As an outsider observing the U.S. presidential election, I have been wondering for months when Joe Biden’s age would become a thing. Biden is 81 already—the oldest person ever to occupy the White House—and is seeking another four-year term. He is older than George W. Bush, who stopped being president in 2008, and older than Bill Clinton, who gave up the job in 2000. He is older than the hovercraft, the barcode, and the Breathalyzer. And he looks it: Biden’s likely Republican opponent, Donald Trump, a mere debutant at 77, is possessed with a bronzed, demonic energy that makes him seem vigorously alive, even when his words make no sense. Joe Biden looks like he is turning into a statue of Joe Biden.
Already this week, I have seen clips of him confusing current French President Emmanuel Macron with former (and now dead) President François Mitterrand, and read about his claim to have discussed the European response to the January 6 insurrection with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. The latter would have required a Ouija board, because Kohl died in 2017. Biden also stumbled repeatedly over a question about Hamas (whose name he appeared to have forgotten) during a White House press statement.
The publication of the Department of Justice’s report into Biden’s handling of classified documents just shifted my concerns up a notch. Biden held on to classified documents after leaving the Obama administration, the special prosecutor Robert Hur found, but Hur saw no realistic prospect of convicting Biden of a felony that requires evidence of intent. The president would present himself to the jury, as he did to investigators, “as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”
A convenient haziness on details, combined with an appeal to public sympathy, has served Biden well at least once before. His first crack at the presidency in the late 1980s ended amid allegations that he plagiarized a speech from a British politician, along with other uncredited borrowings and shifting stories. He said at the time that these were honest mistakes. What happened next, he said, will “all be dependent on the American people looking at me. They’re going to look at me and say, ‘Is Joe Biden being honest with me, or is Joe Biden not being honest with me?’” He ultimately dropped out, but his career subsequently thrived.
Today, though, such an argument would be tough to pull off—our boss isn’t feeble; he is just pretending to be feeble to escape criminal charges! But perhaps it would be less damaging in a presidential race than Hur’s observation that Biden “did not remember when he was vice president, forgetting on the first day of the interview when his term ended (‘if it was 2013—when did I stop being Vice President?’), and forgetting on the second day of the interview when his term began (‘in 2009, am I still Vice President?’).” The prosecutor also claims that Biden did not “remember, even within several years, when his son Beau died.”
The response from Biden’s team has been to reject what it calls “highly prejudicial language” and “inappropriate” comments in the report, and to note that Biden’s interviews took place in the days after the October 7 attacks on Israel. Hur is a former Trump administration official, chosen by Attorney General Merrick Garland in a gesture that was supposed to guarantee the report’s independence. On X, the former Obama administration staffer Tommy Vietor wrote that the report was “a right-wing hit job from within Biden’s own DOJ.”
Although Biden’s allies will dismiss the report’s accusations as politically motivated, they could still be incredibly damaging. In a poll last year, 77 percent of Americans, including 69 percent of Democrats, said Biden was too old to be president. (For Trump, the overall figure was 51 percent.) But so far, the conversation about Biden’s age among commentators on the left has run something like this: So, uh, Joe Biden is pretty old. Should we be worried about that? The observation has gone nowhere, because nothing else flows from it. No one has seriously challenged him for the nomination. His family members have not helped him save face by insisting he spend more time with them. His party lacks an obvious mechanism to quietly usher him offstage. Because of those unalterable facts, the conversation about whether he is too old to be president has stalled. Lots of people think he is. But they can do nothing about it. End of discussion.
From the outside, this looks like a conspiracy of silence. I have been bracing myself for a year of stories in right-wing outlets asking “Why is the left ignoring Biden’s age?,” even as Trump’s supporters happily ignored his criminal indictments, sex-offense allegations, incompetence, incipient authoritarianism, and ever-more baroque riffs in campaign speeches. (In October, he mused about whether he would rather die by electrocution or being eaten by a shark, concluding that he preferred electrocution.) And perhaps some outlets are wary of seeming to fixate on an attack line that has been pushed so hard by Biden’s opponents: One of the liveliest conspiracy theories of the 2016 election cycle was that Hillary Clinton was secretly dying of a brain tumor. That rumor gained force from the time she attended a 9/11 memorial event, stumbled, and had to be bundled into the back of a van. (She had pneumonia.) I remember watching the footage and questioning Clinton’s health myself, only to discover that eight years on, she is hale and hearty. I had been suckered by misinformation. Perhaps, many on the left have been wondering, the whispers about Biden this time are similarly ill-founded and malicious.
The crucial difference this time is that we have some evidence that Biden is, at best, no longer the politician he was a decade ago. Watch his 2016 convention speech: he looks venerable but energetic. Now he often looks sluggish and befuddled. In the past few years, we have seen reports, denied by his press team, that Biden follows a restricted schedule designed to keep him from becoming exhausted, and that his team has reportedly decided to insist that he wear sneakers on the campaign trail to avoid falls. He rarely sits for interviews. As of August, he had given the lowest number of presidential press conferences since Ronald Reagan. Throughout the 2020 election, COVID precautions kept him from spontaneous public settings; he did most of his campaigning via video. In this election campaign, any deficiencies will be much more on display.
My colleague McKay Coppins recently suggested that anyone who cares about politics should go to a Trump rally, to see what they were voting for (or against). “This might sound unpleasant to some; consider it an act of civic hygiene,” he wrote. I would suggest that everyone do the same with a Biden speech: Watch it in full, and ask yourself honestly if you believe that the man you see has another four years of presidential decision-making ahead of him. If not, then reconcile yourself to the fact that you are really voting for Kamala Harris, or for a regency similar to the final years of Reagan’s tenure in the White House.
To my mind, either scenario is still more comforting than Trump’s return to power. I say this particularly as a European, who is aware that Trump would not continue to support Ukraine, and my country and others would have to deal with an emboldened Vladimir Putin as a result. But I would also say, quietly to myself, that America is a country of more than 300 million people, many of them brilliant, many of them able to finish a sentence. So how can the presidential election come down to two old men, one riffing about shark attacks, and other communing with the dead? It’s not too late for either party to offer the U.S. a better choice in November.