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Gray Matter

Democrats struggle to quell political storms over Biden's age

Photo: AP Images


sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

If you or a family member were described this way, you would take offense. If you had the most important job on the planet, you would be apoplectic.

President Biden certainly was when reading the just-released special counsel report on the probe into his handling of classified documents. The special counsel declined to prosecute, but cast doubt on his memory and raised new questions on his age.

As the oldest president ever to hold office, Biden isn’t new to this discussion. Ronald Reagan, the previous record holder, was 77 when he left office. Biden was 78 at his inauguration — 21 years older than George Washington, 26 years older than Lincoln, and 45 years older than John F. Kennedy. Every day Biden’s in office sets a record that no president wants discussed.

The age issue is creating three political storms that have little reason to abate:

True concern for the president’s health:

Voters want to know that their president will be able to live out his full term. Eight of our presidents have died in office, four of them from natural causes. When I asked a political friend about this, he astutely noted that the Oval Office ages its occupant. Presidents themselves worry about their ability to make it through a second term.

In August 1955, President Eisenhower had to grapple with this dilemma during his first term when he suffered a heart attack. He recovered, but afterwards struggled to project an image of clean health for his second term. His doctor publicly declared that Eisenhower was “able to carry out an active life satisfactorily for another five to ten years.” Eisenhower was concerned because the American public wants strength.

Projection of strength:

Americans want their leaders to be strong. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was disabled, but made a point of never being photographed in his leg braces. Grover Cleveland had a tumor secretly removed on a yacht to conceal his illness from the American public. Presidents want to be viewed as paragons of strength. This is why we have images of them golfing, riding horses, and pursuing vigorous athletic pursuits. But even an image of strength won’t put to rest the third fear: that others are making decisions for the man we elected.

Others in charge:

“Who’s in charge?” politicos were asking when this report came out. Could you blame them? It is a legitimate question for CEOs past the age of retirement, and it is fair to ask it of the president. There is a history behind this question. Woodrow Wilson had a stroke in the last year of his presidency and was often incapacitated. There is still debate to this day over how much power his wife and doctor had. James Garfield, shot by an assassin, lingered for months, shut away from the public and even members of his family while his doctor maintained control.


Will Michelle Step In?

Now these questions hover over President Biden. The storms are blowing from both right and left. The Republicans are making headway by pounding away at the age issue. A new Monmouth University poll says only 32 percent are confident that Biden has the physical and mental stamina to carry out his duties.

The left is also creating a storm. In the last week, numerous Democrats have quietly told me that Michelle Obama is being discussed as a replacement candidate. The same Monmouth poll reports that nearly half the electorate thinks it is very likely or somewhat likely that Biden will be replaced as the Democratic nominee, and specifically cited his age, physical health, or mental faculties. We are going to continue to see these kinds of narratives pushed out by both the right and left.

We will likely hear the Democratic Party making attacks on Trump’s age, and potential “replacement” candidates coming forward and endorsing Biden, to quell any rumors. But it still may not be enough to stop these political storms.

Everybody trips. I tripped today, but nobody writes about it or opines on the implications. Everybody goes to the doctor for a well visit, but Biden’s will be monitored like a stock reporting earnings. Every Democratic frontrunner for 2028 will be viewed as making moves to replace Biden now. The storm isn’t going to pass anytime soon, and the issue as a campaign talking point will age well.

Student Loan Debt: A Political Lesson

Attempts to cancel student debt have ebbed and flowed. What started as an ambitious proposal by Biden was shut down by the Supreme Court. But it has been revived and is being discussed again by the administration and by members of the #canceldebt movement.

It once again demonstrates a political lesson known to those in the trenches, one often quoted back to me by community members involved in politics: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

This lesson teaches that political capital is finite and will be divvied up among those who show up — and remain. Your issue may seem dead. But if you continue to show up and make your case, you will ultimately prevail. This latest student debt proposal is just another example of that maxim being applied.

Biden Breathes a Sigh of Relief

Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) declared he won’t be running for president. This will have two downstream effects.

First, we can stop the silly game of “will he or won’t he,” which, as late as last week, meandered into who Manchin might pick for vice president in his hypothetical campaign.

Second, President Biden can now breathe a sigh of relief. Manchin was the most likely third-party candidate to take voters away from him, as we discussed in the last column. Could another third-party candidate enter the race and woo Biden voters? Maybe. But none will have the name ID of a Manchin. Biden can scratch this off his list of worries, and we can move on from what was a silly exercise to begin with.

3 Is the Magic Number

Democrat Tom Suozzi won the New York 3rd House District special election, shrinking the GOP House majority to three. This makes House Speaker Mike Johnson’s job nearly impossible, but also raises the 2024 election stakes even higher.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1000)

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