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What Democrats Want Biden to Say About His Age (Not Much)

Biden’s allies know the president’s fitness for office will be under a magnifying glass during the State of the Union address.

Joe Biden
President Joe Biden’s age is part of the “American dialogue” ahead of the State of the Union address, a White House official admits. Alex Brandon/AP

The White House and Joe Biden’s allies in Congress know the public will be watching for the president to show his age during his State of the Union speech.

Watched by millions, Thursday night’s speech will be Biden’s biggest platform yet to convince his allies — and the American public — that he’s fit for another term in office. The president has an approval rating hovering around the mid-30s and just came off a news cycle defending his “memory” after special counsel Robert Hur’s damning report; if he wins in November, he would be 86 at the end of a second term.

“The issue is part of the American dialogue right now. So we accept that reality,” White House official Steve Benjamin said, adding that he expects Biden to address the issue by simply reminding everyone that Donald Trump is old too. “But while they’re both older, the president does not have old ideas. His opponent’s ideas are old ideas,” Benjamin said.

Biden’s aides are well aware of the amped-up stakes, a source familiar with the preparation told NOTUS. Two people close to the White House said the West Wing isn’t worried that Biden will accidentally stoke flames around his age.

“They expect some flubs,” the source told NOTUS of the White House staff, though more because of his speech impediment than his age. In the run-up, there’s been “level-setting and reminding reporters he has a speech impediment,” this person said. White House spokesperson Andrew Bates rejected the characterization that staff are anticipating mistakes. On Capitol Hill, Democrats are familiar with the questions surrounding Biden’s fitness for office, but they’re adamant he doesn’t need to address his age at all, spare, perhaps, a quick quip.

“He can make a joke about it, but I think what’s more important is to talk about his future for the country,” Rep. Ro Khanna told NOTUS.

“I mean, if he wants to joke about it, that’s fine, but I think just doing one’s job and doing one’s job well is the biggest statement one can make around that,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said.

Instead, House Democrats are hoping Biden will keep his speech to his policy agenda.

“I don’t think he’s avoiding [addressing his age], but the purpose of the State of the Union is to give the state of the union and talk about what he’s accomplished and what his agenda for this year is, and that’s what he should focus on,” Rep. Jennifer McClellan said.

Asked if Biden should address his age, House Democratic Whip Katherine Clark pivoted to speak about Democrats’ fight for reproductive health care access.

“This president understands that reproductive rights is freedom, and that is what I’m looking for him to say,” she said.

Still, it’s no secret that in past State of the Union speeches, Biden is most remembered for ad-libs and off-the-cuff remarks. Last year, Biden powerfully responded to hecklers with a flash of humor, a moment pundits said showed agility and a command of the information.

Those moments, aides said, can’t be contrived. Nor can aides prevent any gaffes. “People know Joe Biden, and they know what he sounds like when he gives a speech,” a former aide said. “We would never write to limit him in any way, nor would we ever write to change the way he speaks.”

Biden spent the weekend ahead of the State of the Union with a handful of his most trusted advisers and historian Jon Meacham, a source familiar with the preparation confirmed. The source said that the president has done “no more [practice]” than usual for State of the Union addresses.

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For his part, the president’s official Instagram account posted a photo of him sitting outside the presidential retreat, wearing his signature aviator sunglasses, with his speech binder open to the first page. “Get ready, folks,” was the caption.

Republicans, too, are getting their attacks ready.

“Frankly, I think the American people are seeing with their own eyes the challenges that he is having in dealing with the job,” Republican Rep. Mike Lawler told NOTUS. “I think that’s going to be on him to make the case to the American people in November that he’s still fit for the job.”

“Anything this president says, [Republicans] are going to weaponize and use,” Rep. Barbara Lee countered. Biden and Kamala Harris are “working to make life better for everyone, and that’s what he should focus on, and how he’s going to continue with this work, not what the Republicans are going to do.” As for the question of age, former House Democratic leader Rep. Steny Hoyer, who is three years Biden’s senior, quelled concerns succinctly: “He may be in his 80s, but he’s not over the hill.”

Jasmine Wright is a reporter at NOTUS. Tinashe Chingarande and Claire Heddles are NOTUS reporters and Allbritton Journalism Institute fellows. John T. Seward, a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow, contributed reporting.