They were just two short sentences, spoken 72 minutes into a 73-minute speech. But those lines may turn out to be, particularly in 2024, the most significant things President Joe Biden said during his second State of the Union address: “I’m not new to this place. I stand here tonight having served as long as about any one of you have ever served here.”
Those words got the attention of Mike Donilon, sitting in the Capitol audience. Donilon, the administration’s top strategist, has been working closely with Biden for more than 40 years. He knows the way Biden thinks better than just about anyone other than the first lady, Dr. Jill Biden; he had written parts of Biden’s State of the Union speech but not those lines. “He made it up right there,” Donilon tells me later. One key to Biden’s success as president has been playing against the stereotype that he’s a gaffe-prone logorrheic. So the president going off-script was notable—especially on this subject, even when raised cleverly and obliquely. “He’s not,” Donilon says, with careful understatement, “the most inclined to kind of go to talking about his age.”
When Joe Biden was a child, there were only 48 states. He joined the Senate in 1973; 7 of his 99 colleagues from that year are still alive. At 80, he is older than roughly 96 percent of his fellow Americans. He has kept going through major political defeats, life-threatening health crises, and searing personal tragedies. Biden’s durability has become a defining trait, inseparable from what one ally calls his “magic power”—his ability to exceed expectations. Just three years ago he was written off, after dismal showings in 2020’s early primaries, as a viable contender for the Democratic nomination. Then, after Biden defeated incumbent president Donald Trump, conventional wisdom predicted a polarized Congress would laugh off his talk of bipartisan legislation. Just one year ago Biden’s first term was being described as dead in the water, and longtime allies like David Axelrod were voicing doubts about a second term.
Instead, Biden’s presidency has now seen the passage of bills worth trillions of dollars to do everything from stemming the pandemic to rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure. Biden has led an international effort to stave off Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And he has ostensibly cleared the Democratic primary field. “He has been underestimated his entire political career—and I think he would say his entire life, going back to his childhood,” says Kate Bedingfield, a longtime senior adviser who recently left the White House. “But he has an incredibly determined and steady mentality that is about putting one foot in front of the other.”
There will be plenty of surprises between now and November 2024. Yet as Biden runs for a second term, one issue is sure to present a steep hurdle. “You hear it in focus groups, you hear it in qualitative research all the time,” Democratic strategist Cornell Belcher says. “It is a question of whether or not, because of his age, he’s up to the job.” Even Biden’s staunchest allies know the subject looms large. “Joe Biden I’m sure has lost a step,” says James Clyburn, the 82-year-old Democratic congressman who resuscitated Biden’s 2020 campaign with an endorsement in the South Carolina primary. “It’s a legitimate concern. I don’t hit my 5-iron as far as I used to—but I can still play 36 holes of golf a day. You learn how to make certain adjustments. I think Joe Biden knows how to operate within himself. And I would much rather have an 82-year-old Joe Biden as president than a 42-year-old Donald Trump.”
Biden made his reelection bid official in late April. If the timing of the announcement—four years to the day he announced his run in 2019—didn’t make it clear that Biden wants 2024 to be a rerun, the content did, leaning on images of January 6 and Donald Trump. Biden’s campaign will talk a great deal about his first term, but his team knows it needs to again stoke fear of MAGA.
This time though, Biden’s advanced age suffuses everything about his presidency, from the invaluable experience he brings to the job to the anxiety that he might not live to finish a second term. The best practical political argument for another Biden run, in addition to his first-term record, is that the Democrats don’t have any other obviously stronger candidate. But there’s a personal element at work too. The president is a father who has suffered the early deaths of two of his children, including his eldest son and presumed political heir, Beau. Those losses fuel Biden’s empathy, and they are part of what compels him to keep going as long and as far as his health allows. In 2024, in his 13th and final campaign, Biden will again try to defy expectations. Yet he won’t simply be running against the Republican nominee. He’ll be running to make up for lost time.
The mood in the White House was grim. After months of tense negotiations with pivotal Democratic senator Joe Manchin over a $1.75 trillion social spending package, a deal had seemed within reach. Then, suddenly, it was falling apart. “Senator Manchin gave an interview where it appeared he was saying he was walking away from it, an interview in West Virginia. And the feeling in the building was, ‘Well, this is over,’ ” says Anita Dunn, whom Biden installed to revive his foundering 2020 primary campaign and who is now a senior White House adviser. “The president was overseas. We talked to him and he said, ‘No, no, no, don’t put out a statement. Don’t assume that this is where it ends. We’ve got to give him some more space.’ And it came back together. He has a very good sense of how you give people the space they need to get to the result you want.”
There is little Biden has not seen during 53 years of political life. That experience, deep and broad, was crucial to his two greatest triumphs so far as president. The tortuous dance with Manchin to agree on what ultimately became known as the Inflation Reduction Act turned, in part, on Biden’s ability to learn from his past. He always looks for the good in people; when President Barack Obama sent Biden to Capitol Hill to negotiate, a congressional insider recalls, the then VP’s penchant for taking Mitch McConnell at his word led to trouble. Last year, after Biden’s very public failure to persuade Manchin, he backed off and let New York senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, handle the direct behind-the-scenes conversations that yielded an unexpected bargain in July 2022. “We were a team. We talked several times each week,” Schumer says of his role with the president on the bill. “He let me work the Senate. He knew I had a very good relationship with Manchin. There was a period where Manchin wouldn’t talk to anyone but me. He and Manchin had their ups and downs, but now they’re getting along very well.”
Biden’s experience played an equally large part in his other signature achievement, repairing the damage done to international alliances during Trump’s term. Biden could not predict where or when the renewed bonds might pay off. When Russia invaded Ukraine, the foundation of what became an indispensable coalition was already in place. “Joe Biden has sayings that he repeats over and over,” says Tom Carper, a Democratic senator from Delaware who has been his close friend for decades. “One of my favorites is, ‘All politics is personal.’ He believes that to his core. That’s why he’s spent so much time with Putin and Xi, with people like Jim Eastland, Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond. People say, ‘How could Joe Biden possibly work with these people?’ It’s because he believes all politics is personal, all diplomacy is personal. Same thing with Joe Manchin. Always treat him with respect. Try to understand his point of view. Try to get to yes.”
The inside game has produced Biden’s biggest victories. What it hasn’t done is earned him much love with the public. The president’s job-approval numbers, after rallying into the modest mid-40s, were back down to 37 percent in a late April Gallup poll. The prevalent theory about the disconnect between Biden’s policy wins—which are generally popular—and his personal ratings is that the American public is in a bitter mood about politics. Biden’s camp believes that the mainstream media is also a large, dampening contributor, caring more about the president’s performative skills than his mastery of the levers of government. “One of the benefits of him in this office is the kind of wisdom, experience, and perspective that he brings to bear on these problems,” Donilon says. “It matters. But it tends to be dismissed.”
Partly that’s because of Biden’s age; partly it’s because of his familiarity to Washington and media elites. The administration’s media strategy may also contribute. It has been true to the president’s retro blue-collar character. Biden events tend to be conventional podium speeches or ribbon cuttings; he isn’t all over social media trying to be hip—even the “Dark Brandon” meme was something repurposed. He grants few sit-down interviews. And “Twitter isn’t real life” continues to be an article of faith in Biden-world. But understatement may also feed the president’s underwhelming poll numbers.
There’s another factor, though, perhaps the most important and least discussed: that coming after Trump, Biden is the presidential equivalent of an aspirin, necessary and useful but unglamorous and unloved. “Biden has a better economic and legislative and world-stage record than Obama did at the same point in their presidencies, but Obama got more credit,” says a Democratic consultant who has worked with the White House. “There’s something else there. Voters were never clamoring for Biden. Is it because people see him as a stopgap president, someone they needed to get rid of Trump?”
Ed Rollins was the campaign director for President Ronald Reagan’s successful reelection bid in 1984, when Reagan was 73. “We knew going into the race that it was the only issue,” Rollins says. “At the time he was the oldest president, he’d been shot, he’d had some health issues.” So the campaign arranged to have Reagan appear on the cover of Parade magazine in an undershirt, lifting weights, under the headline “How to Stay Fit,” and, below that, “By Ronald Reagan.” More famously, during his second debate with Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, Reagan slyly said, “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”