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Biden's age continues to linger as a campaign issue amid slip-ups

President Joe Biden meets with members of the Culinary Workers Union at Vdara Hotel in Las Vegas, Monday, Feb. 5, 2024. (AP Photo/Stephanie Scarbrough)
President Joe Biden meets with members of the Culinary Workers Union at Vdara Hotel in Las Vegas, Monday, Feb. 5, 2024. (AP Photo/Stephanie Scarbrough)
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President Joe Biden made a pair of verbal slip-ups this week that has once again brought attention to his advanced age in an issue that has dragged his reelection campaign and frequently been highlighted during his presidency.

The most recent slip-ups involved Biden mixing up the names of European leaders with past officials who had died years earlier. On Wednesday, Biden twice appeared to mix up late German Chancellor Helmut Kohl with former Chancellor Angela Merkel while talking about a conversation he had in 2021. Merkel was Germany’s leader during the event he was discussing, while Kohl died in 2017.

That came after another error on Sunday, when he confused French President Emmanuel Macron for Francois Mitterand, a former French president who died in 1996.

They are the latest examples in what has become a growing problem for Biden, who has referred to himself as a “gaffe machine” in the past. But they come as voters are voicing concerns about the 81-year-old president.

An NBC poll released Wednesday found 76% of voters had major or moderate concerns about whether Biden has “the necessary mental and physical health to be president for a second term.” Eleven percent said they had no real concerns.

Biden’s age has been an issue he has confronted directly and tried to overcome by asking voters to count on his experience and what he has been able to accomplish as president. But questions continue to pop up any time he makes a mistake while speaking or appears frail.

“It's a double-edged sword to put him out on the campaign trail or in high-profile events. The upside is you could show people ‘look at him out there’ being active and speaking, whether on-script or extemporaneously interacting with people. And he could pull it off very well for hours or days in a row. But just one slip-up and that's probably what will get all the attention,” said Chris Devine, an associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton.

But Biden isn’t alone in giving voters concern over his advanced age, as the same poll found 48% said they have major or moderate concerns about 77-year-old former President Donald Trump. Thirty-five percent said they had no real concerns.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has tried to draw attention to Trump’s age in the Republican primary race, especially after he confused her for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a rally. Before dropping out of the race, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign had launched a “Trump accident tracker” on top of quips from the governor about Trump “losing his fastball.”

Trump has also made other gaffes like saying he ran against former President Barack Obama or confusing former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who ran in the 2016 GOP primary, for his brother, former President George W. Bush.

The old age of the candidates, who appear to be on a collision course for a 2020 rematch, has been one of the primary drivers behind their disdain for what’s to come at the top of the ticket in November. Voters in both parties have consistently told pollsters for months that they want someone new to be the presidential nominee.

That has spurred some speculation that third-party candidates may have a bigger sway over the final results due to higher levels of disinterest in the two major political parties’ candidates, though experts say that is unlikely to materialize when it comes time for voters to cast a ballot. Challengers to the two frontrunners have also tried to harness that energy in their longshot campaigns, though they have limited success.

Haley has frequently drawn attention to Trump’s age but lost primary contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. She was also handily defeated in Nevada’s primary election to “none of these candidates” without Trump on the ballot, though she did not campaign in Nevada and the election does not award any delegates.

Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips has also tried to use Biden’s age against him in his longshot primary challenge.

“In 2016, Joe Biden made the wrong decision by not running, and in 2024 he’s making the wrong decision by running. It gives me angst, but someone in Washington has to be honest and say what the entire country knows,” Phillips said in a post on X including videos of Biden speaking in 2016 and this year.

While attacks about age are not having much of an effect in primary races, both campaigns have also tried to make it a factor in the general election.

Biden’s campaign and other Democrats have tried to highlight Trump’s errors to counterbalance the frequent attacks against the president, who Trump’s campaign has tried to frame as a confused, elderly man incapable of serving another four-year term.

It’s a risky strategy for Biden. While it may convince some voters that there is not a stark difference between the two elderly candidates, it could also draw more attention to a vulnerable issue for him.

“We see this often in campaigns where one candidate has a weakness — whether that's a real weakness or at least the perceived one — what they do is say, ‘I know you are but what am I?’ and try to turn it back on the other candidate, and it rarely works,” Devine said. “Usually, if there's a narrative that attaches to someone, it's because people see something compelling there.”

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