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Challenges of an ageing president

NEW YORK (AP/THE NEW YORK TIMES) – 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 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 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.

Biden’s performance at his news conference on Thursday night was intended to assure the public that his memory is fine and argue that 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 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.

Biden’s allies are already going to the usual Washington playbook of dismissing the special counsel’s report as partisan.

Chris Wallace, of Fox News (centre) moderates as then President Donald Trump (left) and Democratic candidate former Vice President Joe Biden then, speak during a presidential debate, September 29, 2020, in Cleveland. PHOTO: AP

Regardless of 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. Trump gave 300, and Barack Obama gave 422. For the second year in a row, 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.

This is part of a concerted, modern White House strategy to reach Americans through online influencers or tightly produced videos, rather than public encounters that might challenge him. But the combination of Biden’s age and his absence from the public stage has eroded the public’s confidence. He looks as if he is hiding, or worse, being hidden. The details in Hur’s report will only heighten those concerns, which Trump’s campaign is already exploiting.

This is a dark moment for Biden’s presidency, when many voters are relying on him to provide the country with a compelling alternative to the unique danger of Trump. On the most important questions — of integrity, record of accomplishment and the character required to be fit for the presidency — there is no comparison between them. In the most challenging moments of his presidency, in supporting our allies when they are threatened and in steering the US economy away from recession, Biden has been a wise and steady presence. He needs to do more to show the public that he is fully capable of holding office until age 86.

President Joe Biden walks to the Oval Office after delivering remarks to the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference, Monday, in Washington. PHOTO: AP