President Joe Biden addresses the National Association of Counties (NACo) Legislative Conference in Washington, DC on February 14.
CNN  — 

When President Joe Biden went for his annual physical at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Thursday morning, he set a new record – as he does every morning – as the oldest US president ever.

Biden’s age is “omnipresent” in nearly every conversation, one person involved told CNN, at a time when he’s preparing for a reelection announcement that would try to extend his time in the Oval Office until he is 86 years old.

Biden, 80, hasn’t officially decided to run again, though he’s said he intends to and his campaign infrastructure is largely in place. Even though aides say the president has told them that his age will not be the determining factor in his final decision about running for reelection, conversations about it are shaping everything from planning anticipated campaign schedule logistics to calibrating Vice President Kamala Harris’ role as his running mate. White House spokesman Andrew Bates disputes how much of a factor the president’s age is in conversations: “That’s simply not true, and makes one think they aren’t involved in many conversations here.”

That is leading to a focus on events that try to play up the president’s vitality, while trying to strike a balance in the schedule of a man who tends to make more blunders when tired.

It also underscored the importance of a State of the Union address advisers viewed as Biden at his best, from cadence and delivery to his off-script sparring with Republicans in the House chamber. The speech served as a prime-time moment, in front of tens of millions of viewers, to lay out for the country the scale of his accomplishments and vision for the path ahead.

And, at least implicitly, it also represented a window into why his age shouldn’t be viewed as detriment to his efforts to lead the country down that path.

The effect was immediate with at least one group watching: quietly anxious Democratic officials. More than a dozen of acknowledged after the fact it was a night that either put to rest or went a long way in assuaging their lingering concerns about the party’s leader.

That Biden repeatedly went back to the phrase “finish the job” roughly a dozen times during the speech “wasn’t exactly subtle,” one of those Democrats said.

Though advisers say Biden would keep to the standard of not starting daily campaigning for at least a year, just as President Barack Obama did in 2011, they’re already looking for low impact ways to maximize keeping him in the public eye. To some extent it would track and build on the oft-criticized formula deployed in the lead up to the midterms, where Biden eschewed a road warrior, rally heavy strategy and tailored and targeted events – and smaller crowds – instead.

“Funny that we didn’t hear much from the critics about that strategy after November 8,” one adviser said sarcastically of the Democrats’ precedent-busting performance on Election Day last year.

Among the possible strategies are having him keep up the kind of news-making appearances he’s been doing in and around Washington and preparing for what they’re hoping will be the most extensive digital effort of a presidential campaign ever.

Top surrogates deployed at a regular clip would include a roster populated by a younger generation of politicians, people familiar with the matter say, even as one pointed out that given Biden’s age, that’s to some degree an inevitability.

“Like we did in 2020, if he runs in 2024 there will be a range of surrogates that show the diversity of the party, across all ages, from Maxwell Frost to Bernie Sanders,” a Biden adviser said, referencing the 26-year-old freshman congressman from Florida and the independent Vermont senator.

To many top Democratic operatives and officials looking ahead, Biden’s age is the top issue of his reelection campaign – in essence, what he’s running against, at least until a Republican nominee emerges, according to CNN’s conversations with three dozen White House aides, elected officials, leading Democratic operatives and others beginning to prepare for the race ahead.

“It’s part of who he is – as much a part as his record of legislative accomplishments in the last two years, as much a part as his empathy and his connection with people,” said a senior Biden adviser.

The adviser went on to spell out a theory of the case Biden’s team believes will outweigh any concerns, no matter how persistent they appear in public polling.

“At the end of the day, people are going to say, ‘Who’s on my side?’” the adviser said. “‘Who’s fighting for me? Who’s getting things done and making a material difference in my life?’”

That’s how Mitch Landrieu, the White House infrastructure coordinator, made the case to the antsy Democratic mayors he joined for a political meeting in January at a hotel a few blocks from the White House.

“People want to focus on one number – the president’s age, 80,” he said, and let the words linger for just a moment.

The mayors looked around uncomfortably, according to two people in the room. They’d been thinking about Biden’s age themselves, constantly hearing doubts he could or would run constantly from back home. They were startled to hear it said out loud by a White House official.

“But,” Landrieu said, as he started to tick through stats around Covid-19 shots, jobs created, unemployment rates, “there are a whole lot more important numbers out there.”

Still, voters bring Biden’s age up constantly in focus groups. Many veer toward assuming he must be ineffective or being puppeteered: “‘brain dead,’ ‘mush’ – ‘dementia’ is a word that comes up all the time,” said one person who observed multiple focus group sessions during campaigns last year.

More than a dozen Democratic operatives and officials told CNN they’re worried that Donald Trump – himself a septuagenarian who is facing calls for new leadership from younger politicians in his party – or another much younger Republican who may emerge as the nominee could make a show of seeming more energetic just by keeping a pace of two or three events each day. A number of prominent figures in the Democratic Party are privately questioning the president’s ability to keep up an active travel schedule.

A handful of ambitious Democrats have already quietly prepared rudimentary contingency plans in case Biden has a change of heart and decides against running for reelection, people familiar with the efforts told CNN. Those plans span everything from thinking through top donors to eyeing potential core campaign staff, should Biden reassess his ability to serve another four years or has an unexpected health problem, sparking a short fuse primary.

And while top White House aides bristle at any suggestion that the president’s age is a liability, others in the building quietly worry that this may be actively underplaying the concerns that they’re hearing from their own friends and family members.

Other Democratic operatives preparing for a campaign worry about letting suspicions fester, comparing them to the conspiracies about hidden conditions that trailed Hillary Clinton throughout 2016.

“They’re going to be talking about it,” said one top Democrat working on planning ahead for the reelection campaign. “So, we’ve got to talk about it.”

The president’s opponents are talking about it. Right-wing media coverage of the classified documents found in Biden’s former office and garage made him out to be either senile – to explain why he hadn’t remembered what happened to the documents – or at the center of a conspiracy theory about a controversy manufactured by Democrats to ease him into retirement.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told CNN with a sorrowful tone in an interview last month, “He’s plainly diminished, far below the threshold needed to be a functioning and effective president.” Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ Republican response to Biden’s State of the Union used the line, “At 80, he’s the oldest president in American history.”

“They attacked him over age before he beat them in 2020. They attacked him over age as he built the best legislative record in modern history,” said Bates. “They did the same before he beat them 2022. I’m not sure what they think they’re accomplishing. The trend is not good for them. Maybe they forgot?”

It’s not just them. Voters young and old often say they can’t really believe he’s going to run. Mocking him as ancient or asleep has become an easy joke for late night comedians. Many prominent Democrats privately say some panicky version of what Robert Reich, the 76-year-old former secretary of labor, wrote recently: Biden’s age is “deeply worrying, given what we know about the natural decline of the human brain and body.”

Biden advisers argue that most of the people making those kinds of comments are partisan Republicans, and that this is just another instance of a hyperpolarization in politics. They point to Biden’s previous physicals and assessments by outside experts who say that he has no physical or mental competence issues at all.

Sure, there has been a noticeably increased stiffness to his walk since he’s been in office, aides say, so much so that the White House physician, brought in a team to assess Biden’s gait during his last physical in 2021. They concluded it was the result of normal “wear and tear” of his spine.

They acknowledge there are days where his energy levels at public events can appear less vigorous. But they are unequivocal about their view that Biden wouldn’t green light another run if he didn’t think he could do it – and they wouldn’t support one either.

And they say these doubts are just the latest way of underestimating the president, pointing out that age concerns also dogged his 2020 campaign – even though some of those same advisers confided to others at the time that they believed his age was his biggest liability when he was four years younger.

Asked what the argument will be for a 2024 campaign, the Biden senior adviser snapped: “I’ve got two words for you: Wisdom and experience.”

Those words, and an overall emphasis on Biden as an embodiment of reassuring routine and normalcy, pop up repeatedly among aides who are starting to look ahead.

They are also quietly reframing a key moment at the end of the 2020 primary campaign, when Biden was endorsed in March 2020 by the much younger Harris, Booker and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and described himself “as a bridge” to the next generation.

Many at the time took that to mean a four-year bridge, an implicit one-term promise that acknowledged his age. Advisers point out he’d previously rejected a one-term pledge.

But people around Biden suggest, what he was talking about was not just getting Donald Trump out of the White House but getting past Trump and Trumpism. Advisers say that is what the logic around a 2024 run boils down to: Making the case that the only thing worse than an 82-year-old president is a Republican one.

Biden advisers also argue that the president’s persona as an elder statesman could help Democrats hold onto voters who see the party as changing too quickly and veering too far left.

“People feel like it’s a turbulent world that we’re living in, and it is a strength for Joe Biden to be able to point to not just years of experience in government up to this point, but more immediately his last two years in the White House being able to get things done, despite the turbulence,” said a second Biden adviser. “And what we’re seeing from Republicans in the House in terms of chaos and extremism is an incredibly powerful contrast too, that underscores the idea that his experience – and yes, age – is a benefit.”

Debating the effects of age

Although there are clear moments when Biden is visibly slower physically than he was, dozens of aides, administration officials and members of Congress who’ve actually spent time with him have relayed stories to CNN about how thorough and demanding he is in meeting after meeting.

“There’s a confidence that comes from knowing what you’re doing,” Ted Kaufman, one of Biden’s closest friends and advisers since his first campaign, told CNN late last year.

Biden likes to talk and keep talking, but he did spend 36 years in the Senate. He sometimes rambles, but he rambled long before his hair went gray.

He often gets stuck on, or mispronounces, names on his teleprompter, but that’s far more connected to a convergence of wanting to get the name correct while not encountering a block tied to the childhood stutter he worked intensively and successfully to overcome, but still surfaces in certain moments.

Several prominent Democratic officials told CNN that they worry even so, every stumble now will be viewed through the prism of age. Biden’s advisers are keenly aware of what they view as a perception – or in some cases, in the words of one person close to Biden, “the bull— caricature” – that they say doesn’t match the reality they see.

They say he’s the one constantly adding to his schedule, pushing for photo lines with local politicians and extra time to greet crowds after his events, or making meetings run over by peppering policy aides with questions.

“The energy is higher now than maybe when I first met him, and I really believe that that’s inspired by the work,” said Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, who as a Delaware Democrat has known and worked with Biden much of her life.

‘Bring them here’

There is perhaps no better window into the public perception versus private reality advisers try to convey than a 15-hour stretch in Bali, Indonesia, at the Group of 20 meeting last November.

Nearing the end of a grueling six-day, three-country trip to Asia that also included his first face-to-face meeting as president with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Biden chose to skip the gala dinner and went back to his hotel. Whispers went around that Biden was too tired, unable to keep going.

Just a few hours later, he was sitting across from national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken trying to head off a spiraling international crisis.

Biden, wearing khakis and a gray T-shirt from a Delaware-based tractor and garden supply center, was on the phone with the Polish president over the missile that had landed in Polish territory and killed two people, raising the possibility that Russia’s unrelenting attacks on Ukraine had finally spilled into a NATO ally.

There were calls with the NATO secretary general and constant communication with his military leadership. Aides discussed an emergency call with G7 and NATO leaders. Biden said that wasn’t enough.

“We’re all here,” Biden told his senior team of the leaders scattered across nearby hotels. “Bring them here.”

An hour later, Biden himself walked the 10 leaders who came to the Grand Hyatt through early intelligence that the missile likely was not of Russian origin. Fears of dramatic escalation quickly dissipated. Thirty minutes later, Biden was walking through mangrove trees telling French President Emmanuel Macron and other leaders stories from his Senate days.

Aides said Biden didn’t skip the gala because he was tired, though they never explained further. The truth, two people familiar with the matter said, was he wanted some time to focus on preparation for his granddaughter’s wedding that weekend at the White House, rather than have more generic conversations with counterparts over another meal. He was ready, however, when a crisis moment arrived, they said. And he drove the response.

A president who takes age personally

White House aides clock mentions of Biden’s age in the media – with particular attention to those that happen to leave out the ages of similarly aged politicians like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is a year older, and Trump, who is 76.

They quickly shoot down what they see as sneering insinuations, like when reporters ask why the president has a light public schedule on the days back from overseas trips – though that has been standard practice for multiple recent presidents, including Obama. They insist that his midterm travel schedule proves how robust a presence he can be on the road, even though Biden rarely appeared at more than a few events each week through the fall.

Biden hated people talking about how old he was when he was younger. He hates it even more now.

“Do I wish he was 10 years younger? Yeah. So does he!” said one Biden donor. “But there is nothing to me, beyond his chronological age, that would lend itself to the argument he shouldn’t seek reelection.”

Aides laugh at how often his reaction to seeing news mentions of his age is to do a little jog in or out of his next public event. Friends say he’s taken to making sarcastic references to his age, even as he speaks proudly about all he’s been able to accomplish.

Or there was his move three weeks ago in the State Dining Room, when he pretended to wobble as he got back up from taking a knee for a photo with the NBA champion Golden State Warriors, taking a moment to make fun of the crowd’s shock.

“I wanted to get up there and actually give him an arm and help him up, but I didn’t know if I’d get in trouble for that, so I just kinda stood back,” star forward Draymond Green told CNN afterward. “To see him in that physical condition at his age, to get up and down like that, was absolutely incredible.”

‘He wants to be a bro’

A number of younger Democratic politicians and operatives tell CNN they’re ready to embrace the idea of Biden as a grandfatherly figure, continuing to be a source of comfort and calm for a battered nation, even capitalizing on a specific sort of nostalgia for a pre-Trump time in politics and the news.

Of course, that would take Biden himself buying in. Even his grandkids don’t call him grandpa – they call him Pop.

“He doesn’t want to be a grandpa,” said one person who knows him. “He wants to be a bro.”

Aftab Pureval, the Cincinnati mayor who just turned 40 in September, said a visit from the president last month left him with the impression that Biden has more than enough left in the tank.

Pureval saw a man who laughed hard when the mayor deliberately used a famous Biden interjection – one that contains a four-letter word that starts with F – to describe what a big deal the bipartisan infrastructure money was in helping rebuild the local Brent Spence Bridge.

There were the fist bumps with the crowd at the barbecue spot in town they went to afterward. There was the way the president immediately flashed the fraternity hand sign when a young black man mentioned that he was a member of Phi Beta Sigma.

“When you’re with him, age was never really on my mind. What was on my mind was the president provided the single biggest grant in our nation’s history to our bridge,” Pureval said.

“His age is his age, but you can’t argue with the results.”