Joe Biden and the Great Age Debate

In January 2021, Joseph R. Biden Jr. was officially sworn in as president of the United States (POTUS), becoming the oldest president at 78. Fast forward to April 2023, Biden announced he would be running for re-election in 2024. Since this announcement, Biden’s age remains a significant liability to his re-election chances. In a poll from August 2023, three-quarters of respondents said Biden was too old to serve another term.

However, Biden’s chief rival, former president Donald Trump, has not faced the same age-related scrutiny, even though Trump would be 78 years old if he won the election next year. Why is there this discrepancy? Age is levied against Biden more than Trump because of how they engage with the media. 

Trump and the Media

Donald Trump has long been seen as a master of manipulating modern media. Amy Choziak writes that he enraptured American media while campaigning and during his presidency by applying his comprehension of “must-see television” to traditional politics. But in addition to doing this to grab an audience’s attention, his mastery of media has also helped him avoid the same pitfalls of age that Biden appears to be suffering from.

Indeed, if Trump understands anything, it is how to put on a good show. This is mainly what he does when it comes to his age. David A. Graham argues that the “transfixing” nature of Trump’s public speaking helps draw attention away from what he is saying. His energetic speaking style also likely helps draw attention away from his age.

Trump’s combativeness also makes him seem younger. The effects of this combativeness on perceptions of his age are evident in an interview with four senior Pennsylvania voters, in which they were asked how vital age is as a factor. While concerns are expressed about both Trump and Biden’s age, one woman’s take was particularly revealing; she expresses more concern about Biden’s age but approves of Trump because she sees him as “a street fighter,” an answer that another participant approves.  

These elements combine to help Trump nullify concerns about his age. A Trump supporter from Iowa summed it up quite well, arguing that Trump “just comes off as a much younger person” in “the way he speaks, the way he walks. Just everything he does.” 

The Biden Administration and the Media

By contrast, Biden’s relationship with the media is not as good. Part of the problem is Biden’s oratory skills. Although he can give passionate speeches, he also gives long-winded answers and explanations, a tendency of which he is keenly aware.  Perhaps more problematic, however, is his tendency to make mistakes. Indeed, Biden once described himself as a “gaffe machine” and is prone to verbal blunders, a reality likely impacted by a stutter he has worked his whole life to overcome. 

These factors have proven troublesome in recent years, particularly with the advent of the “Sleepy Joe” caricature pushed by rivals to characterize him as a befuddled old man. While neither Biden’s mannerisms nor his tendencies to make verbal mistakes suggest anything credible about his supposed incapability of serving another term, they are the primary drivers behind this depiction of Biden and the growing concern that he is too old.

Yet unintentionally, the Biden administration’s approach to POTUS and the press has also contributed to concerns about his age by keeping him out of the spotlight. A report on the Biden administration’s relationship with the press noted the lack of access White House reporters had to POTUS. In addition, the report pointed to Biden’s reliance on prepared remarks and teleprompters for speeches, as well as his lack of engagement with questions. Indeed, the current administration’s approach to the media is that “his people seem to wall him off from the press.” As of 2023, this approach remains largely the same, “keeping the press at an arm’s length” to avoid criticisms and, according to White House officials, to connect with audiences outside of filtered channels.

While the White House seems to believe this approach is a working strategy, it also unintentionally feeds into concerns about his age. Limiting the public’s exposure to Biden and his thinking, forces people to rely on what they do see. Which, as described earlier, seems like an attempt to hide him. Indeed, NPR White House reporter and president of the WHCA Tamara Keith illustrates that returning to more formal press briefings where the president regularly faces reporters would give the public more insights into Biden’s thinking. This would also likely combat concerns about his age by allowing the president to demonstrate his mental acuity. 

The Road Ahead

Nevertheless, as long as the Biden administration maintains its current approach to the media, it will continue contributing to concerns about Biden’s age, while Trump’s continued mastery of the media will likely help him nullify similar consternations. Although the election campaign season has not begun in earnest yet, it is evident that if Biden’s administration continues along the path that it is, it could seriously jeopardize Biden’s re-election chances. 

Edited by Clara Desfosses

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Featured image by the White House.