WASHINGTON — Sometime last winter, during a trip to Asia, President Joe Biden was woken up at three in the morning to tell him a missile had hit Poland, sparking fears that Russia had spread the war from Ukraine to a NATO ally.
Within hours, in the middle of the night, Biden consulted his top advisers, called Poland's president and NATO secretary general, and rallied other world leaders to address the crisis.
President Joe Biden departs following remarks calling for gun control measures in Monterey Park, California, on March 14, 2023. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)
And then, a few weeks ago, when Biden was hosting some kids on Take Your Child to Work Day, he got confused when he tried to list his grandchildren.
"Well, let me see. I have one in New York, two in Philadelphia, or three? No, three because I have a granddaughter who is... I don't know anymore. They're confusing me."
He also went blank when asked what was the last country he had visited and the name of his favorite movie.
These two Joe Biden coexist in the same octogenarian president:
Shrewd and intelligent at crucial moments, as a result of decades of experience, able to rise to the occasion, even in the stillness of the night, to face a dangerous world.
But a little slower, softer, more hard of hearing, more hesitant in his gait, a little more prone to occasional memory lapses in ways that may be common for someone who has reached the ninth decade of his life or who has a parent who has reached that age.
The plight of America's oldest president was summed up Thursday when Congress passed a bipartisan deal he negotiated to avert a national debt default.
Even House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., declared that Biden had been "very professional, smart and strong" during the talks.
But just before voting got underway, Biden tripped over a sandbag at the Air Force Academy graduation and hit the ground.
The video went viral, his supporters were embarrassed and his detractors lashed out.
President Donald Trump in the White House meeting room on Nov. 5, 2020. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Anyone can stumble at any age, but it's inevitable that if it happens to an 80-year-old president there will be uncomfortable questions.
If it were anyone else, the signs of age might not be noticeable, but Biden is the head of the most powerful country in the world and has just launched a campaign for voters to keep him in the White House until he turns 86, drawing greater attention to an issue that, According to polls, it worries most Americans and is a source of great anxiety among party leaders.
The image that emerges from months-long interviews with dozens of current and former officials, and others who have spent some time with the president, is a mix between the caricature of a stunned and easily manipulated old man promoted by Republicans and the image spread by his staff of a president with aviator glasses who runs the world stage and rules with verve.
It is that of a man diminished by age in more marked ways than just the graying of hair that has been common among more recent presidents during their terms.
There are times when Biden confuses words and looks older than before because of his awkward gait and weak voice.
President Joe Biden arrives ahead of his commencement address at the United States Air Force Academy in El Paso County, Colorado, Thursday, June 1, 2023. Biden is asking voters to keep him in the White House until age 86, renewing attention on an issue that polls show worries most Americans. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
But people who regularly deal with him, including some of his adversaries, say he remains shrewd and authoritarian in private meetings.
Diplomats share anecdotes of trips to places like Ukraine, Japan, Egypt, Cambodia and Indonesia where he almost always has more resilience than his younger colleagues.
Democratic lawmakers point to a long list of accomplishments as proof that he continues to do his job well.
His friends point out that his verbal blunders are nothing new; All his life he has struggled with stuttering and, in his own words, was a "blunder machine", long before he had access to retirement benefits.
His advisers say his judgment remains as good as ever.
So many of them use the phrase "sharp as an axe" to describe it, which has become a kind of mantra.
Biden says age is a valid issue, but maintains that his longevity is an advantage and not a disadvantage.
"You guys say I'm old?" he said at a White House Correspondents' Association dinner in April.
"I say I'm wise."
Polls indicate that Americans, even Democrats, are very concerned about Biden's age.
In the midst of a recent New York Times discussion group, several constituents who supported Biden in 2020 expressed concern, with one claiming:
"Sometimes I've seen that absent look when he's making a speech or addressing the crowd. It seems as if I lose my train of thought."
Privately, officials acknowledge that they make what they consider reasonable accommodations so as not to physically demand too much from an aging president.
His staff schedules most of his performances in public between noon and 4 p.m. and lets him rest on weekends as much as possible.
An analysis of Biden's schedules based on information gathered by Axios and expanded by the Times revealed that Biden has a morning work rhythm similar to that of the president for whom he worked, Barack Obama, who also did not have many public events before 10 a.m.:
only four percent during his final year in office compared to five percent in Biden's first two and a half years in office.
But the real difference is seen at night.
Obama was twice as likely as Biden to attend public events after 6 p.m., seventeen percent versus nine percent.
Aides avoid exposing Biden to media interviews when he may make a mistake that would hurt him politically.
Biden has given only a quarter of the interviews Donald Trump gave in the same period and a fifth of the interviews Obama gave, but none to reporters from any major newspaper.
Biden has not given interviews to the Times news department, unlike every president since at least Franklin D. Roosevelt plus Dwight D. Eisenhower.
And in the last 100 years, only Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon gave so few press conferences.
Like many people his age, Biden repeats the phrases and retells over and over again the same old stories that are often of questionable veracity.
It can also be quirky; when children visit, you may randomly pull a William Butler Yeats book off your desk and start reading Irish poetry to them.
At the same time, he is stylish and fit, exercises five times a week and does not drink.
At times, he has shown astonishing resilience such as when he went to Poland and then made a nine-hour journey by train to make a secret visit to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, spent several hours on the ground, then endured another nine hours by train and took a flight to Warsaw, Poland.
An analysis of his schedule provided by his aides shows that in the first months of his third year in office he has traveled slightly more than Obama in that same period.
"What does he wander? Yes, he does," said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who categorically rejects the idea that Biden is too old to be president.
"Have you always rambled? Yes, that's right. In public and in private. It's always the same. Literally—and I don't mean this lightly—I haven't met anyone else in my life who is both the same person in public and in private."
Of course, the issue of Biden's age is not isolated.
Trump, his most likely Republican challenger, is only four years younger and was the oldest president in history before Biden succeeded him.
If Trump wins next year, he would be 82 at the end of his presidency, older than Biden will be at the end of this term.
While in office, Trump raised concerns about his mental acuity and physical condition.
He did not exercise, his diet consisted mainly of cheeseburgers and meat, and he officially weighed 110 kilos, a weight that, for his height, is already considered obesity.
After complaining that he had too many meetings in the mornings, Trump stopped arriving at the Oval Office before 11 or 11:30 a.m. every day to stay at his residence watching TV, making phone calls or sending angry tweets.
During a presentation at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he had trouble lifting a glass of water and apparently struggled down a simple ramp.
Lately, Biden has resorted to self-deprecating humor to tone down the issue, as did Reagan in his 1984 re-election, which he won at age 73 thanks, in part, to a timely joke during the debate about not taking advantage of "the opponent's youth and inexperience."
At the correspondents' dinner, Biden assured the audience that he supported the First Amendment and "not just because it was drafted by my good friend Jimmy Madison."
During the Take Your Child to Work Day event, he reflected on "when I was younger, about 120 years ago."
Also, a few days ago, at the Air Force Academy, Biden joked that "when I was about to graduate from high school 300 years ago, I applied to the Naval Academy."
After tripping over the sandbag, he also tried to make a joke.
"They put their foot in me," he explained.
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