Is Biden ‘Too Old’? Voters to View State of the Union Speech as Crucial Test

Is Biden ‘Too Old’? Voters to View State of the Union Speech as Crucial Test

President Biden is huddled with his closest advisors this weekend at Camp David in Maryland’s Blue Ridge Mountains honing his State of the Union speech. It’s the same warmup routine he used before his well-regarded address before Congress last year, when he parried back against hecklers, negotiated on the fly with Republicans, and did not fall victim to any major gaffes or stumbles.

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Biden desperately needs a repeat performance, as concerns about his mental acuity dog his re-election bid. When he addresses the House and Senate on Thursday, March 7, many voters will be watching more closely, and his performance will be parsed for any signs that the 81-year-old President is slipping.

“Rarely if ever have words mattered less when it comes to the State of the Union than this one,” says Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former senior aide to the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Most voters, Manley says, are going to be looking at how Biden handles himself amid what could be a somewhat hostile crowd in the House chamber. Voters won’t be looking for a detailed, multi-point policy plan, Manley says. “It’s more about signaling to everyone that he’s got another four years in him.”

As concerns over his age and memory intensify, Biden has found himself playing defense following allegations about his mental state from a special counsel’s report on his handling of classified documents. While the report did not recommend pursuing charges against Biden for his actions, Special Counsel Robert Hur highlighted instances where Biden struggled to recall key dates from his vice presidency and the year his son Beau died, leading Hur to describe the President as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

There will be few other moments between now and November when Biden will have a larger broadcast audience than Thursday night’s address. That means a large part of Biden’s bid to extend his presidency rides on his performance, argues Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist and pollster. “It is an august moment for most Presidents, and it will be particularly important for an aging President who is well behind in the presidential race,” Ayres says.

Biden is trailing Trump in seven battleground states—Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Nevada and Wisconsin—according to a Morning Consult/Bloomberg poll conducted in mid-February. Within those states, 48% of voters favored Trump and 43% planned to vote for Biden in a potential general election matchup. Biden’s age weighs heavily on voters’ minds, the poll showed. About 8 in 10 voters thought Biden was “too old,” compared to just under half of voters holding that view of Trump, who is 77, four years younger than Biden. Some 6 in 10 voters considered Trump “dangerous.”

White House officials say that the President’s long list of accomplishments in office show he’s sharp enough to do the job. On Wednesday, the White House physician and 11 other specialists examined Biden at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for his annual physical and found “no new concerns” since Biden’s check up the previous year, according to a summary by Dr. Kevin O’Connor, the physician to the President. The doctors found Biden to be “fit for duty,” and “healthy, active, robust,” and concluded that he “fully executes all of his responsibilities without any exemptions or accommodations,” O’Connor wrote.

But concerns about Biden’s health and sharpness linger. Some Democrats see Thursday’s State of the Union address as an important moment to reset impressions and allay those concerns.

“I think this will be a very good opportunity to show America that he’s a strong leader,” says Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. “We have a way of honoring our grandparents, our folks that have matured, but in politics that’s seen as a liability.”

Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat, argues Biden should be focused on the pitch he is going to make to Americans, and not worry about his age and acuity. “I’m hoping to hear his vision for his second term,” he says. “What are we going to do to help the working class? What are we going to do to improve the economy for people? What are we going to do in terms of the direction of America?”

Senator Katie Britt of Alabama is set to deliver the Republican rebuttal to Biden’s speech.

One issue high on the minds of many voters and lawmakers is the situation in Gaza, where tens of thousands have died amid Israel’s military campaign against Hamas. With a ceasefire deal unlikely by the time of Biden’s speech, some progressive Democrats are calling on Biden to use the televised address to strengthen his call for de-escalation and publicly pressure Israel to pull back over the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive New York Democrat who has co-sponsored a resolution for an immediate ceasefire, tells TIME that a ceasefire is just one way in which Biden could use his State of the Union address to reach out to dissatisfied voters, and young people in particular. “There’s a lot of communities and constituencies that are wondering if the Democratic Party is still fighting for them,” she says. “I think there’s a lot of nervousness around folding on immigrants’ rights, folding on civil rights, folding on certain issues. And so I think, in addition to really touting our enormous victories on student loans and on climate, I think we need to hear an unapologetic message about how immigration is positive and necessary in America as well as a bunch of other issues.”

Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs and Intelligence Committees, tells TIME that he wants to hear Biden outline the plan for the remainder of his term, particularly how he’s been pressing for a ceasefire in Gaza and what he’s doing to push Europe and other countries to help Ukraine. Biden, who visited Ukraine last year, has been pushing Congress for months to approve $60 billion in new aid to the country, part of a larger foreign aid package that has been stalled by Republicans.

Thursday’s State of the Union address comes as the Biden Administration faces heightened scrutiny from Republicans over its approach to border security amid a record number of illegal crossings. Biden returned Thursday from a trip to the Rio Grande Valley, where he called on his political rival Trump to join him in pushing through new funding for border patrol agents and immigration officers to address the increase in migrants crossing the border illegally. Cuellar, who represents the Rio Grande and San Antonio areas, says he hopes the President mentions in his speech how Republicans last month blocked a bipartisan deal that would have implemented strict limits along the southern border, curtailed asylum-seeking, and added thousands of new border patrol and asylum officers. “The Senate came up with a good deal,” he says, “but Republicans are walking away from it.”

While many viewers inside and outside the Capitol building may be studying Biden’s performance on Thursday closer than usual, Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, suggests some may be overthinking what a successful State of the Union address needs to accomplish.

“He should keep talking about what he’s done to make sure the American people know about them, and he should talk about his plans for the future,” Warren says. “That’s what a sensible, sober President like Joe Biden does.” 

“I think that’s what the American people want him to do,” she adds. “He doesn’t need to do more than that.”

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