WASHINGTON – Joe Biden marked a milestone on Sunday that no other president has achieved while in office: He turned 80.
Biden, already the nation’s oldest president, is the first octogenarian-in-chief, a historical record that neither he nor the White House has been all that eager to publicize as Biden weighs the possibility of running for a second term.
"I can't even say the age I am going to be. I can't even get it out of my mouth," Biden joked late last month in an interview with MSNBC.
First lady Jill Biden hosted a Sunday brunch for the president and other family members to celebrate his birthday, the White House said.
Politically, Biden finds himself in a stronger position than arguably any modern Democratic president coming out of a midterm election. His party exceeded expectations in the Nov. 8 midterms, keeping control of the Senate and avoiding major losses in the House.
Yet the momentum hasn't fully tamped down questions whether Biden should run again.
Polls show that many Americans have concerns about reelecting the nation's first octogenarian president, and even some Democrats in Congress have called for Biden not to run again to let a new generation take the baton.
If Biden runs and wins – and he has said repeatedly he intends to run – he would be 82 when he is sworn in for a second term and 86 when he leaves, assuming he serves the full four years. That would make him nearly a decade older than Ronald Reagan was when he exited the political stage.
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Reagan, the nation’s oldest president until Biden took the title, was 77 when he left office in 1989.
Biden acknowledges that questions about his age are legitimate, but also insists that he’s capable of serving another four years.
Asked at a post-midterm news conference what message he has for Americans who don’t want him to run again, Biden said simply: “Watch me.”
Biden's allies say he has proven during his first two years in office that he's up to the physical and mental demands of the White House.
He maintains a schedule that’s hard for staffers a fraction of his age to keep up with, a senior White House official said. On the return flight from marathon overseas trips, when other staffers are wiped out and ready to sleep, he will call meetings about how to hit the ground running on domestic policy in a way that requires great endurance, the official said.
Staffers say they’ve also seen him show strength in times of community grief, such as when he comforted families after mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, or Buffalo, New York. In those moments of national mourning, Biden will meet with each family member to connect with them personally and offer his support.
He also works late into the night, calling members of Congress and poring over briefing books and asking detailed questions of staff as he strategizes for the next day, the official said.
And yet, many Americans have concerns about entrusting the presidency to him for another four years.
Three-quarters of Democrats or Democratic-leaning voters in a CNN poll in July said the Democratic Party should nominate someone other than Biden in 2024. Sixty-four percent of Americans said in a USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll last month that they don’t want Biden to run for a second term.
Biden’s allies take note of another polling point that seldom generates the same headlines as the age question. Some of the same polls that suggest Americans don’t want him to run for a second term also show him beating former President Donald Trump in a rematch.
Cedric Richmond, a former White House aide in the Biden administration and Democratic National Committee adviser, downplayed the age question, saying Biden accomplished things in two years in office that Democrats unsuccessfully sought for decades.
"He knows the daily grind. And the fact that the intends to run again means it doesn't bother him one bit," Richmond said.
White House spokesman Andrew Bates also swatted away questions about Biden’s age by citing Biden's accomplishments during his first two years in office.
Bates pointed to Biden’s success at getting legislation passed to make sure large corporations pay their share of taxes, empower Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices, enact the most significant gun reform in 30 years and push the biggest investment in infrastructure since the 1950s.
“He has earned the most successful legislative record of any president since Lyndon Johnson and just secured the best midterms outcome of any Democratic president in 40 years,” Bates said. “Keep watching.”
'Healthy, vigorous' and 'fit to serve'
Biden remains in good health physically, according to a medical summary from his doctor, Kevin O’Connor, that was released by the White House a year ago.
O’Connor’s report noted that Biden’s gait has grown stiffer and less fluid, a condition the doctor said was caused by age-related “wear and tear” of his spine. O’Connor also noted Biden had been coughing and clearing his throat with increasing frequency and severity during speaking engagements. O’Connor attributed that to gastroesophageal reflux.
But overall, O’Connor concluded, Biden remains “healthy, vigorous” and “fit to successfully execute the duties of the presidency.”
Biden’s critics continue to question his mental fitness. A childhood stutter has grown more pronounced as he has aged. And he has a long history of verbal slipups during public remarks that have provided fodder for those who doubt his mental acuity.
One of the most recent episodes occurred in September, when Biden was addressing a White House conference on hunger, nutrition and health. Biden raised eyebrows when, during his remarks, he called out to the late Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind.
"Jackie, are you here? Where's Jackie?” he asked.
Walorski and two of staffers had been killed in a car accident just a few weeks earlier. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre tried to downplay Biden’s remarks, saying the congresswoman had been “top of mind” for the president during his remarks. Biden apologized to Walorski’s family during a private meeting in the Oval Office.
But politically, the damage was done.
"Truly an awful and disgraceful blunder," Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., wrote on Twitter.
"It doesn’t take a neurologist to realize he’s in serious cognitive decline,” said Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, who served as the White House physician for Trump and Barack Obama.
The White House pointed to Biden’s long history of verbal missteps and said the gaffe was just another example of Biden speaking off the cuff and being himself.
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Will Biden run for reelection?
At his post-midterm news conference, Biden said again that he intends to run for a second term, but that no final decision has been made.
“I’m a great respecter of fate,” he said. “And this is, ultimately, a family decision.”
Biden said he and the first lady plan to discuss the possibility of another presidential campaign between Thanksgiving and Christmas and probably make a final decision early next year.
Behind the scenes, though, the president started to prepare for a reelection campaign in meetings this fall with a small team of his most trusted aides, according to a Biden adviser. Preliminary work, which has explored potential Republican nominees, has included outreach to veterans of Obama's and Bill Clinton's reelection campaigns.
Ted Kaufman, a former U.S. senator from Delaware and longtime aide to Biden, said he doesn’t think age is part of the president’s calculation whether to run in 2024. He credited Biden’s wealth of experience – 36 years in the Senate and eight years as vice president – for his successes so far in the White House.
“Running for president is the single most complicated decision anyone can ever make,” Kaufman said, adding that Biden is going through the same process and family conversations he always has before running for office. “Past is prologue with him. He's been doing this for a long, long time. And he knows exactly what the process is."
Age alone should not be a disqualifying factor for the presidency, said Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Advances in medical technology have allowed Americans to live longer, so it’s not surprising that an 80-year-old commander-in-chief would consider running for another four-year term, Engel said.
While the job is physically demanding, age isn’t necessarily an indication of a president’s ability to handle the strain, Engel said.
The nation’s 11th president, James K. Polk, served one term and died at age 53 just three months after leaving office.
“He completely worked himself to death,” Engel said.
Franklin Roosevelt, who was elected four times, suffered from polio and other illnesses and died while in office. He was 63.
Reagan, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease several years after leaving office, was dogged by questions about whether he was too old to serve as president, but was extraordinarily successful on foreign policy during his second term, Engel said.
In Biden’s case, age will be less of a campaign liability if he finds himself in a rematch with Trump, who is just four years younger, Engel said.
Trump and other Republicans will try to make Biden’s age an issue, Engel said, but “in reality, Trump is functionally the same age.”
Michael Collins and Joey Garrison cover the White House. Follow Collins on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS and Garrison @joeygarrison.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden's age raises questions around 2024 run as he celebrates 80 years