Democratic senators are admitting to private worries that President Biden’s age and health could cost their party the White House, but are loath to discuss those fears publicly, insisting there is no alternative to head the Democratic ticket in 2024.
Democratic senators who have spent time with Biden recently say he remains sharp mentally and claim they didn’t notice any diminution of cognitive abilities, contradicting special counsel Robert Hur’s claims that the president couldn’t remember what years he served as vice president.
Biden’s age is such a taboo subject among Democratic senators that it doesn’t come up at their caucus meetings led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), even though some admit privately that it’s one of their biggest concerns heading into the election because polls show so many voters doubt Biden’s ability to do the job.
“In all of our lunches, it’s never been discussed. It’s kind of amazing,” said one Democratic senator, who requested anonymity to discuss how peers are handling the 81-year-old president’s biggest political liability.
“No one has said, ‘We should talk about this.’ Or, ‘Isn’t this an issue? Should we have him come over and talk?’ I’ve never heard anybody say, ‘Schumer should go over there and talk to him about it,’” the senator said.
While Democratic senators shrug off the issue publicly, they admit privately that it’s a serious problem. But they still think he can beat former President Trump in 2024, which is why they’re keeping silent.
“But I don’t think that means that people aren’t worried about it. Look, I worry about it,” said the Democratic lawmaker of fellow senators. “I’m less worried about his ability, I’m assuming he’s going to do” the job, “but I’m worried about a lot of people in the country” who think Biden’s not up to the task.
Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said “Biden can win” but urged him not to ignore voters’ concerns about his age. He’s not as confident as some of his Democratic colleagues that voters across the board will dismiss Trump as simply unfit for office.
“Biden, he’s got to deal with the age issue. He’s got to show some energy, and he’s got to show what the future is, not just beat up on Trump,” he said.
“Trump is going to be Trump, and people are going to come to their own reactions. They don’t need the Biden campaign to be telling them how bad Trump is. Trump will take care of that himself,” he predicted.
“There’s got to be a real manifestation of energy and future orientation from the Biden campaign,” he said.
If anything, Hur’s report has intensified concerns about Biden’s age. Many Democrats think the special counsel took cheap shots at Biden by describing him as an elderly man with memory issues, but they are also worrying it is cementing already existing public concerns.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Biden’s age a “legitimate issue” but advised him to “lean into the fact that he’s experienced.”
David Axelrod, who served as a top strategist to former President Obama, in the fall floated the idea that Biden should consider not running for reelection because of voters’ concerns about his age.
Axelrod more recently told The New York Times that the special counsel’s report, which repeatedly referenced Biden’s memory, “goes to the core of what is plaguing Biden politically now, which is a widespread fear that he’s not up to it.”
Democratic senators quietly acknowledge that the age issue is a big problem, especially among young voters whom they see as crucial to Biden winning reelection, and it threatens to overshadow his accomplishments, which are getting much less media attention.
But they say it’s too late to do anything to find a new nominee, given the primaries have already started, and Super Tuesday is only a few weeks away.
“The general sense of folks is that we’ve hitched our wagon to Biden, that he’s delivered a lot in partnership. It may not be Biden himself, but it’s his team. Right? And we’re already into the primaries,” said a second Democratic senator who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
The lawmaker said that the political calculus would change only if Biden suffered a glaring cognitive or health setback in public.
“If there was something super obvious like there was with Mitch McConnell,” the situation would change, the senator said, referring to the Senate Republican leader freezing before television cameras last year.
Senators say Vice President Harris could replace Biden on the ticket if he dropped out of the race in the summer or fall, but they don’t see that as a promising option, given her low approval ratings and the relatively low-profile role she’s played over the past three years.
Harris’s approval rating dipped to 38 percent in mid-December, according to an average of polls compiled by FiveThirtyEight.com.
Some Senate Democrats saw Biden’s decision to pause applications to export liquified natural gas and an executive order to sanction four Israeli settlers in the West Bank who attacked Palestinians as a smart move to improve his standing with young voters.
“Younger voters are a little dispirited by Biden right now, polls show. And they take climate change as an existential issue, and they’re appalled by the loss of life among innocent Palestinians,” Welch said.
“Anything that Biden can do to renew his commitment to reducing carbon emissions and anything he can to do to end the war in Gaza and stand up for the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians is helpful,” he added.
Biden beat Trump by 24 points among voters aged 18 to 29 in the 2020 election, but recent polls show Trump with a slight lead over Biden in the key demographic. Younger voters are citing the president’s handling of the war in Israel and climate change as two problem areas.
Democratic lawmakers who have spent time with Biden recently insist he doesn’t resemble the man described in the special counsel’s report.
“What is reality is I was out with the president at a restaurant meeting with Black pastors, at the [United Auto Workers union]. [His] energy level was high. He was in his element. I see a very different picture,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who spent time with Biden during his trip to Michigan to meet with autoworkers.