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Biden, on his age, says, ‘Watch me.’ On Thursday night, they will.

President Biden often has had a ready rejoinder for anyone who expresses concerns about his age: “Watch me.”

When he arrives at the rostrum at the front of the U.S. House chamber on Thursday night, he will have more Americans watching him than he has had in some time. In an election year where a chief concern among voters is whether the 81-year-old president is fit enough for another four years, the State of the Union address is taking on outsize importance as a way for him to confront the topic.

Allies hope he can alleviate questions by giving a strong speech, showcasing mental quickness and command of the issues. Opponents will be ready to seize on any physical or mental misstep, minor or not.

“He has to make the case it’s not about numerical age, it’s about the age of his ideas,” said Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor and co-chair of Biden’s reelection campaign.

“When he says, ‘Watch me,’ he’s not saying, ‘Watch me do 20 push-ups.’ He’s 81 years old,” added Landrieu, who was a top White House adviser until January. “This is not about muscle, it’s about intellect, wisdom, character. When they have a choice between him and Donald Trump — and Trump, by the way, looks like he had a couple of extra Big Macs — I believe the public is going to choose wisdom and experience.”

Landrieu’s comments reflect one of the Biden team’s major rejoinders regarding his age — that Trump, the likely Republican nominee, is almost as old at 77 and routinely mixes up basic facts. Trump has said he sometimes uses names interchangeably on purpose.

Biden in recent weeks has been alternately prickly and lighthearted, defensive and self-deprecating, when it comes to addressing his advanced age (“I know I don’t look it — I’ve been around a long while, though,” he recently told the nation’s governors). Thursday’s prime-time address comes just weeks after special counsel Robert Hur released a report that painted a devastating portrait of Biden’s memory as “significantly limited.” Hur is scheduled to testify before Congress next week, an event that could refocus attention on his claims that Biden could not recall the year his vice presidency began or when his son Beau died, which Biden has denied.

The State of the Union also comes on the heels of Biden’s annual physical exam, after which his doctor released a letter declaring that no major concerns had arisen over the past year and determining that the president “continues to be fit for duty.”

Yet polls suggest that Biden’s overriding challenge between now and November is tamping down concerns about his age. His success or failure Thursday will probably be quickly evident, as one side or the other grabs snippets to use in its ads.

Republicans have chosen Sen. Katie Boyd Britt (Ala.), who at 42 is the youngest Republican woman ever elected to the Senate, to give their party’s official response on Thursday night.

The pick seems designed to highlight the large age gap, while sidestepping the fact that Trump is almost as old as Biden. “At this decisive moment in our country’s history, it’s time for the next generation to step up and preserve the American dream for our children and our grandchildren,” Britt said in a statement.

Stuart Jay Olshansky, a professor of public health at the University of Illinois Chicago who analyzes the longevity of presidents, said that ultimately there is only so much Biden can do to discount the age question.

“There isn’t much you can say — it’s not like you can deny you’re an older man,” Olshansky said. “He could do hair and makeup. It seems like that’s being done by Donald Trump. It might make him look a little younger. But it’s not going to work. He is who he is. I would basically just embrace who you are: ‘This is who I am, I’m not perfect.’”

Olshansky noted that Biden’s recent physical exam included a detailed summary of his health. “The evidence pointed to an extraordinarily healthy older man,” he said. “Yeah, he’s got problems with his gait. He’s got arthritis in his back and neuropathy in his feet. But that has nothing to do with his abilities to make judgments.”

Biden’s advisers often criticize what they see as a media-driven obsession over the president’s age, but polls show it is an enduring focal point for voters weighing his reelection. Some voice concern not only about Biden’s mental acuity at the moment, but also about the fact that he is entering a phase of life when people’s health can decline suddenly and he would be 86 at the end of a second term.

Biden’s age also came up during his 2020 campaign, when he was 77, but polling suggests that Americans’ concern has grown during his time in office.

A recent survey by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that some 63 percent of Americans say they are either not very confident or not confident at all in Biden’s mental ability to serve as president. A smaller share, 57 percent, said the same about Trump.

Among independents, about 80 percent said they lack confidence in Biden’s mental sharpness, compared with 56 percent for Trump. Democrats are also less confident in Biden than Republicans are about Trump, the survey found.

That discrepancy is an ongoing frustration for Biden’s campaign aides, who argue that Trump shows far more signs of mental shakiness than Biden, citing his tendency to wander off-script during rallies and to mix up, for example, Biden and former president Barack Obama. The Biden campaign has begun aggressively highlighting Trump’s gaffes in an effort to alter voters’ perceptions.

At a recent rally in Richmond, Trump insisted that sometimes “I purposely mix up a name” — like substituting former House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley — “because they’re interchangeable in my mind.”

Olshansky said Trump’s aggressive public demeanor may work in his favor.

“He does have risks, but he doesn’t come across as old as Biden does,” Olshansky said. “Some of that might be the benefit of carrying excess weight — it does make you look more robust. And then hair and makeup work effectively to make you look younger.” Biden, in contrast, looks less healthy than he is: “It might not seem like it because he’s shuffling around, but he is exercising on a daily basis. He barely takes any medication. He has a coronary profile of that of a marathon runner. He has a strong support system and sees a doctor every day.”

It is unclear whether Biden will explicitly bring up the age issue during the State of the Union address, but some close to him view the speech in the entirety — if delivered forcefully and articulately — as the best rebuttal to those who question his mental sharpness. They also view other venues as better for making light of the age question; at a recent campaign fundraiser, for example, when a participant mentioned Aristotle, Biden joked that he knew him.

“I think State of the Union is much too important to be concerned about age,” said Ted Kaufman, a former Democratic senator for Delaware and longtime Biden aide and confidant. “The campaigning has just begun over the last month. This is a chance for him to lay out what are the major issues facing the country and what does he think about them. There’s no other opportunity to do that like the State of the Union.”

White House officials say the speech will focus on the president’s policy achievements, including lowering drug costs, and will highlight his fight to protect reproductive health care. They mocked GOP critics for raising questions about his age.

“Republican officials have desperately attacked President Biden over the timing of his birthday since before he won the most votes ever,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said. “During that time, the only thing that has aged more poorly than bets against Joe Biden is the quality of extreme right-wing ideas like national abortion bans and tax giveaways for the rich.”

Some Biden allies said they hoped the speech would yield a spontaneous incident like one that unfolded last year, when Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) shouted that Biden was a “liar” and Biden jousted with Republicans in a way that was both folksy and feisty, including an exchange on protecting Social Security.

It was a moment that triggered high fives in the White House, and it’s one that Biden has recounted dozens of times, including as recently as two weeks ago.

“Just doing what he did last year would be a huge victory for the president,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to Obama and co-host of “Pod Save America.” “The vast majority of people who tell pollsters they have concerns about Joe Biden’s age haven’t seen him speak, maybe since last year. Maybe they’ve seen a clip on TikTok or something on social media, but they haven’t seen a whole speech.”

Because Republicans have spent so much time portraying Biden as essentially senile, Pfeiffer said, he can benefit enormously from lowered expectations.

“This is the opportunity. Go up there and do what you do most days, and you will dramatically over-perform what people’s expectations are because they’re basing those opinions on a caricature that’s been painted of him,” Pfeiffer added. “And the State of the Union is a great format. You look presidential, it’s powerful, there’s raucous applause on many of the things you say.”

While Biden can become testy when reporters or critics mention his age, it is clearly something he reflects on. In 2021, when Biden met Pope Francis, he recounted one of his often-told stories about Satchel Paige, a pitcher who played Major League Baseball in his 40s and was asked by reporters about his age.

“‘Boys, that’s not how I look at age. I look at it this way: How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?’” Biden said, paraphrasing Paige.

Then, looking at the pope, who was in his 80s, the president said, “You’re 65. And I’m 60!”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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