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How old is too old to do perhaps the most demanding job in the world? That's the question major media spilled a metric ton of ink on in recent days.

The (renewed) interest in Joe Biden's age was sparked after the February 8 release of a report from special counsel Robert Hur on the president's handling of classified documents. A self-identified Republican, Hur served as principal associate deputy attorney general in Trump's Justice Department. Despite this background, he was appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland to handle the Biden matter. In his report, he concluded there was no basis to prosecute the president. This would be good news were it not for the fact that Hur went further, suggesting that Biden’s memory was failing, describing him as "a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory."

The allegations predictably caused an uproar. The president responded by declaring the matter of the classified documents closed and fiercely defending his cognitive abilities at a press conference. But another memory flub–Biden accidentally called Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi the president of Mexico–only poured gasoline on the fire, fueling more headlines and more questions.

In the wake of the growing controversy, Democrats have been circling the wagons, not only assuring Americans that their president is strong, fit, and "sharp," but attacking the special counsel as a partisan and seemingly anyone else questioning Biden's fitness as a candidate, including Daily Show host John Stewart and liberal New York Times columnist Ezra Klein. Biden's supporters have also taken to highlighting the numerous incoherent and extreme statements from his likely GOP opponent, Donald Trump, who is currently facing signifcant legal trouble in the form of dozens of felony charges.

But these efforts have done little to move the needle and suppress dissent or change the overwhelming public sentiment that the president is simply too old to do the job.

Biden's age and questions about his mental faculties have dogged him since he ran in 2020 thanks in large part to his tendency to misremember and the simple reality that he is–very obviously–elderly. But these questions did not stop him four years ago. In that race, his campaign was able to adjust, highlighting his struggle with a stutter, suggesting he might serve just one term, and limiting his press exposure. Biden went on to win the election and the issue faded from view. As president, he has done fewer press conferences than any of his predecessors since Reagan. But, for the most part, the country moved on.

Biden has had a relatively successful presidency–at least in terms of legislative accomplishments, though critics can charge that they have fallen significantly shy of what he promised on the campaign trail, and a credible case can be made that his efforts have not risen to the urgency of the moment on key issues like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, the positives are undeniable. On the economic front, things are looking up. Biden poured money into the economy with a $1.9 trillion COVID stimulus package, an infrastructure bill with nearly $400 billion aimed at curbing emissions and investing in green energy, and a bill aimed at boosting U.S. semiconductor chip manufacturing. All of this spending helped the U.S. defy dire predictions that a recession was inevitable. Instead, the economy has rebounded from the pandemic and the stock market has been going gangbusters. Unemployment is down and inflation is dropping–though inequality remains at a historic level and the cost of living across America is still, as the saying goes, too damn high.

Biden appointed a pro-worker National Labor Relations Board, which has supported the wave of unionization sweeping the country. Meanwhile, his administration also halted new approvals for liquified natural gas exports, a long overdue step for a presidential administration, and took the first steps to decriminalize marijuana and allow Medicare to negotiate drug pricing.

Despite these wins, Biden's favorability rating has remained stubbornly in the red. Some of that may have to do with high-profile legislative failures early in his term– not securing voting rights or raising the federal minimum wage, or whittling down the $1.7 trillion Build Back Better package into the Inflation Reduction Act. It may have to do with the fact that pandemic relief, which provided much-needed breathing room for those most in need, including student borrowers, expired on Biden's watch while the SARS-CoV-2 virus remained, killing and debilitating hundreds of thousands of Americans. Or perhaps it's foreign policy. Although Biden was the president to finally end the war in Afghanistan, the withdrawal was a debacle. Today, his perceived unwavering support for Israel as it indiscriminately bombs Gaza has become a real political liability.

Another potential explanation lies in what the president himself represents: normal politics. Tens of millions of Americans voted for the calm, steady leadership Biden promised amid a national crisis in 2020. Candidate Biden contrasted himself with an opponent he cast as self-serving, unsteady, and incompetent, noting the hundreds of thousands of lives lost on Trump's watch. But even as he projected that steadiness and got the economy back on track, those same voters may have found normalcy less to their liking than they remembered. Of course, the explanation may even be simpler than that: Biden may not be doing a good enough job claiming credit for his wins.

Whatever the reason or reasons, rightly or wrongly, Biden's successes have consistently been overshadowed by public skepticism. For months, the president's poll numbers against an increasingly belligerent and extreme Donald Trump, who has been borrowing phrasing from Adolf Hitler and promising revenge against his political opponents, to root out "vermin,"  and mass deportation camps, have been poor.

Now, his age is back in the spotlight, and there no indication the issue will fade from view anytime soon–or as Election Day approaches. Whether or not Democrats want to admit it, Biden does not come across as the same man he was even four years ago. He's quieter, subdued, and physically slower.

In light of this reality, there have been some calling for the president to step aside and allow the party pick the nominee at the convention, including Klein from The Times. They argue that Biden's weaknesses as a candidate, as reflected in his poll numbers–combined with the risks presented by a Trump presidency–necessitate drastic action.

On the other side, however, Biden's backers point out that there is no heir apparent. A recent poll from Emerson College found that while Biden is behind Trump, he polls best against the presumptive GOP nominee of the Democrats floated as potential contenders, including Gavin Newsom and Gretchen Whitmer. While those numbers could change, it is almost inconceivable that this Democratic Party, which has prided itself in recent years on being in near lockstep, will drop an incumbent president who has declared his intention to seek reelection.

What all of this means for November is anybody's guess, but it is all but a foregone conclusion that Biden will win the primary and–barring anything truly unexpected–be the Democratic nominee. There are two things both sides of the debate agree on: The age issue is distracting from the party's message and it's late in the game to make a change.

The ball is in Biden's court, for better or worse.

For More On the 2024 Election:

Trump Is Posting His Own Fake News—Under an Actual News Outlet’s Name
This takes “fake news” to a whole new level.
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Biden Can No Longer Avoid Questions About His Fitness for a Second Term
A long-simmering debate has boiled to the surface with the special counsel’s report. How the president responds will determine whether he is reelected.
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A Partisan Hit Job on President Biden
Today on TAP: Special Counsel Hur’s gratuitous digs at Biden’s age and memory
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