Dec 19, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Biden is reluctant to accept his "old age," aides say

President Biden, in a dark suit, white shirt and blue tie, stands next to several American flags.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Biden's reluctance to acknowledge his physical limitations at age 81 is causing some tension on his team, as senior aides and First Lady Jill Biden push him to rest more and be vigilant about his health going into 2024.

Why it matters: Current and former aides say Biden is extraordinarily energetic for his age. But his repeated insistence that he feels so young can draw eye rolls: Some current and former aides believe Biden doesn't realize how old he can come across.

  • In conversations with aides and friends, Biden frequently says some version of: "I feel so much younger than my age."
  • Managing Biden's schedule and energy has become crucial to his re-election campaign, given widespread voter concerns about his ability to do the job until January 2029, when he'll be 86.

Zoom in: Current and former Biden aides say he often pushes to do more travel and events than they think he should.

  • Biden pushing up against his limits sometimes creates a cycle in which he wears himself out, then appears fatigued during public events — which can increase concerns about his age, even when he's taking on a rigorous schedule.
  • "He is his own worst enemy when it comes to his schedule," a former Biden aide said.

Jill Biden and her team are deeply involved in the president's day-to-day schedule.

  • She often works to get him as much rest as possible, and to improve his diet.
  • This dynamic between Jill and her husband's team goes back to the end of his vice presidency, when he maintained a robust schedule into his early 70s, as he also dealt with the illness and death of his son Beau.
  • "Joe's working too hard," Jill would tell Biden's then-chief of staff, Steve Ricchetti, Joe Biden recalled in his memoir, "Promise Me, Dad." "He's exhausted. He's not sleeping. It's going to kill him."
  • Biden wrote that "the two of them would conspire to get me to ease off for a while."
  • A White House official told Axios that the Bidens keep "an eye on one another's schedules for the sake of balance — and they are far from the only couple in the administration who does that."

Jill's influence on the president's calendar is unusual but has some precedent. Nancy Reagan would closely watch Ronald Reagan's schedule — even occasionally consulting an astrologist.

  • At 69, Ronald Reagan was the oldest person to be elected U.S. president until Donald Trump, who was 70. Biden topped that: He was 77 when he was elected in 2020.

Ted Kaufman, Biden's longtime friend and another former chief of staff, told Axios: "This is something that Biden's been doing for his whole life — he always wants to do more."

  • "He and Jill just want to do as much of what they are invited to," Kaufman said. "Jill didn't want him to do as much as he wanted to do. And he didn't want her to do as much as she wanted to do."

Zoom out: Polls indicate that more than 70% of voters have concerns about Biden serving a second term because of his age.

  • He has shown frustration with some people's perception that he is too old to be commander-in-chief.
  • "With regard to age, I can't even say, I guess, how old I am, I can't even say the number. It doesn't register with me," he said in April.
  • Most voters — but not as many — have similar concerns about likely GOP nominee Trump, 77. Unlike Biden, Trump has been reluctant to release much information about his health.
  • Media coverage has frustrated the White House and Biden campaign officials, who believe the focus on his age has contributed to voters' concerns.

What they're saying: "Since he first ran for Senate, President Biden has always been a hard worker who is eager to do more than any schedule could accommodate," White House spokesperson Andrew Bates told Axios.

  • That commitment "has continued to show itself in the White House," Bates added. "Like when he became the first president to visit two war zones not controlled by the U.S. military, [his] late-night discussions with members of Congress as he passed the most groundbreaking legislative agenda in modern history, or this past week as he continued to work around the clock on critical national security priorities long after House Republicans stopped trying to keep up and left Washington on vacation."

Between the lines: Despite his sensitivity about acknowledging that his energy is lower than when he was younger, Biden has accepted changes in recent months to help him stay healthy and avoid tripping, including using the shorter stairs on Air Force One and wearing tennis shoes more often.

  • After some initial resistance, he's been making more self-deprecating jokes about his age.
  • "I've never been more optimistic about our country's future in the 800 years I've served," he quipped at a September fundraiser.

Some former administration officials think that responding defensively to questions about Biden's age might be satisfying to his fans — but they say he should acknowledge his age more explicitly to assuage voters' concerns.

  • One former official told Axios: "His age is clearly something voters are worried about, fairly or not, and yelling, 'Nuh-uh' isn't cutting it."
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