What Older Voters Say About Biden 2024: From ‘He’s Fine’ to ‘Oh, God’

Over the last three decades, Americans have chosen presidents who felt their pain and channeled their anger, who shattered historical barriers or seemed like enjoyable beer-drinking companions.

But if voters often desire leaders who reflect themselves and their struggles, President Biden’s potential bid for a second term, which he would conclude at the age of 86, is prompting exceptionally complicated feelings among one highly engaged constituency: his generational peers.

Three years after older voters helped propel Mr. Biden to the Democratic presidential nomination, embracing his deep experience and perceived general-election appeal, his age is his biggest political liability as he moves toward another presidential run, which he could announce as soon as Tuesday. It is a source of mockery and sometimes misinformation on the right — though the now-indicted Donald J. Trump, the Republican presidential poll leader who faces a morass of legal troubles, is just a few years younger — and one of widespread anxiety among Democrats.

The issue is particularly personal, however, for older voters who are inclined to like Mr. Biden, but often view his age through the prism of their own experiences.

They are aging. He is aging. They are not the president of the United States.

In interviews with about three dozen voters, political veterans and prominent Americans between 67 and 98 years old, broaching Mr. Biden’s age prompted not only electoral analysis, but also wide-ranging discussions of their own abilities and adjustments to their lives. Some bluntly wrestled with questions of mortality, and others veered into grandparent mode, admonishing the president to take care of himself.

“I’m 72 and I’m a young whippersnapper here in The Villages,” said Diane Foley, the president of The Villages Democratic Club at the Republican-tilted mega-retirement community in Florida, who encouraged Mr. Biden to run again. “There are incredibly energetic, active people well into their 80s, and some 90s.”

“One has to know one’s limitations,” advised Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer, 94, the famed sex therapist. She keeps busy these days with a project on the grandparent-grandchild relationship, but prefers to take meetings from home.

“I would say the president should run again, but he should also not run up to a podium,” she added. “I don’t want him to fall.”

And former Representative Charles B. Rangel of New York, who at 92 has a dark sense of humor about his future — “at my age, I don’t buy green bananas” — signaled that he would support a Biden run. But he is eager for a new generation of leaders.

“Maybe I’m feeling so strongly because I’m leaving relatively soon and I want to see what’s going to follow,” Mr. Rangel said in an interview. “I truly believe that we should have more candidates, more than two old white men.”

Party leaders overwhelmingly plan to support Mr. Biden if he runs. But recent polling has shown that while many Democratic voters rate him favorably, they also have reservations about another bid. An Associated Press/NORC poll released Friday found that poll respondents were concerned about his age.

Other surveys found that older Democratic voters were more likely to favor another Biden run than younger Democrats, even as roughly 30 to 50 percent of Democrats over 60 preferred that he step aside.

“I can’t go on television and say, ‘Let’s not talk about this, let’s pivot to the real issues,’ because people think age is a real issue,” James Carville, 78, the Democratic strategist, said last month.

It was top of mind for several people who milled around a community center recently as a canasta game ended in Plantation, Fla.

Doreen W., 78, a Democrat who declined to share her last name on the record, citing fear of causing problems for her husband at work, said she hoped Mr. Biden would run again. But she worried about whether he was up to it.

“I know how tiring it is for me, and I’m not doing anything but retire,” she said. “I’m aware of his age and I’m concerned about that.”

Informed that Mr. Biden was not 78, as she had thought, but 80, she groaned, “Oh, God.”

“If I could just keep him at age 80 and active the way he is, I’d be more than happy,” she said.

Nursing a canasta defeat nearby, Jacque Deuser, 67, said the way Mr. Biden sometimes walked reminded her of her late husband, who had dementia.

“It kind of looks like he’s going to fall down,” said Ms. Deuser, who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, backed Mr. Biden in 2020 and is inclined to support him again if Mr. Trump or Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida win the Republican nomination.

Mr. Biden’s doctor recently reported that he was a “healthy, vigorous 80-year-old” fit to serve, while acknowledging that Mr. Biden had a “stiffened gait,” citing factors including arthritis. But the doctor said there were no findings “consistent with any cerebellar or other central neurological disorder.”

Mr. Biden works out at least five days a week and does not drink or smoke, and his recent travel, including a covert trip to Ukraine, impressed some of his peers.

“I don’t know if I could have been on my feet going to Ukraine and taking a 10-hour train ride,” said Peggy Grove, 80, the vice chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.

But his public appearances have been uneven. While Mr. Biden has long been gaffe-prone, he has made several striking misstatements as president, and he can sound halting. Moments like a stumble on a stairway or a fall off a bike have attracted attention.

“I enjoyed working with him. I watch him from a distance now and I get concerned,” said former Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, a 76-year-old self-described “not a Trumpian” Republican. “He’s lost a little of his sharpness.”

The White House did not directly respond to Mr. Gregg.

Several voters said Mr. Biden’s running mate would be important — and many Democrats have privately expressed concerns about Vice President Kamala Harris.

But while health is unpredictable, some aging experts have said there are signs Mr. Biden could be a “super-ager.”

Dr. John W. Rowe, a former president of the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics and a professor of health policy and aging at Columbia, said “super-agers” tend to live more of their lives without functional impairment.

Dr. Rowe also said age could bring unexpected benefits.

Older people, he said, are often better at resolving disputes, and “are less likely to do something imprudent.”

“If you have, on the one hand, a super-ager, with no obvious evidence of something bad happening right now, and they bring along these other characteristics, I would feel pretty comfortable for the next four years,” he said, adding that he did not know Mr. Biden.

Dr. Rowe, 78, a former head of Aetna, said he, too, had encountered occasional questions about retirement.

“I do not feel that I’m functioning any less well than I was a couple years ago,” he said.

He stressed that unlike 30-year-olds, older people vary greatly in their abilities.

Some Democrats pointed to the differences in aging between Presidents Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.

Mr. Reagan, who announced in 1994 that he had Alzheimer’s disease and died a decade later at 93, long faced questions about his cognitive functioning. Mr. Carter — now in hospice care at 98 — remained active until recently.

“I just try to always look at the individual, factor in age as one of many considerations,” said Gloria Steinem, the women’s rights activist, 89. “For myself, retrieval time is longer, but the choice of what to retrieve is richer.”

As for Mr. Biden, she said, “I feel fine about re-electing President Biden, depending on both the alternatives and his health.”

Mr. Biden and his allies stress his legislative accomplishments, including on issues affecting older Americans.

Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman, said Mr. Biden had inherited and helped the country overcome “the worst crises in decades,” and was “now bringing manufacturing back from overseas, rebuilding our infrastructure, empowering Medicare to lower drug prices and standing up for the rights and dignity of every American.” He emphasized Mr. Biden’s experience, judgment and values in office.

At a recent gathering of the Broward Democratic Senior Caucus at a pub in Plantation, attendees dismissed concerns about Mr. Biden’s age.

“If his head is working, he’s fine,” Muriel Kirschner, 94, pointedly told a reporter. “My head is still working, honey.”

Patti Lynn, who will turn 80 this year, retired after having a heart attack, deciding it was “time to have some fun.” But Ms. Lynn, whose phone background was a picture of herself with Mr. Biden, did not think he should do the same just yet.

“Does he stumble and forget and have to get his words? I understand that perfectly,” she laughed. “Been there, done that. Oh well, I’m having a senior moment. But he’s respected worldwide, he is stable.”

“How do you put him down — because he is old?” she added. “He worked hard to get that old. Me too. I worked hard to get this old.”

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