Politics

The Challenges of an Aging President

Because of his age and his determination to run for a second term, President Biden is taking the American public into uncharted waters. He is the oldest person ever to serve as president, is the oldest ever to run for re-election and, if he is successful, would be 86 at the end of his tenure. Ronald Reagan, by comparison, was an unprecedented 77 when he ended his second term in 1989.

A remarkably broad swath of the American public — both Mr. Biden’s supporters and his detractors — have expressed increasing doubts about his ability to serve for another five years because of his age. As Nate Cohn, The Times’s chief political analyst, noted, “In Times/Siena polling last fall, more than 70 percent of battleground state voters agreed with the statement that Mr. Biden’s ‘just too old to be an effective president.’” But the release of the special counsel Robert K. Hur’s report on Thursday — and Mr. Hur’s assessment that the president presents himself as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” — will invariably test the trust that the American people have in their president.

Mr. Biden’s performance at his news conference on Thursday night was intended to assure the public that his memory is fine and argue that Mr. Hur was out of line; instead, the president raised more questions about his cognitive sharpness and temperament, as he delivered emotional and snappish retorts in a moment when people were looking for steady, even and capable responses to fair questions about his fitness.

His assurances, in other words, didn’t work. He must do better — the stakes in this presidential election are too high for Mr. Biden to hope that he can skate through a campaign with the help of teleprompters and aides and somehow defeat as manifestly unfit an opponent as Donald Trump, who has a very real chance of retaking the White House.

Mr. Biden’s allies are already going to the usual Washington playbook of dismissing the special counsel’s report as partisan. Regardless of Mr. Hur’s motivation, the details that he presented spoke to worries voters already had. The president has to reassure and build confidence with the public by doing things that he has so far been unwilling to do convincingly. He needs to be out campaigning with voters far more in unrehearsed interactions. He could undertake more town hall meetings in communities and on national television. He should hold regular news conferences to demonstrate his command of and direction for leading the country.

As it stands, he has had less substantive, unscripted interaction with the public and the press than any other president in recent memory. As Michael Shear of The Times reported last year, “In the 100 years since Calvin Coolidge took office, only Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan held as few news conferences each year as the current occupant of the Oval Office.” As of late January, he had also given fewer interviews than the last six presidents: only 86. Mr. Trump gave 300, and Barack Obama gave 422. For the second year in a row, Mr. Biden has even refused to do an interview before the Super Bowl, a practice that allowed presidents to speak to Americans informally before the country’s largest sporting event of the year, unpersuasively citing a desire to give the public a break from politics.

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