When President Biden announces his reelection bid in the coming weeks, he’ll enter a grueling 18-month phase of nonstop travel, sprinting from one swing state to another.
It’s expected to be a far different presidential election cycle than in 2020, when during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Biden campaigned largely from the comforts of his Delaware basement.
Even some allies wonder if Biden, who will turn 81 this year, can handle the rigors of the campaign, on top of his daily duties as president. Democrats are aware, more than ever, that his rivals will be watching for every verbal gaffe, messaging misfire and physical stumble to highlight his weaknesses and his age.
“It’s really going to put the president to the test,” said one Democratic strategist who has worked on recent presidential campaigns. “Campaign travel is brutal for all of us, but he has to travel from place to place and be at the top of his game at every stop because he’ll be scrutinized more than any other recent candidate.”
Republicans, the strategist added, “are already making age and mental acuity part of their argument.” The operative pointed to recent coverage on conservative outlets of Biden tripping on the stairs of Air Force One or when he fell off his bike last year because his foot got caught in the pedal.
“They’re going to be looking for anything to show he’s not up for the job and because he’ll be on the road a lot, there will inevitably be some moments,” the strategist said.
Or as another strategist put it: “The more he’s out there, the more likely he is to make a gaffe.”
2024’s campaign is not 2020’s
Before the pandemic began, some in Bidenworld wondered if they should winnow down events at the end of the day, when their candidate was prone to make more blunders.
In 2020, as Americans largely worked from home and social-distanced because of the pandemic, Biden built a small television studio in his Wilmington basement where he could deliver speeches and speak directly to voters without leaving his house, particularly during the tail end of the primary and start of the general election cycles. His pre-vaccination message was consistent: I’m staying home and following science.
And while then-President Donald Trump and other Republicans ridiculed Biden for “hiding” at home while they continued to travel, it was a strategy that paid off for him in the end.
Allies acknowledge there will be a higher bar for Biden this cycle.
Basil Smikle, the director of the Public Policy Program at Hunter College, who has served as a strategist and the executive director of the the New York State Democratic Party, said there will be more scrutiny not only of Biden’s interaction with voters but the “evaluations of his vigor as a campaigner.”
“He benefits from being able to control his environment now as president more so than he did in 2020,” Smikle said. “But even through that lens, the critiques may be more significant.”
Biden: ‘Watch me’
Biden has sought to quiet the criticism ahead of his expected campaign launch in April or May. He made a surprise overnight trip to Ukraine last month, traveling to the embattled nation on a 10-hour train ride. And he continues to crisscross the country to showcase his policies, as he did this week when he traveled to California.
“…How many 30-year-olds could travel to Poland, get on the train, go nine more hours, go to Ukraine, meet with President Zelensky?” first lady Jill Biden said in an interview with CNN earlier this month. “So, look at the man. Look what he’s doing. Look what he continues to do each and every day.”
Since taking office, those in Bidenworld say the president has become immune to the endless headlines about his age and mental capacities. “His view has always been, ‘Yeah, and?’” one ally said. “He knows better than most what a busy campaign is like, and he wouldn’t run again if he knew he wasn’t up for it.”
When reporters have asked him what he says to pundits and other observers who doubt an octogenarian can run for reelection, he has often replied, “Watch me.”
A Yahoo News/YouGov poll out earlier this month showed that 68 percent of voters surveyed said Biden is “too old for another term.” The poll also indicated that 48 percent of Democrats agreed that age is a problem for Biden.
But Democratic strategist Christy Setzer said campaigns have to adapt to the candidate they have, “whether that means doing long-form interviews over quick hits or fewer events or whatever.
“Biden is going to win in 2024 based on accomplishments and vibes and an understanding that he’s not looking to burn the country down,” Setzer said. “Not events stamina.”