At the Democratic National Committee’s September fundraiser retreat, a donor pressed Joe Biden’s deputy campaign manager, Quentin Fulks, about one of the more oft-discussed topics in party circles: the president’s age.
How, the person asked during a question-and-answer session on the 2024 campaign, should donors handle the stream of concerns they’ve heard about it?
Fulks acknowledged the obvious: You can’t change the age of the president, who will turn 81 on Monday. Instead, he advised the donor to focus on Biden’s historic accomplishments.
Fulks’ response, which was described by four people who attended the session, was well-received by those who see his age as a mark of his deep experience — and met with disagreement by others, who fear not enough is being done to remind voters that former President Donald Trump is just three-and-a-half years younger. All told, it highlighted a larger dynamic currently facing the party: Not everyone is sure what the right playbook is for handling the president’s most sensitive vulnerability.
Interviews with more than a dozen Biden donors and fundraisers, Democratic strategists and party officials, many of whom were granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly, revealed deep concerns that the campaign’s approach to his age isn’t enough to quell voters’ fears about it. Many donors are directly urging top campaign aides to go on offense, leaning even harder into Biden’s age as proof of his wisdom in turbulent times. They are pushing for more humor about “Grandpa Joe.”
“I think everyone knows it’s an issue, and we have to address it,” said Ron Klain, who served as Biden’s chief of staff for his first two years in the White House. He added that it’s important to “emphasize [that] it gives him more wisdom and experience, how he’s navigated this difficult problem in Ukraine.”
“He’ll keep on doing the job, campaigning with vigor and demonstrating to the American people his energy level, which is quite robust,” Klain said.
But others fret that not enough has been done to place a similarly harsh spotlight on the fact that Trump himself is 77.
“Neither are going to get any younger on their next birthdays, but yet Biden seems to get, on a continuing basis, knocked for his age while Trump does not,” said Alan Kessler, a Democratic donor and Biden bundler. “No one brings up the age thing with [Trump]. That double standard is troubling.”
Biden and his team have deployed a number of responses. The president has been making light of his age for months, particularly at fundraisers, and his campaign has increasingly blasted out Trump’s own mental lapses on social media. In recent days, his campaign aides and surrogates have stressed that this “is not a time for rookies,” as Fulks said in a CNN interview earlier this month.
But nothing has seemed to move the president’s numbers. Seventy percent of likely voters in six battleground states said Biden is “too old to be an effective president,” according to The New York Times-Siena College poll released earlier this month. Only 39 percent of those battleground voters said Trump was too old. That’s virtually unchanged from April, when a Reuters/Ipsos poll found 73 percent of adults believed Biden is too old to be in office.
Even those in Biden’s inner circle, including family members, worry about the optics of age. Those close allies believe that Biden is mentally up for the job, but some acknowledge that the president can at times appear frail, according to two people involved in the conversations but not authorized to speak publicly about internal deliberations.
One example: As noted on his recent physical, Biden’s gait has stiffened following foot fractures he suffered playing with his dog in late 2020. People close to the president have discussed having him walk shorter distances while on camera. They’ve also advocated, at times, trading in formal shoes for more comfortable ones — both to make his stride seem less stiff, but also to reduce the risk of falls.
Some Democrats argue that Biden’s team has been too dismissive of the idea that the president’s age could hurt him in the election. They have pushed for a more offensive strategy, nudging Biden aides to showcase his younger, diverse cabinet.
Another Biden donor said they recently raised concerns about the president’s age with DNC officials, but “they just refused to even acknowledge it was a problem.”
“I think the strategy is not to even address it, to consider questions like that stupid or silly,” said the donor. “Literally everyone is talking about it, even amongst donors. But the response is always: ‘What are you going to do?’”
Andrew Bates, a White House spokesperson, said in a statement that Biden “has used his deep experience to deliver unprecedented benefits.” He noted legislation to lower drug prices, invest in infrastructure and change gun laws, along with the president’s foreign policy portfolio, among the achievements.
“President Biden is fighting every day to add to those results for families, while Republican officials fight with each other and quadruple down on criticisms of him that failed in 2020, 2022 and 2023,” Bates added. For good measure, he shared a May 2023 story headlined: “After Calling Joe Biden Senile, Republicans Complain He Outsmarted Them.”
Biden is America’s oldest president ever, a distinction that even some in his own party are using against him. Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) launched his longshot presidential primary bid calling for a generational change and urging in one of his campaign ads that Biden should “hand the torch” to the next generation.
Those concerns — which are voiced privately by others in the party — have made Biden’s team particularly sensitive, even defensive, to the issue, some Democratic strategists and insiders said.
“They bristle in ways that aren’t helpful,” said one Democratic operative close to Biden’s team.
Current and former White House aides and campaign staffers insist that Biden is as sharp as ever, drilling staffers on the finer points of policy issues and maintaining a busy travel schedule, including visits to two active war zones in the last year. Former National Economic Council deputy director Bharat Ramamurti posted on X that reporters questioning Biden’s acuity “couldn’t survive a ten minute policy briefing with the President.”
John Morgan, a Biden bundler and Florida attorney, said he has urged the president’s team to further lean into the argument that he is wise. He believes that his campaign will.
“You cannot roll back time. There’s nothing that can be done to make him younger,” Morgan said. “I believe that what’s going to carry the day for Joe Biden is the word ‘wisdom.’ We want wise men. And what I would say to everybody who has a problem with his age, I would just tell them that if you had stopped investing with Warren Buffett when he was 80, you would have missed out on 12 years of record returns.”
Biden advisers feel there’s a double standard and that Biden’s age has been covered much more than Trump’s. They are fond of noting that if Trump were to win next year, he would become the oldest person ever elected president, moving past Biden from 2020.
At the same time, they insist they know that it is an issue that they have to confront, but they believe they can neutralize it. They argue that voters don’t make their decisions about who to support based on age, and are instead more concerned about a candidate’s values and accomplishments.
Biden’s advisers also make the case that he was slammed by Trump and his GOP allies over his age and mental fitness during the 2020 campaign, and that they overcame those attacks in part by pointing to his experience. Now, they said, they can note point to major legislative victories as part of an updated plan.
“When I look at his age, I see wisdom and experience,” said Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.), a member of the Biden campaign’s national advisory board who his team suggested for an interview. “I think most voters are going to see the same.”
Ultimately, Biden’s aides believe age will not be a major factor next November precisely because the election will likely come down to a binary choice between the president and Trump, said a Democratic donor who has spoken with Biden campaign officials. Should that be the case, not all Biden donors think the campaign even needs to take a different approach on age — or any approach at all. Philadelphia attorney Stephen Cozen, a Biden bundler, said he has advised some on the reelection team to not worry about the issue.
“What I told campaign officials is forget about the goddamn age question. Go after Trump,” he said. “Most of them agree with me.”
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