Democrats Have Been Panicking Over Biden’s Age for Years

For years, Democratic insiders themselves have raised concerns about Biden’s fitness to serve. The party tried to put off this discussion. It’s too late for that now.

US president Joe Biden addresses special council Robert K. Hur's report, which called him an "elderly man with a poor memory," on February 8, 2024, in Washington, DC. (Nathan Howard / Getty Images)

Jon Stewart’s return this week to a late-night television landscape that has, over the past roughly nine years, largely reshaped itself in his image should have been the triumphant homecoming of a beloved liberal figure. Instead, it was met with a hailstorm of liberal rage.

Donald Trump’s niece Mary, for example — a liberal cable news celebrity since releasing her best-selling tell-all anti-Trump book in 2020 — embodied it best by declaring Stewart’s jokes “a potential disaster for democracy” given the “existential” nature of the 2024 election, before later accusing him of having caused Trump’s 2016 election win.

Stewart’s crime was daring to use his first night at the Daily Show desk in nine years to wade into the fraught subject of President Joe Biden’s age — a long-standing concern among US voters which had shot to recent salience after special counsel Robert Hur’s report on the president’s mishandling of classified documents alleged he had exhibited “significant limitations” in cognitive functioning in the course of his investigation.

While the liberal establishment had reacted to the report by closing ranks and angrily insisting any such claims were partisan fabrications, Stewart freely poked fun at the older, slower Biden that Americans were seeing on TV and social media, and affirmed that people weren’t crazy for having concerns about the two oldest presidential candidates in US history.

“It is the candidate’s job to assuage concerns, not the voter’s job not to mention them,” Stewart said.

The fact that the segment was, if anything, generous to Biden — reminding viewers that “Trump regularly says things at rallies that would warrant a wellness check,” while showing a montage of Trump family members being, like Biden, unable to remember details under legal questioning to joke that “the leading cause of early onset dementia is being deposed” — didn’t spare him.

Yet as denunciations from Democratic apparatchiks rained down on Stewart, something funny happened: the show was a hit.

Stewart’s comeback drew nearly three times as many viewers as former Daily Show host Trevor Noah had averaged in 2022. On YouTube, the segment on Biden’s age has, at the time of writing, racked up more than 7 million views. By comparison, recent segments by revolving hosts Jordan Klepper, Kal Penn, and Charlamagne tha God averaged roughly half a million views.

It’s a disconnect that, not coincidentally, almost perfectly mirrors the vast gulf in opinion on Biden’s age and fitness for office between party elites and the broader public we’ve seen for much of his presidency — a gulf that, when you really drill down, seems to only exist for public consumption.

The fact is that on this issue, both Stewart and US voters are saying things that we first heard out of the mouths of other Democrats, often members of the Washington establishment who, unlike the rest of us, have seen Biden up close — and who started voicing these concerns not recently, but years ago.

From Inside the House

It was Democratic officials and liberal-leaning news anchors who first gingerly brought up Biden’s difficulties through 2019, in light of the former vice president’s widely mocked debate performances. Biden’s own aides and allies reportedly watched his first debate performance with “alarm.”

“I just think Biden is declining. I don’t think he has the energy,” observed then Rep. Tim Ryan, before later endorsing him. Maybe most famous was former Obama official Julián Castro’s September 2019 attack that Biden was “forgetting already what you said two minutes ago.” But he was far from the only one.

Witness Sen. Cory Booker admitting his worry about “Biden’s ability to carry the ball all the way across the end line without fumbling,” and his incredulous real-time reaction to Biden’s claim that he was endorsed by “the only African-American woman that had ever been elected to the United States Senate” (“the other one is here,” Kamala Harris helpfully replied).

“The question is, does he still have his stuff?” NBC News’s Andrea Mitchell asked after a debate in June 2019.

“You know, you’re answering the question by the question,” replied MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.

This kind of talk was unofficially hushed when Biden became too big to fail for the party but made a comeback as election season neared and his plummeting approval ratings showed no sign of improving.

Last April, some of “Biden’s close advisors” told Axios that “his age has diminished his energy, significantly limiting his schedule.” That June, the New York Times reported that “unease about Mr. Biden’s age suffuses Democratic circles,” and that it’s “all anyone was talking about” among party donors. A small group of former Democratic officials from Biden’s generation all “agreed he was too old to run again,” the Times reported.

The centrist Rep. Dean Phillips’s lonely challenge to Biden is explicitly centered on concerns about Biden’s age and, in the congressman’s words, was “just giving voice to private conversations.” Last September, the Washington Post reported on “waves of anxiety” that Biden “may not have the vitality” to defeat Trump, after speaking with dozens of Democratic lawmakers, operatives, and activists. While they talked about Biden’s “age,” one House Democrat told the Post that what his fellow lawmakers and donors really meant was “whether the president can sustain a grueling campaign and another four years in office.”

None of this has gone away even as the party dismissed Hur’s report, with Democratic senators just recently admitting to the Hill they had “private worries that President Biden’s age and health could cost their party the White House,” and that they consider it “a serious problem,” but bringing it up is virtually taboo in caucus meetings.

This has all come alongside public calls from friendly voices in the Washington establishment for Biden to hang it up, calls that are unprecedented for an incumbent president. Former Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod, who has spent more time around Biden than most people, said in 2022 that Biden’s age would be a “major issue” given “the presidency is a monstrously taxing job,” before last November suggesting it might be in the country’s “best interest” if he decided to drop out.

There was also insider’s insider David Ignatius, who’s known Biden for forty years and made waves last September with a Washington Post column gently imploring him not to run again, calling it “a wise choice for the country” and pointing to his age as one of his “two big liabilities” (the other being vice president Kamala Harris). Ignatius later told the Morning Joe hosts that “I haven’t talked to any group of people, where this issue . . . hasn’t been a centerpiece of conversation” — particularly notable given the elite, well-connected circles Ignatius travels in — and remarked to the hosts that he’d “be surprised if you and . . . the people you talk with are not discussing it in private.”

Ordinary voters who got a close look at Biden back in 2019–20 made similar comments about his lack of vitality. But when people who spend far more time in close quarters with the president than the average American express the same feelings — whether publicly or, more worryingly, quietly and anonymously, because they’re afraid to bring it up — it’s not unreasonable for people            to think there is something they’re not being told, especially given the lengths the party went to protect the shockingly dementia-addled Sen. Dianne Feinstein before she died. One of the reasons Hur’s report struck the nerve it did was because it seemed to confirm something people already suspected.

The other reason is Biden’s public appearances themselves. Hur’s report is already being challenged by the White House (which disputes that Biden correctly picked the month and day his son died but not the year and hasn’t so far directly challenged its other claims), and it’s likely only the public release of the interview transcript, or Hur’s impending public testimony, will definitively put to bed whether or not Hur is on the level.

But accurate or not, Hur’s report happened to come at the end of a particularly bad week for Biden. On three separate occasions, Biden had recounted to audiences that he had spoken to long-dead European leaders upon coming into office in 2021. There was the moment where the president appeared to forget the name of Hamas. And to top it off, in the press conference he called after the report’s release to assure everyone he was still sharp as a tack, he made repeated incorrect statements about what Hur’s report said, before mixing up Egypt with Mexico.

This is all on top of a steady drumbeat of stories in reputed papers over the years that explicitly talk about Biden’s limitations: that he is “generally a five- or five-and-a-half-day-a-week president”; that his aides have such anxiety about watching his public appearances that they mute or turn them off; that they shut down press conferences early and limit unscripted events as a matter of deliberate strategy for fear that he will misspeak; that his staff send him into press conferences armed with cheat sheets that tell him which reporters to call on and what they will ask him in advance; that they “make what they consider reasonable accommodations not to physically tax an aging president,” including scheduling his public appearances between noon and 4 p.m. and not disturbing him during the weekend.

Not helping are the many reports, from 2019 to today, about Biden’s “light public schedule,” and the many, many days — more than a quarter of his presidency, at last count — he spends outside of Washington, equaling Trump, who was frequently mocked for leaving the capital.

Such limitations have already had an impact on Biden’s ability to govern. Democrats invested a lot in engineering a highly public standoff on their terrible border deal that aimed to heap public blame on Republicans for its failure and hinged on getting wall-to-wall media attention — something that Biden, with the power of the presidential bully pulpit and the ability to drive media coverage and public attention, should have played a leading role in.

Instead, as Politico reported, “the extent of his public push for the legislation . . . came in a series of stops in Nevada on Monday, one of which was a store selling bubble tea.”

“Watch Me”

Fortunately, there’s a relatively simple fix to all this. If Democrats had actually listened to Stewart instead of mentally preparing their angry tweets about him, they would have heard some good advice: “If you’re telling us behind the scenes he’s sharp and full of energy and on top of it and really in control and leading . . . you should film that. That would be good to show to people.”

It’s not unlike Biden’s own retort whenever he’s confronted by the public’s concern about his age: “Watch me!” The president could easily dispel widespread public fears that he’s not up to the job by doing a round of public appearances letting people see for themselves what his officials are assuring people he’s like behind the scenes, as many have suggested.

But Biden’s team decidedly does not want people to watch him.

The president is still continuing with his unprecedented refusal to sit down for an interview with a major paper. He has still done by far the fewest press conferences and interviews out of almost any modern president, beating only Ronald Reagan in the first category. He just declined for the second year in a row to sit down for a Super Bowl interview and at precisely the time he is lagging in the polls, prompting head scratching from political operatives, who call it a “problem.”

“It’s the biggest television audience, not even close, and you get a chance to do a twenty, twenty-five-minute interview on that day, and you don’t do it, that’s a kind of sign that the staff or yourself doesn’t have much confidence in you. There’s no other way to read this,” commented James Carville, about as militant a Democratic loyalist as you’re likely to find.

Biden’s defenders, meanwhile, have scrambled to launch a string of unconvincing pushbacks that all undercut one another. The immediate response was to paint Hur as a partisan attack dog and his description of Biden’s troubles as brazen lies, before liberal commentators started pointing to Trump’s own, identical missteps — unhelpful, given they’ve spent the past seven years professing they think Trump has dementia.

Jonathan Chait argued that even if Hur’s allegations are true, it doesn’t matter, since “Reagan was pretty senile and controlled by advisers,” and “nobody cared because the results were fine.” NBC News then interviewed neurologists who told us it’s no big deal for someone of Biden’s age to forget what year his son died.

This haphazard, throw-everything-at-the-wall approach isn’t likely to be persuasive. In fact, it will probably be the opposite, smacking of quiet panic and fueling a perception that those fending off charges about Biden’s acuity don’t really believe what they’re saying.

Put Up or Shut Up

For all the controversy, Stewart’s disappointment that “these fucking guys” are once more the choice for president, and his summary of this election as, “What the fuck are we doing here, people?” is far more in tune with public sentiment than his critics’ whining. Poll after poll for years has shown that a majority of Americans do not want either of these candidates and that even many Democrats would prefer that someone other than Biden ran in 2024.

But with the party moving heaven and earth to insulate Biden from any sort of challenge, Democrats are now stuck with a candidate whose approval rating is in historic doldrums and whose ability to win or even campaign they’ve been quietly doubting for years — and whose health more and more of the public is seriously concerned about. Worse, his own advisors seem to lack faith that he can convince them otherwise, continuing to keep him hidden from the public.

As Carville told Ezra Klein, for a column devoted to telling Democrats their urgent task was “convincing Biden that he should not run again,” a presidential campaign’s “most desirable asset is the candidate. And the Biden campaign does not deploy Biden like he is a desirable asset.”

When you have lost Klein and Carville, you’ve lost the liberal establishment. The question, as these warnings reach fever pitch, is whether an ossified Democratic Party that’s been trying to put off this exact moment for years can actually do anything about it — or, maybe more accurately, whether it is even willing to.