Biden, on His Age, Says, ‘Watch Me.’ On Thursday Night, They Did.

Matt McClain/The Washington Post
President Biden delivers his State of the Union address Thursday.

President Biden often has a ready rejoinder for anyone who expresses concerns about his age: “Watch me.”

As he arrived at the rostrum at the front of the U.S. House chamber on Thursday night, he had more Americans watching him than in some time. And in an election year where a chief concern among voters is whether the 81-year-old president is fit enough for another four years, the State of the Union address took on outsize importance as a way for him to confront the topic.

“I know I may not look like it, but I’ve been around awhile,” he said toward the end of his remarks. “When you get to my age certain things become clearer than ever.”

He cast the fact that he entered office as one of the youngest senators in American history and now is the oldest president in American history as an asset. He argued both implicitly and explicitly that his age brings wisdom rather than worry.

“My lifetime has taught me to embrace freedom and democracy. A future based on core values that have defined America: honesty, decency, dignity, equality,” he said, adding a moment later: “Now other people my age see it differently: The American story of resentment, revenge and retribution. That’s not me.”

As he emerged from the White House and walked to his armored limousine, he quickened his gait and jabbed his fists enthusiastically. As he entered the House chamber, he took several minutes – much longer than usual – and shook hands with members, telling one to give him a phone number. He paused for selfies. He greeted Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who was wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat.

He was feisty at times – chiding Republicans for touting infrastructure projects that came to their districts despite their votes against the legislation that brought them – and he urged them to respect election results, firmly stating, “You can’t love your country only when you win.” He ignored shouts of “Lies!” that came from Republican members, and at other times engaged in a call and response with the Democratic side of the aisle.

He seemed to relish jousting with Republicans – at times goading them into a back and forth over immigration and tax policies – and he spoke with gusto, from a prepared text that included 80 exclamation points.

But he also struggled in moments, referring to IVF as AVF, stumbling over some words and omitting others, and appearing to bungle a line rebuking the Supreme Court for striking down Roe v. Wade. While those instances were not a dominant part of the speech, the danger for Biden is that such moments become magnified on social media, where many Americans will experience his speech in bite-sized segments.

Allies hoped a strong speech could alleviate questions, showcasing mental quickness and command of the issues.

“He has to make the case it’s not about numerical age, it’s about the age of his ideas,” said Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor and co-chair of Biden’s reelection campaign.

“When he says, ‘Watch me,’ he’s not saying, ‘Watch me do 20 push-ups.’ He’s 81 years old,” added Landrieu, who was a top White House adviser until January. “This is not about muscle, it’s about intellect, wisdom, character. When they have a choice between him and Donald Trump – and Trump, by the way, looks like he had a couple of extra Big Macs – I believe the public is going to choose wisdom and experience.”

Landrieu’s comments reflected one of the Biden team’s major responses regarding his age – that Trump, the likely Republican nominee, is almost as old at 77 and routinely mixes up basic facts. Trump has said he sometimes uses names interchangeably on purpose.

Biden in recent weeks has been alternately prickly and lighthearted, defensive and self-deprecating, when it comes to addressing his advanced age. Thursday’s prime-time address came just weeks after special counsel Robert Hur released a report that painted a devastating portrait of Biden’s memory as “significantly limited.” Hur is scheduled to testify before Congress next week, an event that could refocus attention on his claims that Biden could not recall the year his vice presidency began or when his son Beau died, which Biden has denied.

The State of the Union also came on the heels of Biden’s annual physical exam, after which his doctor released a letter declaring that no major concerns had arisen over the past year and determining that the president “continues to be fit for duty.”

Yet polls suggest that Biden’s overriding challenge between now and November is tamping down concerns about his age. His success or failure Thursday will probably be quickly evident, as one side or the other grabs snippets to use in its ads.

Republicans chose Sen. Katie Boyd Britt (Ala.), who at 42 is the youngest GOP woman ever elected to the Senate, to give their party’s official response on Thursday night.

The pick was apparently designed to highlight the large age gap, while sidestepping the fact that Trump is almost as old as Biden.

“Right now, our commander in chief is not in command,” she said in excerpts released ahead of her speech. “The free world deserves better than a dithering and diminished leader.”

Stuart Jay Olshansky, a professor of public health at the University of Illinois Chicago who analyzes the longevity of presidents, said that ultimately there is only so much Biden can do to discount the age question.

“There isn’t much you can say – it’s not like you can deny you’re an older man,” Olshansky said. “He could do hair and makeup. It seems like that’s being done by Donald Trump. It might make him look a little younger. But it’s not going to work. He is who he is. I would basically just embrace who you are: ‘This is who I am, I’m not perfect.’”

Olshansky noted that Biden’s recent physical exam included a detailed summary of his health. “The evidence pointed to an extraordinarily healthy older man,” he said. “Yeah, he’s got problems with his gait. He’s got arthritis in his back and neuropathy in his feet. But that has nothing to do with his abilities to make judgments.”

Biden’s advisers often criticize what they see as a media-driven obsession over the president’s age, but polls show it is an enduring focal point for voters weighing his reelection. Some voice concern not only about Biden’s mental acuity at the moment, but also about the fact that he is entering a phase of life when people’s health can decline suddenly and he would be 86 at the end of a second term.

Biden’s age also came up during his 2020 campaign, when he was 77, but polling suggests that Americans’ concern has grown during his time in office.

A recent survey by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that some 63 percent of Americans say they are either not very confident or not confident at all in Biden’s mental ability to serve as president. A smaller share, 57 percent, said the same about Trump.

Among independents, about 80 percent said they lack confidence in Biden’s mental sharpness, compared with 56 percent for Trump. Democrats are also less confident in Biden than Republicans are about Trump, the survey found.

That discrepancy is an ongoing frustration for Biden’s campaign aides, who argue that Trump shows far more signs of mental shakiness than Biden, citing his tendency to wander off-script during rallies and to mix up, for example, Biden and former president Barack Obama. The Biden campaign has begun aggressively highlighting Trump’s gaffes in an effort to alter voters’ perceptions.

At a recent rally in Richmond, Trump insisted that sometimes “I purposely mix up a name” – like substituting former House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley – “because they’re interchangeable in my mind.”

Olshansky said Trump’s aggressive public demeanor may work in his favor.

“He does have risks, but he doesn’t come across as old as Biden does,” Olshansky said. “Some of that might be the benefit of carrying excess weight – it does make you look more robust. And then hair and makeup work effectively to make you look younger.” Biden, in contrast, looks less healthy than he is: “It might not seem like it because he’s shuffling around, but he is exercising on a daily basis. He barely takes any medication. He has a coronary profile of that of a marathon runner. He has a strong support system and sees a doctor every day.”

Some close to Biden, speaking before the State of the Union, said the address – if delivered forcefully and articulately – would be the best rebuttal to those who question his mental sharpness. They also said they viewed other venues as better for making light of the age question; at a recent campaign fundraiser, for example, when a participant mentioned Aristotle, Biden joked that he knew him.

“I think State of the Union is much too important to be concerned about age,” said Ted Kaufman, a former Democratic senator for Delaware and longtime Biden aide and confidant. “The campaigning has just begun over the last month. This is a chance for him to lay out what are the major issues facing the country and what does he think about them. There’s no other opportunity to do that like the State of the Union.”

Because Republicans have spent so much time portraying Biden as essentially senile, Biden allies said, he could benefit enormously from lowered expectations.

“This is the opportunity,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to Obama and co-host of “Pod Save America.” “Go up there and do what you do most days, and you will dramatically over-perform what people’s expectations are because they’re basing those opinions on a caricature that’s been painted of him. And the State of the Union is a great format. You look presidential, it’s powerful, there’s raucous applause on many of the things you say.”

As Biden was wrapping up his speech, he seemed to reflect again on the question of his age and attempted to tie it to his worldview.

“My fellow Americans, the issue facing our nation isn’t how old we are – it’s how old our ideas [are],” he said. “Hate, anger, revenge, retribution are the oldest of ideas. But you can’t lead America with ancient ideas that only take us back.”

He also considered his own long time in public office, including instances as a 30-year-old fresh face in the Senate in the 1970s who wasn’t allowed in senator-only elevators.

“In my career, I’ve been told I was too young,” he said, adding: “And I’ve been told I’m too old. Whether young or old … I’ve always known what endures. I’ve known our North Star.”