State of the Union shows Biden age coverage needs a rethink

There’s been too much focus on trivialities, as the State of the Union shows.

President Joe Biden speaks forcefully into a microphone while standing at a podium.

President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address on March 7, 2024, in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

The verdict from the media is in — President Joe Biden put to rest concerns about his age for the time being with a “fiery,” “forceful,” “punchy,” and “vigorous” State of the Union address Thursday.

And yet that verdict shows just how silly the discourse on Biden’s age has gotten in recent weeks.

After special counsel Robert Hur’s report suggested Biden had a “poor memory” last month, commentators began to interpret any verbal flub from Biden as new devastating evidence bound to bolster voters’ concerns that he’s too old for another term — while giving little attention to similar screw-ups from Trump and others.

With the bar for a good performance now set so low, Biden easily cleared it in Thursday’s address. But what actually happened? The president read a lengthy speech from a teleprompter, often loudly, without looking visibly tired or messing up in some blatant way.

It’s a thin justification for a major narrative swing in coverage of the campaign. But it’s happening because so much of the previous commentary on Biden’s age was poorly thought out — focused on trivialities rather than substance and failing to properly separate out what actually matters.

The worries about Biden being too old are about two different things

Many of the attacks on Biden being “too old” are pure political opportunism, particularly when they’re coming from supporters of the barely younger Donald Trump.

But it’s also true that Biden speaks and walks less fluidly than he used to, and that in off-the-cuff speech, he not infrequently forgets things or mixes up names. (Trump also speaks less fluidly, forgets things, and mixes up names.) There is a general sense among a lot of voters that Biden seems too old.

Beyond that, two separate concerns are often conflated in the discourse.

The first concern is a worry that Biden’s age has impaired, or will impair, his decision-making or governance — that his basic mental functioning has declined in such a way that, well, he shouldn’t be president.

To be clear — there is no evidence for this. There are zero reports from the administration describing Biden being confused or unable to grapple with policy decisions. The caveat is that we also don’t have visibility into Biden’s closed-door policy discussions, and the administration has carefully managed his public availability, so some have theorized (or feared) his condition could be worse than we know behind the scenes. But again, there’s no evidence this is the case.

The second concern is that, in part due to his age, Biden is failing to appropriately “perform” the role of president or presidential candidate — that, whatever the truth, he hasn’t been good at seeming like he’s in command, like he’s energetic, can handle tough questioning, and is up to the job.

This criticism inevitably devolves into theater criticism because it’s fundamentally about performance. By saying that, I don’t mean to dismiss it. This concern is often voiced by people who want Democrats to defeat Trump — they fear Biden is no longer up to the rigors of the campaign trail, or that he simply just seems old in a way that won’t appeal to voters. They believe defeating Trump is very important, and worry Biden will fail to do it.

All of that makes sense. But often, the way this stuff is covered day-to-day becomes vapid and ridiculous, from both ends. We swing from “Biden made a gaffe in a press conference, heightening age concerns” to “Biden read a fiery speech, quelling age concerns.” But neither event really tells us much.

The issue about Biden’s public performance as related to his age is really a question about how swing voters will view Biden’s public performance. But media commentators hyper-saturated in politics news aren’t particularly good at guessing how low-engagement swing voters will think about things.

In particular, one big question here is how much Biden’s polling troubles are actually caused by his age, as compared to his record. Notably, many leaders of developed democracies who are far younger than Biden are wildly unpopular right now. And despite recent good economic news, prices are still a whole lot higher than they were four years ago — perhaps voters haven’t forgiven that just yet. The New York Times recently wrote about a focus group of undecided independent voters in which the prices issue loomed large.

The most illuminating coverage of this topic will try to assess how important the age issue truly is in voters’ thinking, and whether there’s any evidence age will impair governance — by either candidate.


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