USA

The White House brushed off questions about Biden’s age. Then the debate arose.

Since President Biden announced last year that he would run for re-election, those close to him closed ranks and waved away the obvious question: No, they insisted, he was not too old to run for re-election.

The news media, they said, were wrongly fixated on his age. Republicans posted wildly distorted video clips on social media that made him look weaker than he really was. Hand-wringing Democrats, worried about the prospect of an octogenarian president turning 86 at the end of a second term, were merely “bed-wetters.”

Then came the debate. Now, the days of denial in the White House are over. The president’s inner circle can no longer dismiss concerns about his abilities after his unsteady performance in Thursday night’s confrontation with former President Donald J. Trump. As they struggle to contain a simmering firestorm of unrest within the Democratic Party, his team is now being forced to confront the issue head-on.

Mr. Biden, 81, himself acknowledged on Friday that he is no longer a young man and that he has taken a step backwards in debating, though he made a more forceful case for himself at an energetic rally in Raleigh, N.C., than he had the night before on the debate stage in Atlanta. The Biden team seized on validation from Democratic allies such as former President Barack Obama and Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina to reject calls for the president to hand the nomination to a younger candidate.

But many struggling Democrats, including some in his own administration, wondered how it had come to this and, rightly or wrongly, criticized the president’s team for letting it happen: How could those closest to Biden not have dissuaded him from participating? How could they agree to a debate knowing he could stumble so badly? How could they not better prepare him for the predictable challenges of a week holed up at Camp David?

“Last night was kind of shocking because we heard that they were preparing and so forth,” David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, said the morning after the debate. “And the first ten minutes were a disaster, and it’s hard to understand how that happened.” As it turned out, he added, “this was a great opportunity to address people’s concerns, and it had the opposite effect.”

So far, Biden’s allies have often gone after those who raised questions about the president’s age. When special counsel Robert K. Hur decided not to bring charges against Mr. Biden for mishandling classified documents, he issued a report explaining that one factor was that the president would strike the jury as a “well-meaning, older man with a poor memory.” Mr. Biden’s team criticized Mr. Hur for overstepping the bounds of his job and unfairly disparaging the president.

Axelrod was among Democrats who had long warned of the risks of running for president a candidate who got his start in national politics the same year the video game Pong was introduced. His candor has earned him the ire of Biden’s advisers.

But Mr. Axelrod said in an interview Friday that he did not want to criticize them. “I’m not going to belittle their thinking,” he said. Age is “a funny thing,” he said, and “it may be that at the time they said what they said, he was in a different place.”

When it comes to his age, Mr. Biden may present differently depending on the moment. The two views were on display during the two events on Thursday and Friday, and, like their timing, were a matter of night and day.

The excited Mr. Biden at the meeting in Raleigh was the one his closest advisers saw: the one with the energy to travel nine time zones from an international summit to a political fundraiser, the one asking pointed questions and questioning unprepared advisers, the one making wise decisions on difficult policy issues and stands up for decency against a demagogue.

The downtrodden Mr. Biden who stood on stage in Atlanta the night before was the one his advisers don’t like to see, or choose not to see – the one who shuffles to the rostrum, muddles his words, loses the thread of his train of thought, makes enigmatic comments and stares open-mouthed into space instead of radiating the aura of authority and strength expected of a commander-in-chief.

“I think the problem is that this is episodic,” said Elaine Kamarck, who worked in the White House under President Bill Clinton and is a longtime member of the Democratic National Committee. She recalled sitting a few feet away from Biden at an event last spring and being impressed by how masterful he was at discussing policy, remembering names and speaking without notes.

“I thought this man doesn’t have dementia, this man is doing well,” she said. ‘Unfortunately that man was not the man on television last night. I think the problem is that it comes and goes and people at this stage of life have good days and bad days and unfortunately he had a very bad night last night.

The Democratic freakout that followed his bad night was staggering. Democrats used words like “nightmare,” “disaster” and “terrible.” Red-state Democrats were in crisis, and Biden’s aides feared donor money would dry up, eroding what they expected would be a financial advantage over Mr. Trump.

Mr Biden’s team tried to buy time in the hope that the panic would subside, advising nervous donors to wait to process what had happened. The president’s allies emphasized flash polls and call groups that indicated the overall race had not shifted after the debate. They pointed to a campaign focus group that purported to show that support for Mr. Biden among swing voters in a Midwestern state increased because they agreed with his stance on critical issues.

“He didn’t have the best night on the debate stage,” Michael Tyler, the campaign communications director, told reporters on Air Force One. “But you’d rather have one bad night than have a candidate with a bad vision of where he wants to take the country.” He added that there were “no conversations” about Biden leaving office, and no personnel changes were being considered.

The president’s allies sought to draw attention to the 78-year-old Trump’s performance, which has been marked by dozens of false and misleading statements and his own moments of confusion. Seeking a hopeful model, Biden allies invoked John Fetterman, who won a Pennsylvania Senate seat in 2022 despite lingering effects of a stroke. By late Friday, some Democrats had backtracked, fearing the implications of a Trump victory and concluding that if Biden was unlikely to drop out, they should support him despite their concerns.

If any of the president’s advisers have ever spoken candidly about Mr. Biden’s age, they have not acknowledged it. According to recent interviews with dozens of his closest aides and friends, the president has not undertaken any organized process outside his family to decide whether to run for a second term.

None of the advisers described a meeting or a memo outlining the pros and cons of a reelection campaign that might have addressed the implications of age. No one said they had dissuaded him from running or, to that end, discussed how they might address his age if he did. Instead, he simply told them to assume he would run unless he decided otherwise.

Such a conversation would be painfully difficult for presidential aides. There is something fundamentally different about raising such a personal issue with a boss than discussing impersonal factors such as battleground states, polls or policy questions.

Mr. Biden’s closest current and former aides, including Ron Klain, Anita Dunn, Jeffrey D. Zients, Steve Ricchetti, Mike Donilon, Jen O’Malley Dillon and Bruce Reed, have deep admiration and respect for the president. They don’t want to hurt him and see the best in him, fellow Democrats said.

“He’s known for really, really loyal people,” Ms. Kamarck said. “He’s like a father to Ron Klain. What do you say to your father? This is hard, very hard.”

Mr. Klain, Ms. Dunn and other top aides either declined to comment or did not respond on Friday, but White House officials on their behalf said they all supported Mr. Biden’s decision to run again and continue to do so. Mr. Zients and Ms. Dunn held a staff meeting at the White House on Friday to calm nerves, telling aides that there are tough days in every campaign but that they would get through them together.

James Carville, who helped run Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, said Biden’s inner circle was close. “People around President Biden have always been with him,” he said. “I think the culture of their White House is different than the one I would be familiar with.” He added that “those people are very good,” but “Ron or Mike or Anita, they are not colleagues.”

Given his age and experience, Mr. Biden has few people he truly considers colleagues, any more than anyone might be a colleague to a president. His relationships with Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama are complicated, and some Biden advisers have said he would have been irritated if either of those former presidents had told him last year not to run or had told him now to think about resigning. Most of the senators with whom Mr. Biden served for so many years, the ones whose opinions he valued, are largely gone. Ted Kaufman, his close friend and longtime aide who succeeded him in the Senate, was among the most vocal in a re-election bid.

The only people his advisers believe would have influence over such a momentous decision are family members, notably Jill Biden, the first lady, who reportedly strongly encouraged a re-election campaign in the first place, and his sister, Valerie Biden Owens, who was his political consigliere during his years in the Senate.

“He’s a very proud man,” said Mr. Axelrod, who worked with Mr. Biden when he was Mr. Obama’s vice president. “He is a man who always believes that he has been underestimated all his life and that he has defied the odds. So I don’t know what his state of mind is. There are others who are close to him now. But I know there are a lot of concerns.”

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