President Biden’s onstage fall at the Air Force Academy graduation put his age and fragility in the limelight at a time when the White House is in an increasingly tough spot on the issue.
While Biden supporters argue he remains physically and mentally up to the job, high profile Republicans such as presidential candidate Nikki Haley have warned on the campaign trail that a vote for Biden is a vote for Vice President Harris to eventually sit in the Oval Office.
That has raised questions about whether Biden, who would be 86 years old by the time he reached the end of a second term, could serve out another four years.
Biden allies view Republican efforts to focus on Biden’s age as a tired tactic that has failed to produce results, noting that the president’s age did not scare away voters in 2020 and that the Biden administration has produced major legislative results leading into the 2024 cycle. They view attacks on Harris similarly, noting it was a common line of criticism during the 2020 cycle.
“They should focus on selling his record over the past four years and plans for the next four years and not engage in GOP attacks. Everyone knows his age — and Trump’s — and what they care about is results,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist and donor.
But Haley’s comments reflect what has become a persistent problem for the White House, as polls have consistently shown a swath of Democrats — and voters in general — are concerned about Biden’s age.
The administration’s strategy in dealing with the fall was on full display Tuesday, when White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre had a brief back-and-forth with a reporter from a conservative news outlet who asked about the Air Force Academy incident in the context of changing the way advance procedures are conducted for presidential visits.
She pushed back at first by lauding Biden’s accomplishments for the first two years, including winning in 2020, overcoming 2022 doubts and compliments from Republicans last week after reaching a debt deal with Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) she cast as “the most important thing that the Americans are going to care about.”
“Isn’t that what [is] important? As a reporter, don’t you think it’s important what Americans care about?” Jean-Pierre responded when the journalist pushed back on the question of Biden’s fall.
“Here’s the thing … things happen. Other presidents have had similar situations, as you know, and I’m sure you reported on the last president, who has had a similar situation. And so look, things happen. This is a president that delivers and will continue to deliver for the American people, and that’s what he cares about,” she said before ending the briefing.
White House officials have also spent the past week pointing out that some of the same Republicans who deride Biden as being too old for the job bemoaned that the White House got the better of negotiations over the budget and debt ceiling.
Despite the messaging strategy by the White House, Biden’s age has long been an issue even among Democrats, according to polls. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released in early May found 68 percent of Americans said they believe the president is too old for another term.
His tumble onstage at the Air Force Academy put the issue back into the national conversation, despite Biden laughing it off and the White House dismissing the fervor over the president tripping on a sandbag.
GOP strategist Doug Heye argued that it’s fair game for Republicans to be focusing on the president’s age in the lens of the vice president and warning voters that she could be president.
“Because of the fall that Biden had, it’s a topic that voters talk about and not just partisan Republican primary voters, but Democrats, at least privately, will say that they have concerns and justifiable ones about somebody who’s 86 being president,” he said. “One of the core tenets of Biden’s run was that he would be a stabilizing force. And this raises questions as to whether or not that’s really true.”
Other Republican presidential contenders besides Haley have recently danced around the issue of Biden’s age. Former President Trump, who will turn 77 this month, responded to the news of Biden’s fall by saying he hoped he wasn’t hurt. Trump claimed last week that he’d asked Fox News host Sean Hannity to lay off jokes about Biden’s age.
Haley has been by far the most outspoken Republican presidential candidate in publicly questioning whether Biden would make it to the end of a second four-year term. She has repeatedly raised the issue as part of a broader attempt to break through a crowded GOP primary field by focusing on the need for generational change in presidential politics.
“A vote for President Biden is actually a vote for President Harris. We are running against Kamala Harris,” Haley said on Fox News on Monday.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is not running for president, also previously highlighted Biden’s age and questioned Harris’s ability to take over as commander in chief at the outset of the president’s 2024 campaign launch.
The tactic has dragged Harris into the conversation, as voters weigh whether to back Biden.
Bruce Mehlman, a former official under President George W. Bush, called the GOP criticism of Harris during the reelection campaign “fair game, possibly compelling and hardly unique to 2024 and VP Harris.”
“From Sarah Palin to [former vice president] Dan Quayle to Geraldine Ferraro, running mates considered unready or unpopular are often highlighted by the other party,” said Mehlman, a founding partner at Mehlman Consulting.
Kevin Munoz, a spokesperson for the Biden campaign, called Harris “an incredible governing and campaigning partner” with Biden.
“Republicans are resorting to the same tired, failed, and false attacks on Vice President Harris that they’ve used over and over again, because they can’t argue on the merits of their unpopular, extreme MAGA agenda,” Munoz said. “At some point, the Beltway media might pay more attention to views of the American people who voted in record numbers for the Biden-Harris ticket, rather than recycled bogus rhetoric of the GOP and its political operatives.”
Harris has been a highly visible surrogate on the road in the six weeks since Biden made his reelection bid official, traveling to speak with reproductive rights groups, union leaders and local elected officials about the Biden administration’s agenda.
Meanwhile, Biden’s travel has been limited to roughly one trip per week, and he hasn’t been out campaigning other than a few fundraisers with donors.
He’s traveling to North Carolina this week for a speech on workforce training programs and to meet with service members and their families. Last week, he traveled to Colorado for the Air Force Academy graduation.
The president will hold a rare joint press conference Thursday with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, amid growing calls for him to do more public events and engage with the media more, but so far the White House has been selective on granting interviews with the president.
Heye argued that voters should see more of the president as a way for the White House to respond to attacks about his age.
“They need to see him being vigorous and that comes with inherent risks,” he said. “I think that’s a challenge for them.”