illusions that are a too-common reaction to many of the biggest challenges we face as a party and a country. Indeed, reality is our greatest strength and our best defense. Only failing to acknowledge it can undo us.

Special Counsel Robert Hur’s report describing President Joe Biden as a “sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” has caused a furor. Reactions to it among members of the president’s team and his supporters have ranged from defensiveness to outrage. Most such reactions have not been particularly helpful.

The issue of the president’s age cannot be willed or wished away. It must be understood, accepted, and addressed in ways that are consistent with observable reality.

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Step one is to understand what is and what is not true—and what is and is not important about the Hur comment.

Among many unassailable facts pertaining to the comment are the following: Hur is a former Trump appointee and self-identified Republican. The fact that he made this comment in the report was, as Vice President Kamala Harris accurately observed, “gratuitous, inaccurate, and inappropriate.”

It is not the kind of comment that belonged in the report. It is debatable whether the report should have been released or not.

It is also fair to say that Hur should not have been picked as the special counsel in this case, and that Attorney General Merrick Garland once again seemed to bend so far backwards in the name of appearing non-partisan that his actions actually seemed to serve the partisan interests of the GOP.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the White House.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the White House in Washington, DC, on Feb. 8, 2024.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

As the president himself noted, the interviews he did with Hur which resulted in the assertion that Biden’s memory was spotty took place during the midst of one of the greatest international crises of Biden’s presidency, on Oct. 8 and 9 of last year, in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attacks on Israel.

This was a period in which one senior White House official observed “none of us were getting any sleep,” and the Hur interview took up five hours of the president’s time in the midst of all that. As Harris and others have observed, the president has effectively led the country for the past three years and achieved a remarkable record, managing highly complex situations from Ukraine to the economy deftly and successfully.

Finally, of course, the reality is that President Biden’s opponent is essentially the same age, and unlike Biden, he actually shows signs of severe mental decline and would never be described by anyone as sympathetic or well-meaning.

But Biden is 81. He is, by any definition—I’m sorry, live with it—an elderly man. Indeed, one of the accomplishments of his administration may be that he will help combat ageism by demonstrating what an older person is capable of, given his success to date in the world’s most demanding job.

And if you think this issue is going away, forget it. The Hur comment is in the universe now. It will be repeated daily from now through the election on a thousand social and partisan media platforms.

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If you are a Biden supporter and you somehow thought the president was going to make it through this campaign year without this issue arising, you are living in a dream world. Indeed, it is going to come back again and again in ways we cannot predict. He is old. Shit happens.

If you are a Biden aide and you think you can deny this claim or criticize its author into making it go away, that ain’t happening. If you think that pictures of the president on his bike are going to make people think he’s training for a triathlon… nope.

Instead, the goal should be to reduce the number of ways this issue could come up and to find ways of addressing it that are realistic, will withstand the twists the campaign may take, and shift the conversation to the bigger issues on the minds of Americans. Because in the end, what we are talking about is how do we ensure that Biden wins in November—and we do not elect instead a would-be dictator, serial criminal, friend of our enemies.

Rather than trying to make Biden appear younger than he is, own who he is. Manage photo ops accordingly. Manage his schedule accordingly. Let’s see more of him not in staged settings, but in the kind of informal, unstaged videos that matter most today on Instagram, YouTube, or TikTok. Show him interacting with people. Show his humor. Show his compassion. Show him with members of his team—who are younger, vital, and immensely capable.

The formal staged events and press conferences that were the meat and potatoes of past presidencies are not the Biden campaign’s friend. They’re also obsolete. Play to on-demand media, not to linear fossils. That is where this election will be won or lost anyway.

Next, we could really use a sense of the Biden agenda for a second term. That should start to come in the State of the Union next month. As political adviser Simon Rosenberg puts it, it is important that it is less about “finishing the job” and more about preparing America for the future. Biden, perhaps counterintuitively, can and should be seen to be leading a generational turn in American politics. Surround him on the campaign trail or use surrogates that show him actively showcasing and elevating next generation leaders like Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI), Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA), House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, or Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-FL).

President Joe Biden leaves Mrs. Robino’s restaurant after having lunch with his sister.

President Joe Biden leaves Mrs. Robino’s restaurant after having lunch with his sister Valerie Biden Owens in Wilmington, Delaware, on Feb. 10, 2024.

Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters

Biden is a patriarch. Let him play that role. Let him, as Simon puts it, “lean into the generational transition, be the enabler of it,” acknowledging this is his last act and he sees his responsibility as setting the stage for what comes next. His legacy should and will be measured by whether or not he leaves America better prepared to handle the challenges, and seize the opportunities that mean the most to the youngest members of his and all of our extended families.

In addition, Biden and his team should go directly at his opponent.

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Campaigns are won by candidates who play offense (see political scientist Rachel Bitecofer’s excellent book, Hit ‘Em Where It Hurts: How to Save Democracy By Beating Republicans at Their Own Game). The core issue in this election is whether Americans will have fewer freedoms in the future or more opportunities. Make it clear that Donald Trump will strip away those freedoms and pillage the country to enrich his buddies while weakening the rest of us. Show Biden’s vitality through the vigor with which he confronts the blustering bully that is his opponent. A good viral jab at the MAGA menace is worth a thousand bike rides by the Delaware beach.

Want to talk about the president’s performance in office? Fine. But trust me, as great as the CHIPs and Science Act is, Democrats will not gain a single vote from a contested voter because of it. What will be essential there is not what he has done but what he will do, demonstrating (not just saying) that he provides the best way to preserve for tomorrow the freedoms they value today.

Fortunately, this is where you really see reality kicking in and proving its benefits over denial.

Because Biden is a tough fighter. Because Biden is the country’s last best defense against Trump. Because Trump would rob America of its future and Biden can ensure it. But also because the message I am describing is already being delivered very effectively, to cheering crowds, to standing room audiences, to key voting groups like young people, women, and people of color. And it is being delivered by the one person who is the single best reason to feel secure about having a president who is admittedly older, the person who answers all the “what if” questions no one wants to ask. It is being delivered by the most prominent and accomplished member of the next generation of American leaders.

That person is, of course, Vice President Kamala Harris.

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Vice presidents are always the country’s insurance policy regarding all the possible twists of fate that may make it difficult for a president to serve. Harris has been at Biden’s side for three years and is undoubtedly the single best-equipped person in the world to succeed Biden and carry forward his legacy.

In recent months, it has become clear that she has become the administration’s best champion on the biggest issues of this election year.

She is the woman, trained all her life as an advocate, who has crowds cheering as she talks about the Biden administration’s commitment to defending their fundamental freedoms against the threat of Trump and MAGA. She is the most powerful voice in the administration on restoring to women their rights to control their own bodies, on combating senseless gun violence, on ensuring voting rights are protected (especially for people of color), on battling Big Pharma to bring prices down for all who depend on medicine to live. Playing this role so effectively in state after state, at historically Black colleges and universities and in small group sessions with citizens, has produced a long-overdue and accurate reassessment of her as the administration’s greatest asset other than the president.

Indeed the reason the Republicans attack the vice president so vigorously is not just that they are racist and misogynist—although they are. It is that they understand that with an older president, faith in the vice president is a crucial ballot box consideration.

They want to undermine her. They need to undermine her. Unfortunately for them, Joe Biden understood that, understood the vice presidency from personal experience, and picked a candidate who could be a full partner, a national and international leader, and ultimately, at some point, his successor.

The outsize role Harris will play in 2024—must play, should play—will not only prove an asset as it did in 2020, but is among the very best ways that Joe Biden can demonstrate the vitality of his administration and silence critics.

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Her role as the leader of the first-rate next-generation team that Biden has assembled to carry out his agenda also underscores the future orientation and strengths of Team Biden—and will surely contrast well with Trump’s crew if they are anything like his last administration (and they’re projected to be even worse).

Democrats seeking to boost Biden would do well to understand the above, and rather than denying that Biden is old or complaining that anyone is pointing it out—embrace his wisdom, his vigor in defending what is best about America from the threats we face from Trump, and the quality of his team beginning with Vice President Harris.

After all, in 2024 the issue can’t really be the age of the candidates. Both will be old. Rather, it will be the age of those they will best serve—a choice between Trump who will cater to his country club buddies and Biden and Harris who will serve the next generation of Americans.

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