Joe Biden was probably right to be angry Thursday. Special Counsel Robert Hur had found no evidence he’d committed crimes in his handling of classified documents, but, instead, made assessments in his report about the president’s age and memory that seemed gratuitous, subjective, and maybe even political in nature. “My memory is fine,” an indignant Biden said at a press conference, expressing particular frustration with the report’s suggestion that he did not remember when his son, Beau, had passed away.
But Hur’s characterization of Biden as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” magnified an issue that was there already: While Biden’s lawyers said the description was “not accurate or appropriate,” the 81-year-old president’s age is a matter of concern for voters, and his campaign has struggled to address it. “The most damaging things in politics are the things that confirm people’s pre-existing suspicions, and those are the things that travel very fast,” David Axelrod said to the New York Times. “It’s a problem.”
It bears emphasizing that any concerns about Biden’s age are dwarfed by the grave danger his opponent, Donald Trump, poses to democracy. It must also be said that this supposedly “diminished” Biden demonstrates a far greater cognizance and soundness of mind than Trump. But that doesn’t mean Biden’s age isn’t an issue, and one that polls suggest is on many Americans’ minds. Indeed, an NBC News survey earlier this week found more than 75 percent of voters—including half of Democrats—are concerned about Biden’s ability to serve. By comparison, only about 48 percent of respondents had the same concerns about Trump’s fitness. This is, of course, absurd: Trump, at 77, is about as old as Biden, and not only prone to verbal mix-ups (confusing Nancy Pelosi and Nikki Haley, for instance), but exists in a constant state of mania.
The trouble is, that’s how Trump has been. While he is clearly showing signs of his age, it can be difficult to distinguish signs of his decline from the lies, delusions, and stupidity that have been persistent characteristics. You can’t lose what wasn’t there to begin with. Biden may get held to a different standard. When he refers to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as the president of Mexico, as he did during his defiant presser Thursday, it gets subsumed into a narrative that his memory is failing. When Trump praises Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban as the “great leader of Turkey,” or apparently confuses Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un, or seemingly mixes up Biden and Barack Obama—well, that’s just Trump.
That’s unfair, especially since Biden’s gaffes seem to get more attention than the command he usually shows the rest of the time. But Democrats shouldn’t dismiss all this as the media falling for cynical GOP talking points: There are real public concerns about both Biden’s age and the gerontocracy he represents, and the campaign hasn’t really assuaged them. On the contrary, the Biden camp’s apparent aversion to risk—seen most recently in the decision to pass on a live interview before the Super Bowl—may contribute to the narrative.
Will it matter in November, when voters have to weigh whatever concerns they have about Biden against Trump’s lawlessness and authoritarian aspirations? Maybe not. The president and his party have certainly defied the doom and gloom before. But they cannot assume that the past will be prologue here. Biden’s age may not be the biggest issue for voters in 2024, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be an issue—and the stakes are too high not to find some way to confront it more directly.