Biden’s Mental Sharpness and Physical Health Doubted, Post-ABC Poll Shows

Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman
President Biden speaks during a meeting with his Investing in America Cabinet in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Friday May 5, 2023.

More than 6 in 10 Americans say President Biden does not have the mental sharpness or physical health to serve effectively as president, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll – a finding that underscores some of the stark challenges he is confronting at the outset of his campaign for reelection.

Though Biden, 80, and former president Donald Trump, 76, are close in age, the poll shows that Americans have strikingly different views about their capabilities, even as Biden’s doctor has declared the incumbent healthy. About a third of Americans (32 percent) say Biden has the mental sharpness to be effective in the White House, while 54 percent say the same of Trump. And one-third (33 percent) say Biden is in good enough physical health for the job; while 64 percent say that about Trump, the leading Republican candidate.

Overall, more than 4 in 10 Americans (43 percent) say in the poll that both Biden and Trump are too old to serve new terms as president when they would be 82 and 78, respectively on Inauguration Day. Yet here again there is a divergence between perceptions of Biden and Trump: About a quarter, 26 percent, say only Biden is too old, while 1 percent say only Trump is too old. Another 28 percent say neither candidate is too old to serve another term.

Biden, who would be 86 at the end of a second term, often deflects questions about his age with humor – as he did during his recent speech at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, where he joked that he’d been palling around with founding father “Jimmy Madison.” But his fitness for the job has become the subject of attacks from some of his GOP rivals, including Trump and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, magnifying scrutiny on the commander in chief as he attempts to solidify the coalition that carried him to a narrow victory in 2020.

“Because I have acquired a hell of a lot of wisdom and know more than the vast majority of people,” Biden said in an interview with MSNBC broadcast Friday, when asked why he is the right person for the job at his age. “And I’m more experienced than anybody that’s ever run for the office. And I think I’ve proven myself to be honorable as well as also effective.”

About 7 in 10 independents say Biden lacks the mental sharpness and physical health to serve effectively, and about 1 in 5 Democrats say the same. The vast majority of Republicans (94 percent) say Biden lacks the mental sharpness to be president. Of those Americans who say Biden does not have the mental sharpness to serve as an effective president, 12 percent say they would definitely or probably vote for him against Trump, 67 percent say they would probably or definitely support Trump.

Concerns about Biden’s acumen and his physical health have been a recurring point of concern in conversations with voters across the country in recent months, including Democrats who have no interest in supporting any of the GOP contenders.

Clarissa Wadley, a 30-year-old independent survey respondent from Philadelphia who initially supported then-Sen. Kamala Harris before backing Biden in 2020, said she is “very concerned” about Biden’s mental sharpness and “not in an ageist kind of way.” Being president, she said, “requires a certain level of sharpness and really being aware of what’s going on – and I think in some of the interviews he’s done and some of the times we’ve seen him, it hasn’t come across that way.” She worries that could cost him critical support among moderates and swing voters in an a general election that could be decided on the margins.

Callaghan Hemmerly, a 25-year-old Democrat from Englewood, Colorado, who participated in the Post-ABC poll, said that there should be an age limit for those who wish to serve as president – just as there is a requirement for them to be 35 or older to seek the office.

“I think both candidates are too old,” Hemmerly said of Trump and Biden. “I don’t think really anyone in politics should be over the age of 70.”

Hemmerly described Biden as out of touch, pointing to what he views as a “lack of urgency on matters that are more important to younger voters” – from curbing police brutality to “not really helping in the fight that transgender kids and young adults go through every day,” he said.

“It’s kind of like, ‘I’ve got your back, but I’m not going to do anything about it,'” Hemmerly said of Biden, who he plans to support again in 2024.

Biden’s allies hope that he will be able to dispel any worries about his age by showing his vigor through his interactions on the campaign trail and in his daily activities at the White House. But his Republican foes are quick to magnify any perceived lapses – from moments where Biden has appeared to lose his train of thought during public appearances to videos of his physical missteps that have gone viral on social media, including footage of him stumbling on the steps of Air Force One, a moment often featured in online GOP fundraising solicitations.

After Biden’s routine annual physical earlier this year, his doctor wrote in a memo that he is a “healthy, vigorous, 80-year-old male who is fit to successfully execute duties of the presidency.” Biden’s physician, Kevin C. O’Connor, noted that Biden underwent an “extremely detailed neurologic exam” that did not find any signs of neurological disorders such as stroke, multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease.

The physicians who treated Trump while he was in the White House released limited information about his medical records. Trump’s doctors concealed major details about his bout with covid-19 in 2020, making his condition seem far less serious than it was at the time. He has famously avoided exercise with the exception of golf, though he often uses a golf cart instead of walking.

His annual medical reports revealed that he was at risk of cardiovascular disease. A June 2020 report from Trump’s physician, Sean P. Conley, showed that he was medically obese at 244 pounds with a body mass index of 30.

While Trump has some major hurdles to overcome in winning back voters’ trust and demonstrating an ability to expand beyond his base, the trend line in Americans’ views of Biden’s mental agility over the past few years stands out as a clear warning sign for his 2024 campaign.

In May 2020, shortly before Biden clinched the Democratic nomination, about half of Americans (51 percent) said he had the mental sharpness to serve effectively as president, but that number slid to 40 percent in 2022 and 32 percent in the latest Post-ABC poll.

“I don’t think [Biden] has the mental capacity to be president,” said an independent Oklahoma voter named Andrea, who supported Biden in 2020 and participated in the poll but did not want to share her last name. She said she would not back Trump if he becomes the Republican nominee and is leaning toward Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the anti-vaccine advocate and environmental lawyer who is the son of former attorney general Robert Kennedy.

The share of Americans who say Biden lacks the mental sharpness to be an effective president (63 percent) is nearly identical to the portion who say he does not have the physical health to serve effectively in the job (62 percent).

It is possible that age could become a contrast in a general election. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is running second behind Trump in polling of the GOP race, is 44. Haley, a longer-shot contender, has centered her campaign around a call for a new generation of leadership.

Haley also advocated competency tests for politicians over the age of 75 when she announced her candidacy. She has launched a volley of age-related attacks on Biden since he announced his reelection bid.

“If Biden is re-elected, Harris would have the highest likelihood of becoming president in the middle of a term of any vice president ever,” Haley wrote in a recent Fox News op-ed, renewing her call for cognitive tests for politicians over 75 – which would include Trump. “The question before voters in 2024 is, to an unprecedented degree, whether they want Kamala D. Harris to be president, not vice president.”

The Washington Post