Biden’s Quiet Re-election Strategy

The biggest reason that many Democratic officials are nervous about President Biden’s age is not his ability to do the job in a second term.

Strange as it may sound, the American government can function without a healthy president. The U.S. marched toward victory in World War II while Franklin Roosevelt was ailing in 1944 and 1945. Four decades later, the government managed its relationship with a teetering Soviet Union while Ronald Reagan’s mental capacities slipped. In each case, White House aides, Cabinet secretaries and military leaders performed well despite the lack of a fully engaged leader.

The issue that makes many Democrats even more anxious than Biden’s second-term capabilities is whether his age will prevent him from winning a second term. If enough voters are turned off by the idea of a president who would turn 86 in office, Republicans might win full control of the federal government in 2024 — and Donald Trump might return to the White House.

I know that it may seem crass for Democrats to worry more about partisan politics than the mental acuity of the country’s most powerful person. But it’s not entirely irrational. Today, I will look at the biggest question about Biden’s re-election campaign — which he formally announced yesterday — and how he might address that question.

At 80, Biden can be an unsteady public performer. He occasionally uses the wrong word or fails to summon a name. Some of these habits are not new, to be sure. Biden has a stutter, which can make it seem as if he can’t remember words when in fact he is struggling to enunciate them. He has also long been known for saying things that he probably shouldn’t.

“Biden living up to his gaffe-prone reputation,” read a Times headline in 2008, when he was only 65. That same year, Slate magazine wrote, “He misspeaks so often, it’s hardly news — and hardly damaging.”

But aging does seem to have exacerbated these issues. In the upcoming campaign, you can imagine that a verbal misstep could cause some swing voters to wonder whether Biden is up for a second term.

These concerns help explain why polls show that roughly three-quarters of Democratic voters approve of Biden’s performance but slightly less than half want him to run for a second term.

Of course, there would be a simple way for Biden to address the concerns: He could spend more time speaking in public now and demonstrate his vigor. Instead, he and his aides have chosen the opposite approach.

Biden has held fewer news conferences per year than any president since Reagan. Biden gave fewer interviews during his first two years in office than any president in even longer:

Michael Shear, a White House correspondent for The Times, says that Biden’s aides are unapologetic about avoiding interviews and news conferences. “They see these traditions as outdated and unimportant,” Michael told me. “They say that traditional media don’t have clout, and they think that there are many other ways that he can better present himself.”

But Biden has not replaced media conversations with other means of engaging with the public. He does not hold regular town-hall meetings, for example. And the statistics on interviews in the chart above include Biden’s recent conversations with people other than journalists, like Drew Barrymore and Jason Bateman, both actors, and Manny MUA, a YouTube beauty expert.

Biden’s strategy of minimizing unscripted public appearances suggests that his staff believes the risk often isn’t worth the reward.

Biden and his aides have said that his age is a legitimate issue for debate but that he has demonstrated he is up to the job. “The only thing I can say is, ‘Watch me,’” Biden likes to say.

There certainly are reasons to think that Biden is up for both the substantive and performative parts of the job. He looked sharp during his State of the Union address this year, trading verbal volleys with congressional Republicans — and winning the exchange. I have spoken with Biden a couple of times since he was elected and found him to be sharp, able to discuss policy and politics in the same discursive style he had in prior years.

He has also had a successful presidency by many measures. He passed a blizzard of legislation, including more bipartisan bills than almost anybody expected, and managed both the pandemic and the West’s pro-Ukraine alliance. Democrats fared much better in the midterms than during Barack Obama’s first term or Bill Clinton’s. As I’ve written before, Biden — unlike many other top Democrats, who have drifted to the left of most voters — seems to understand where public opinion really is: left of center on economic issues, more moderate on many social issues.

I can imagine a scenario in which the age worries prove overblown. Maybe voters care less about Biden’s age than political pundits do and will re-elect him for the same reasons they elected him: He conveys an aura of moderation and competence when many other parts of the American political system do not. His opponent, whether it is Trump (who’s 76) or somebody else, seems likely to embody the Republican Party’s recent shift toward extremism.

“The man has done a good job,” Elaine Kamarck, a political scientist and Democratic Party official recently said on The Run-Up, a Times politics podcast. “So everybody’s sort of saying, ‘Okay, yeah, he’s old. Big deal.’ There are advantages that come with age, as well as the downsides.”

Still, a question looms: If Biden is as energetic and effective as his aides insist, why does he spend so little time publicly engaging with other people?

Generations of children have visited the Museum of Natural History to stare at dinosaurs, stars, or the massive blue whale hanging from the ceiling. Now the museum is opening a new wing, made of curving concrete and evoking the canyons of the American West.

The wing houses an insectarium and a butterfly conservatory, classrooms, laboratories and more. Michael Kimmelman, The Times’s architecture critic, predicts it will be an instant classic. “For a meaningful portion of its user base, the part that hasn’t yet finished middle school,” he writes, “I expect it will simply be, like so much else at the museum, awesome.”

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