Happy birthday, Mr President.
Sixty years after Marilyn Monroe sang those famous words to John F Kennedy, another US president is celebrating his big day, not with a gala dinner or movie star’s serenade, but a low-key family event well away from the public gaze.
Joe Biden turns 81 today – not that you’d know it from his public schedule. As is traditional during Thanksgiving week, the president is due to ceremonially pardon two turkeys at the White House before traveling with First Lady Jill Biden to a Virginia naval base, to watch a film with service personnel.
A family celebration is planned, but not until later in the week, on the island of Nantucket, Mass, where a cake bearing an awful lot of candles may finally be rolled out. What explains the reticence? The 46th and oldest ever president of the United States has had his three score and 10, plus another 10 and a few more for fun. He’s lived nearly five years longer than the average US male mortality.
His has not only been a long life, it’s one packed with drama, trauma and triumph: the loss of his wife and baby daughter in a car crash; two near fatal brain aneurisms; the death of a son to cancer; the addictions and personal chaos of another son; a happy second marriage and beloved children and grandchildren. Politically, he dominated the Senate for decades, served as vice president for eight years; and, finally, attained the White House in the most controversial election in living memory, becoming America’s first octogenarian commander-in-chief.
But far from being a cause of celebration, each presidential birthday has come to be seen as an increasing liability. This is in no small way connected to a slew of opinion polls making clear voter concerns about Biden’s age and capacity as he heads into a re-election year. In a recent New York Times/Sienna poll, 71 per cent described him as “too old” to be an effective president. Worse, 62 per cent said Biden lacked “mental sharpness.”
Such sentiments are driven by episodes in which the president has stumbled, including several getting on and off Air Force One, or appears to lose his train of thought, as he did last month when visiting Israel. It’s a problem Biden’s re-election team is said to be alive to. Politico reported today that when a recent medical showed the president’s feet had stiffened due to small fractures sustained playing with his dog, consideration was given to limiting the distances he walks in public, or to having him wear sturdier, if less formal footwear.
Those around Biden, including, apparently, members of his family, are said to believe that mentally he is more than up to the task of leading the free world, while acknowledging his physical frailties have become a campaign issue. The Washington Post reported that donors are among those who have raised concerns. Instead of seeking to deny or play down his age, some around the president have suggested he lean into it by highlighting the value of experience and wisdom, portraying himself as the nation’s “Grandpa Joe.”
They remember Ronald Regan’s jibe to Walter Mondale during a 1984 presidential debate: “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience”. Others favor a punchier response, suggesting the campaign team do more to point out the fact that at 77, Biden’s presumed rival in 2024, Donald Trump, is only a few years younger. Indeed, were Trump to win, he would become the oldest person elected to the presidency.
Yet despite their comparable ages, the New York Times-Siena poll shows only 39 per cent of voters feel Trump is too much of a dotard to return to the presidency. Some Democrat strategists suggest Team Biden fight back, by pointing out Trump’s own occasional incoherence, while pointing to the president’s relative sprightliness; his still impressive capacity for work and busy schedule which has taken him to both Ukraine and Israel this year.
Others believe the battle against Trump is unlikely to come down to age, that the “Sleepy Joe” nickname did not cost Biden the election last time around, and questions around capacity will not matter this time out either. They say most voters have a binary, love-hate response to Trump, and that nothing will stop them voting either for or against the man, no matter who his opponent is.
That theory will be tested at the election which is due to take place two weeks before Biden’s 82nd birthday next year. Win or lose, perhaps then he’ll permit himself a public celebration, with singing, cake and lots and lots of candles.