President Joe Biden probably hoped that the 388-page report from special counsel would put a lingering question — the one of his handling of classified documents — to bed.
And indeed, while Special Counsel Robert Hur’s report said that Biden “willfully” held onto classified materials at his home in Delaware and the office of a think tank, it also said it would not recommend crimiminal charges for the president.
The good news ended there for the president. It should be noted that Attorney General Merrick Garland nominated Hur, a Republican whom Donald Trump nominated to serve as the US Attorney for Maryland. Garland did so after Trump sought to use the entire department as his personal legal defense arm. It was supposed to be a show of impartiality toward the current president.
But nominating Hur might have given Republicans their most potent weapon yet. It forced a conversation on Biden’s age and whether it makes him fit to be the president for another term into the foreground. The report became the equivalent of a rubber hose beating: it may not be fatal, but it will bruise him up a bit.
Much of Washington noted the passage in the report that noted how Biden could not remember “even within several years” when his son Beau Biden died of brain cancer. Matters became even worse during the press conference afterward when he said that Abdel Fattah El-Sisi was Mexico’s president instead of Egypt’s.
The press have long grumbled that the White House and the Biden re-election campaign has kept the boss cloistered, perhaps to avoid hard questions. That habit, of course, has now only magnified the questions about his mental acuity.
Questions about Biden’s age have loomed in the background ever since he announced his candidacy in 2019. Some saw Biden’s identity as an old, white, Catholic man as an asset, given the sexist attacks that seemed to sink Hillary Clinton.
But at other times, it led to uncomfortable moments — such as when Julián Castro asked Biden during a debate, “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” Biden himself seemed to acknowledge his age when he said, “I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else” for an “entire generation of leaders.”
The deal Democrats made with voters seemed to be: elect dear old Joe Biden to defeat Trump and he will clear the deck for the next generation. But Trump’s refusal to acknowledge he lost and his continued presence in politics made it difficult to fulfill that unspoken compromise.
Just this week, an NBC News poll showed that three-quarters of voters have at least moderate concerns about Biden’s age. And he declined the traditional presidential interview during the Super Bowl, making some people wonder if the White House was hiding him.
The Biden campaign and White House has always been quite aware that the president’s advanced age is a liability. Last year, during the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he poked fun at himself about it. Elsewhere, the Biden campaign has sought to underline the positives of his wealth of experience, which allows him to cut deals with Republicans on the Hill and stare down Russian President Vladimir Putin as the latter assaults Ukraine.
At this point, it should be acknowledged that Trump, Biden’s likely opponent, is no spritely youth either. Should he win the White House again this year, he will be 78 when he takes the oath of office. And Trump has made outright nonsensical statements that have made people question his mental state as well, such as when he recently mixed up his Republican challenger Nikki Haley with former House speaker Nancy Pelosi.
But questions about Biden’s age cannot be avoided now. In additions to questions about his acuity, being 81 years old also means his rhetoric is out of step with much of his party. Many younger progressives have criticised him for his support for Israel in its war against Hamas, which has led to tens of thousands of civilian deaths in Gaza. During his presser on Thursday, Biden said Israel’s actions appeared “a little over the top,” perhaps his biggest public break with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to date.
The president also faced criticism when, during a fundraiser on Wednesday, he said, “I’m a practicing Catholic. I don’t want abortion on demand but I thought Roe v Wade was right.” Such a statement angered campaigners for reproductive rights.
All of this means Biden’s age will be a focal point throughout the election. The Biden campaign will either have to embrace it, while acknowledging voters’s concerns and treating them as valid, or risk being seen as trying to conceal something.