The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What happens when Biden actually has to go out and campaign?

President Biden at the White House on Sept. 20. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Long before our president began communing with the dead at White House events, it was obvious Joe Biden was past his prime.

Watching him waver through his stump speech in Iowa and New Hampshire back in 2020, you were inevitably struck by how old he looked. I remember standing at the side of some rally, somewhere, wishing I could get the former vice president a chair. “Even if he gets the nomination,” I thought, “can he really stand a year of this?”

To be clear, I still voted for him; whatever Biden’s infirmities, I preferred them to Donald Trump’s clear madness. But I also wondered how many other people would have voted for him, if not for the accident of the pandemic.

That’s obviously a complicated counterfactual — if not for the pandemic, Trump would have been an incumbent president presiding over a strong economy, and folks in that position tend to win reelection bids. But there’s also the fact that the pandemic spared Biden the need to go out on the campaign trail.

Voters have warm feelings about candidates who come to meet them in person. So candidates for president get herded from live event to live event, pausing in between to attend to small matters like campaign strategy or policy positions. Age is an obvious handicap in this endeavor — though, also obviously, not a fatal one. Trump always looked shockingly robust for a man in his seventies who lives on fried things and clearly relished ad-libbing from the podium for hours at a time. At nighttime Bernie Sanders rallies in 2020, the senator tore into banksters with unflagging vigor and vim.

Follow Megan McArdle's opinionsFollow

But during the 2020 primary campaign, no matter what time of day you saw Biden talk, he looked tired and sounded tentative. His condition would have been a lot clearer to everyone if he’d had to spend a year chasing voters through every state fair in the country instead of campaigning largely from lockdown. More Americans would have seen his habit of what you might call senior moments. Not dementia, as Trump recently suggested; just moments when he appeared to struggle for words or get a bit confused.

Like, for example, at the White House event on Wednesday where Biden called out to congresswoman Jackie Walorski.

“Jackie, are you here? Where’s Jackie?” Biden said. Walorski was not in attendance, having died in a car crash in August. Biden had reportedly called the family at the time to express condolences.

Biden’s people can usually explain these moments. Biden was a gaffe machine in his prime, including once exhorting a paraplegic state senator to “Stand up … let them see you.” Many of his misstatements — such as accidentally suggesting he has cancer — can be written off to “Joe being Joe.” His poor debate performances in 2020 could be attributed to a childhood stutter. And of course, the president has a lot more going on than a normal person, so it’s probably harder for him to remember everything that has happened — even condolence calls.

But when all that’s said, you need only watch video from 10 years ago to see that the president now appears slower than he used to be. That doesn’t mean he’s unfit to be president; he will not be asked to resolve a foreign policy crisis by solving crossword puzzles at high speed. But whether it’s a policy problem, it is a political problem.

In a recent poll, fewer than half of Americans said they were confident Biden was mentally fit for the job. And the more Biden goes out in front of the public — as he would have to do for a 2024 campaign — the more he is apt to raise anxieties about his age.

Presumably his staff knows this; I doubt it’s an accident that Biden has generally kept a low profile during his first 20 months in office. But whether Republicans nominate Trump or someone else, his opponent is going to be out there on the stump, whipping up voter enthusiasm and proving they have the stamina for the job. If Biden doesn’t follow suit, he will be conceding them an edge — especially since they will not be shy about using that fact to raise questions about his fitness.

To be sure, that didn’t work in 2020, when Trump tried to ding Biden for campaigning from his basement. But as Biden himself recently noted, the emergency phase of the pandemic is over. People are vaccinated and going about their normal lives. Which means that if Biden runs in 2024, he’ll have to answer the question that fate saved him from in 2020: Is he really strong enough to run a winning campaign, in person? And if not, are voters willing to vote for him anyway?