WASHINGTON – He was 198. And just under 103. “Try to be 110,” he joked. Once he was even 270. Yet he looks like he is 29.
All kidding aside — as 80-year-old President Joe Biden likes to say — he’s been around for a long time.
In the past two weeks, Biden has made jokes about his age more often than usual, according to an NBC News analysis of his comments.
- Advertisement -
He’s dropped some version of the punch line — he’s old and he knows it — at events about gun safety and international diplomacy, at campaign fundraisers, and in a speech on abortion rights. The more direct approach, as Biden ramps up his re-election campaign, is a shift from the way he typically tries to downplay his age, noting that he’s “been around a long time.”
It also comes as voters are increasingly expressing concern about Biden serving in the White House.
A recent NBC News poll found that 68% of registered voters are very or moderately concerned about whether Biden has the necessary mental and physical health to run for president. Biden, the oldest president in US history, who would be 86 at the end of a second term, knows he cannot ignore the issue, his aides said.
As the president’s 80th birthday approached in November, White House officials began looking for ways to humorously downplay the number, according to a former Biden White House official. The high-profile milestone invited additional media attention to Biden’s age, and a more deliberate strategy to address it began in earnest within the West Wing.
“Joking about age allows him to simultaneously possess the benefits of experience and through humor dispel all doubts about fitness,” said the former official.
- Advertisement -
The president embraced the self-deprecating humor approach after discussions with aides and allies about how best to try to neutralize his most glaring political weakness, a Biden adviser said, considering it something he can’t change.
Many of the recent age jokes the president has made were unwritten, the adviser said, additions to prepared remarks Biden makes on the spot when he sees an opportunity to lighten the public’s mood.
“I know I don’t look that old,” Biden joked at a June 16 event about gun violence. “I’m a little under 103.”
- Advertisement -
White House officials claim the president’s record answers questions about his age.
“No president has ever come to the job with more experience, and President Biden has used that experience for a record of achievements few presidents have matched,” White House communications director Ben LaBolt said in a statement when he was asked about Biden’s jokes about his age. .
Biden’s use of his age as a punchline seems to have gained momentum since June 13, when he told attendees at an event for US diplomats at the White House that one of his friends told him to handle it by trying to “age and wisdom together”.
“I know I look like I’m only 29,” Biden said at the event, which got the crowd laughing. “But I’ve been at it for a long time.”
Since then, the president has deployed several versions of the flippant tactic. He has used it most often at fundraisers when addressing wealthy Democratic donors without the glare of news cameras.
“A lot of you have been helping me for a very, very long time,” Biden said at a fundraiser in Atherton, California, last week. He then invoked an influential, longtime Democratic donor in the audience by saying, “I’m going back in time 217 years, to Joe Cotchett.”
The president’s age jokes always get laughs, according to transcripts of his remarks. And he often returns to the subject with a single line, “all kidding aside.”
“I know I am 198 years old,” Biden told abortion rights activists last Friday as he took executive action to protect access to birth control. “But all kidding aside.”
When he stated last week that he knows as much about US foreign policy as anyone alive, including Henry Kissinger, Biden explained, “That’s what I’ve done all my life — for the past 270 years.”
That’s the oldest Biden seems to have made fun of himself, though he said at a Social Security and Medicare event in February that he had served 270 years in the U.S. Senate, which would have brought him to 299.
While he has repeatedly recalled since entering the White House that he was 29 years old when he was first elected to public office, the youngest Biden appears to have aged slightly. “I’m 34 years old,” he joked at a recent fundraiser in Connecticut, which of course wouldn’t make him old enough to be president.
Often, Biden will use his long-time statement to underline something in American politics that he finds highly unusual or particularly irritating. For example, at a recent fundraiser, he mentioned Senator Tommy Tuberville’s military promotions, R-Ala. “I don’t remember it happening before. And I’ve been around. I know I don’t look like I’ve been there,’ he said, laughing. ‘But I’ve been there. I’ve been busy for a long time.”
Biden has also lightened up his age to show empathy. “Many of you are tired,” he said at the June 16 event, where he repeatedly faced gun violence. “I understand. Try to be 110 and do it again.
After the laughter and applause subsided, he added: “All kidding aside, a lot of people are frustrated.”
Biden is not the first politician to try to downplay his age. Former President Ronald Reagan and Republican presidential candidates Bob Dole and John McCain did the same as they competed against younger opponents.
“Controlling government spending isn’t just about Republicans or Democrats,” McCain said during an appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” “It’s about being able to look your kids in the eye. Or in my case my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren and great-great-great-grandchildren, the youngest of whom is about to retire.”
McCain was 71 years old, while his opponent in the general election, Barack Obama, was still in his 40s. Dole, at age 73, took on a 50-year-old Bill Clinton in 1996.
“My cholesterol is better than Clinton’s. My weight is better than Clinton’s. My blood pressure is better than Clinton’s. But I’m not going to make health a theme in this campaign,” Dole once joked.
Reagan, 73, famously joked during a debate with Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, who was 56, “I’m not going to exploit my opponent’s youth and inexperience for political ends.”
Biden’s political dynamics are a little different. There is hardly a big age difference between him and his 2020 rival and potential 2024 opponent, Donald Trump, who is 77. Yet White House officials often complain that Biden is more scrutinized for his age than Trump. In the recent NBC News poll, 55% of registered voters said they have high or moderate concerns about whether Trump has the necessary mental and physical health to be president, compared to the 68% who feel the same way about Biden.
Biden also combines a strategy of deliberate spontaneity — his routine remarks peppered with oversimplified jokes about his age — and self-mocking at high-profile events or speeches where he’s expected to be funny.
The president took to his own age several times during his April remarks at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner — beginning with the line “I believe in the First Amendment — not just because my good friend Jimmy Madison wrote it.”
“You say I’m old?” added the president. “I say I am wise.”