Eight words and a verbal slip bring Biden’s age back to center stage in 2024

When President Biden appeared at a last-minute news conference Thursday night, he hoped to reassure the country of his mental acuity hours after a special counsel’s report devastatingly described him as “a well-meaning, elderly man with a failing memory. ”

Instead, a visibly angry Mr. Biden made exactly the kind of verbal criticism that has kept Democrats so nervous for months, mistakenly calling Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi “the president of Mexico” as he tried to address the latest developments in the Gaza war.

The special counsel’s report and the president’s evening appearance put Biden’s advanced age, a particularly uncomfortable topic looming over his re-election bid, back at the center of America’s political conversation.

The 81-year-old president — already the oldest in the nation’s history — has for years fought the perception that he is a diminutive figure. “My memory is good,” he insisted Thursday from the White House.

Still, in one resolution, the report by Robert K. Hur, the special counsel who investigated Biden’s handling of classified documents, looked at the fears of Democrats who hold their breath when Mr. Biden appears in public and the hopes of Republicans, especially former President Donald J. Trump and his allies. . The Trump operation has made clear its intention to use Mr. Biden’s stiffer gait and sometimes slurred speech to cast him as weak.

The Biden campaign has built its strategy on telling voters that the November election is a choice between the president, regardless of any public doubts about his age, and an opponent in Mr. Trump, 77, who is portrayed as a threat to democracy and personal freedom.

The Democrats long ago threw themselves at Mr. Biden. Without a serious alternative in the primary race, many in the party believe the country’s future depends on the president’s ability to convince voters he’s still up for the job for another four years.

But for all Mr. Trump’s vulnerabilities — the Republican Party has been on a long losing streak since he took office — the more than $2 billion the Biden campaign and its allies hope to raise and spend won’t make the incumbent any younger.

And Thursday night’s news conference was an example of political danger for Mr. Biden, whose missteps have been magnified in part by the White House team’s tight control over his media exposure. His assistants are so risk-averse that they even passed an interview before this weekend’s Super Bowl in front of one of the nation’s largest annual television audiences.

“Fair or not, you can’t take the bell off,” said David Axelrod, a former strategist for Barack Obama who has emerged as one of the leading figures in the Democratic Party to warn about how voters view Mr. Biden’s age. Mr. Axelrod said the special counsel’s report was so troubling to Democrats because it “goes to the heart of what’s bothering Biden politically right now, which is a widespread fear that he’s not up to it.”

He added: “The most damaging things in politics are things that confirm people’s pre-existing suspicions, and those are things that travel very quickly.” That’s the problem.”

The Biden campaign declined to comment.

From a legal point of view, the report of Mr. Hura released Mr. Biden of a criminal offense, announcing that there was not enough evidence to charge him. But Democrats seized on his charged language — Mr. Hur also referred to Mr. Biden’s “diminished ability to advance” as something that would be favorable to a jury — to accuse the special counsel, once a Trump appointee, of partisan motives.

For Republicans intent on ousting Mr. Biden, the report and the president’s angry response came as a gift after days in which their own dysfunction in Congress dominated the news. The Republican National Committee quickly produced a graphic with eight of the report’s most brutal words — “a well-meaning, elderly man with a failing memory” — grafted onto the Biden campaign’s logo.

Never mind that the special counsel has declined to indict Mr. Biden, while Trump’s own, more serious case over whether he mishandled classified documents remains part of the 91 felony charges he faces in four jurisdictions.

Still, Chris LaCivita, Mr. Trump’s top strategist, called the special counsel’s description of Mr. Biden “damning and defining.”

“The report confirms what Americans have been witnessing on their TV screens for the past few years – that an elderly man with a failing memory is leading America into a quagmire of wars, inflationary catastrophes and a lack of opportunities for Americans to pay taxes,” Mr. LaCivita said.

Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware who is close to Mr. Biden, predicted he would receive more calls from “people expressing concern.” But she said she would respond by recounting her direct experiences with Mr. Biden, which she said showed the president was “sharp, engaged and purposeful.”

Still, Mr. Biden mixed up Egypt and Mexico shortly after several slips in the past week about deceased European leaders. First, during a campaign in Nevada, he confused François Mitterrand, the former French president who died in 1996, with the country’s current president, Emmanuel Macron. He then mentioned twice on Wednesday that in 2021 he met Helmut Kohl, the former German chancellor who died in 2017, instead of Angela Merkel, who led the country three years ago.

Mr. Coons made light of “the calls I get from frantic Democrats saying, ‘Oh my God, the president said X!’ I mean, ‘And the former president said Y!’ If you asked Donald Trump who François Mitterrand was, he’d look at you like, ‘What are you talking about?’

Mr Trump has made his own series of verbal stumbles – recently confusing Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi and before confused the leaders of Hungary and Turkey — but polls show voters don’t question his acumen the way they do Mr. Biden. An An NBC News poll released this week found that voters gave Mr. Trump a 16-percentage-point advantage on the question of who is more competent and effective — a 25-point difference from 2020, when Mr. Biden had a nine-point advantage on the question.

Ms. Haley argued that a new generation would better serve the country and both parties. “The first party to retire their 80-year-old candidate will win this election!” she wrote in a fundraising email Thursday.

Mr. Biden’s aides have stressed privately that hints that his memory is fading would not hurt him because voters already valued his age when considering whether to back him against Mr. Trump. Some of the president’s allies on Thursday dusted off the playbook used by past presidents in the face of investigations: Attack investigators motivated by partisan politics.

Representative Robert Garcia, Democrat of California, said Mr. Hur lacked the expertise to judge Mr. Biden’s memory.

“The people writing this report, they are lawyers, not doctors,” Mr. Garcia said. “This person is a Republican who couldn’t find any evidence. He is probably trying to hurt the president politically.”

For many Democrats, this episode was an unwelcome echo of the approach to the 2016 election. James B. Comey, the FBI director at the time, held a news conference that summer in which he said he would not indict Hillary Clinton over her use of a private email server, but he nevertheless condemned her verdict — and then, months later , reopened his investigation in the days before the election.

“This brings back 11 days to Clinton-Trump for a lot of us,” said Bakari Sellers, a Democratic strategist, who predicted Mr. Biden’s woes would fade because the election was still a long way off. “The blessing for Biden is that he was old before this report, he will remain old after this report. We all knew he was old.”

The special counsel’s report was surprisingly harsh. It described Mr. Biden’s memory as appearing to have “significant limitations,” described an interview he recorded in 2017 as “painfully slow,” and said Mr. Biden did not remember some key dates of his vice presidency or “when his son Beau died. ”

In a letter to the special counsel, Mr. Biden’s lawyers called the numerous references to Mr. Biden’s memory “unwarranted” as well as “prejudicial and inflammatory.” Mr. Biden himself, with visible frustration, expressed disbelief at an idea he didn’t know about when his son died: “How the hell does he dare bring that up?”

Representative Daniel S. Goldman, a New York Democrat and former federal prosecutor, said the immediate attention Biden’s Mexico-Egypt gaffe garnered was “a perfect example of where age issues are being completely exaggerated and blown out of proportion.”

Mr. Biden remains almost certain to be the Democratic nominee. He easily won his party’s first contests for the nomination, and qualifying deadlines for the Democratic primaries have passed in about 80 percent of states and territories.

Representative Dean Phillips of Minnesota, who is Mr. Biden’s only remaining primary Democratic challenger, has so far attracted little support. Mr. Phillips said the special counsel’s description of Mr. Biden’s memory showed that “the president is not in a position to continue to serve as our commander-in-chief beyond January 2025.”

James Carville, a veteran Democratic strategist, said the negative perception of Mr. Biden’s age could not be dismissed as a distraction.

“The public doesn’t look at his age as — that’s not a Fox News issue,” he said in an interview after the news conference. “It’s not Taylor Swift rigging the Super Bowl. So – I don’t know how you get out of this.”

“The whole day,” he added, “he confirmed the existing suspicion.”

Maggie Haberman contributed to the reporting.

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