Home News Amid Age Concerns, the White House Tries a New Strategy: Let Joe Be Joe

Amid Age Concerns, the White House Tries a New Strategy: Let Joe Be Joe

Amid Age Concerns, the White House Tries a New Strategy: Let Joe Be Joe


He is wearing aviators and baseball caps. He is making visits to ice cream parlors and barbecue joints, and asking to meet with influencers who can disseminate images of him on TikTok and Instagram. He is talking more often to reporters and fielding questions on the Middle East, Republicans and, of course, his age.

None of this is a coincidence. As President Biden faces what polls show is significant concern about his 81 years, and a tight election against his likely opponent, Donald J. Trump, the White House strategy is to have him step out of his protective bubble and directly take on voters’ worries.

The issue became supercharged last month when Mr. Biden angrily defended himself against a special counsel report that described him as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.” The president quickly became a favorite punchline of late-night talk show hosts, enraging his allies, who acknowledge that although Mr. Biden can’t turn back the clock, he can at least try to reset how voters view him.

“I have been saying for several months to the campaign, ‘Please, let him be Joe Biden,’ and so have many others,” Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware and a close ally of the president, said in an interview. “It is not only good for the campaign. It is good for him and it’s good for the country when Joe Biden gets a chance to get out from behind the podium and be less President Joe Biden and more Joe.”

To that end, Mr. Biden is expected to frame the age issue to his advantage in highlighting his legislative accomplishments in his State of the Union address on Thursday night. The point he will make, aides say, is that his achievements as president might have eluded less experienced politicians.

Part of the White House strategy, which has been building since the beginning of the year, is to focus Mr. Biden’s trips outside Washington more on social media and one-on-one experiences with voters. The White House started inviting local residents and content creators this year to meet Mr. Biden at campaign stops, where the president will often take a few moments to introduce himself.

Some of Mr. Biden’s top advisers, including Rob Flaherty, a deputy campaign manager, and Anita Dunn, who oversees Mr. Biden’s communications strategy, believe that social media influencers and locals the president meets on his visits have the ability to introduce Mr. Biden to a younger, more diverse audience that would not otherwise be familiar with him. (When Mr. Biden visited a family in North Carolina in January, a TikTok made of the visit by one of his hosts racked up 4 million views, according to metrics shared by the Biden campaign.)

In an interview, Mr. Flaherty said that Mr. Biden often sends a flurry of requests to aides working on digital media for the campaign. Last week, when Mr. Trump compared himself to Aleksei A. Navalny, the deceased Russian opposition leader, the president asked his aides to give him an iPad and had them post a video on TikTok of him reacting to Mr. Trump’s comment.

“That came from his brain,” Mr. Flaherty said.

The president sometimes rewrites tweets to his liking and ad-libs his own video responses, Mr. Flaherty said. “He’s got more demands than I am sometimes prepared to keep up with.”

The official position of the White House is that moving the president out of his bubble has less to do with voters’ concerns about his age and more to do with getting him in front of people in an election year. “We have always known that the most effective way to reach the American people is when they can hear President Biden make his case directly and authentically,” Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman, said in a statement on Tuesday.

Mr. Biden’s close allies say that whatever the official pronouncements may be, it is critical that the president show that he is up for the task of campaigning and for a second term, starting with his Thursday speech.

“He needs to put to rest the fear that he’s somehow on his last leg,” said State Senator Dick Harpootlian, a South Carolina Democrat and a longtime Biden supporter. The president and his advisers, he said, “have gone more head-on in addressing it, and he should go head-on with it in the State of the Union.”

In a poll by The New York Times and Siena College conducted late last month, 56 percent of Democrats nationally said they believed Mr. Biden was too old to be an effective president.

“Is it an issue? Of course it is. No one is perfect in terms of their biography,” said Representative Ro Khanna, a progressive Democrat from California. Mr. Khanna added that presenting a forward-looking agenda to the country is as important as trying to assuage worries over the president’s age. “Campaigns have to be about the future. They have to be exciting. They have to be bold, they have to have new ideas. And I think if he did that, that’s the way to sideline the age issue.”

Biden campaign officials say that once the election becomes a choice between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, who is just four years younger, age will decline as a concern among Democratic and independent voters. The race will turn not on Mr. Biden’s mental fitness, they argue, but on questions around that of Mr. Trump.

In recent weeks, the campaign and top Democratic supporters have been highlighting Mr. Trump’s lapses, part of an effort to neutralize age as an issue in a likely rematch between the two oldest presidential nominees in history.

“Listen to Donald Trump who is like, ranting, making no sense, can’t even remember who he is running against,” Hillary Clinton said in an interview with SiriusXM on Monday. “If you’re worried about a person not necessarily knowing what’s going on, I’d worry a lot more about Donald Trump.”

In practice, letting Joe be Joe can be more difficult than it looks.

At events and speeches, Mr. Biden’s aides have become practiced at not showing any reaction to his slips, whether he confuses foreign leaders at a campaign event or mixes up Ukraine and Gaza during remarks in the Oval Office. They watch closely as Mr. Biden interacts with people on trips and they share nods when he pulls off just the right photo — still stationed far from reporters — in a bar or at a firehouse.

They have also brushed off criticism of Mr. Biden appearing too casual in some settings, like when he answered a question about Gaza while eating an ice cream cone. The point, his allies say, is that Mr. Biden was available for questions.

Much of the let-Joe-be-Joe encouragement is coming from the president himself, according to his aides and people who know him.

“I don’t think anybody should ever think that Joe Biden is not doing what Joe Biden wants to do at the end of the day,” said John Morgan, a Democratic donor. Members of Mr. Biden’s family, including his son Hunter; his wife, Jill; and his sister, Valerie Biden Owens, also advocate letting Mr. Biden be himself, despite their shared concern of the wear and tear of the presidency on him.

Mr. Morgan said that he had noticed an uptick in Mr. Biden’s activity and appearances lately, including the president’s comments about his yearly physical last week, joking that the doctors who examined him “think I look too young.” Mr. Morgan said taking on the issue directly was the best way for Mr. Biden to address it at such a high-stakes appearance.

“I think you’re always wise to address the elephant in the room,” Mr. Morgan said. “I think you do it humorously, and then I think you do it seriously.”


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