WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden celebrated his 81st birthday on Monday by joking repeatedly about his advanced age, even as the White House strongly defended his stamina and batted away polling — and one prominent Democrat — suggesting that the issue could cost him votes in next year’s election.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the president’s age should not be a primary focus.
“Our perspective is, it’s not about age, it’s about the president’s experience,” she said while highlighting that Biden had successfully championed through Congress several major pieces of legislation — including a sweeping public works package and initiative on public health and combating climate change — and visited active war zones not controlled by the U.S. military in Ukraine and Israel.
“What we say is we have to judge him by what he’s done, not by his numbers,” Jean-Pierre said. “I would put the president’s stamina, the president’s wisdom, ability to get this done on behalf of the American people, against anyone. Anyone, any day of the week.”
Biden, for his part, went for humor.
“By the way, it’s my birthday today,” Biden told a crowd on the White House South Lawn as he pardoned Thanksgiving turkeys Liberty and Bell.
“I just want you to know, it’s difficult turning 60,” the president added with a chuckle. “Difficult.”
Noting that the pre-Thanksgiving pardoning ceremony dated back 76 years, Biden also said, “I want you to know I wasn’t there — for the first one.”
The oldest president in U.S. history, Biden for months has used humor to try to defuse the issue — even as polls suggest it’s no laughing matter. An August poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 77% of U.S. adults, including 69% of Democrats, viewed Biden as too old to be effective for four more years.
As he seeks a second term, Biden could be headed for a rematch with former President Donald Trump, who is 77 and was the oldest person elected to a first term until Biden was. Trump has himself made some recent, notable gaffes. Yet the same AP-NROC poll found that 51% of adults — and just 28% of Republicans — said Trump was too old for a second term.
To coincide with Biden’s birthday, Trump released a new letter from his physician reporting that the former president’s “overall health is excellent.”
“His physical exams were well within the normal range and his cognitive exams were exceptional,” wrote New Jersey Dr. Bruce A. Aronwald, who said he has been Trump’s doctor since 2001 and most recently examined him on Sept. 13.
Aronwald added that Trump’s most recent lab results were “even more favorable than prior testing on some of the most significant parameters,” citing recent weight loss that he credited to “improved diet and continued daily physical exercise, while maintaining a rigorous schedule.”
The letter doesn’t mention Trump’s weight, blood pressure, or other test results yet still asserts that he “will continue to enjoy a healthy active lifestyle for years to come.”
Trump isn’t the only one highlighting the issue.
David Axelrod, who helped Barack Obama win the presidency in 2008 and later served as a top White House adviser in an administration that included Biden as vice president, was especially frank recently in comments to The New York Times.
“I think he has a 50-50 shot here, but no better than that, maybe a little worse,” Axelrod told columnist Maureen Dowd of Biden’s 2024 chances. “He thinks he can cheat nature here and it’s really risky. They’ve got a real problem if they’re counting on Trump to win it for them. I remember Hillary doing that, too.”
That was a reference to Hillary Clinton, who lost her 2016 race with Trump.
Jean-Pierre said Monday that the Bidens would spend the president’s birthday as they traditionally have, with a family gathering for Thanksgiving on Nantucket, and that they planned to have coconut cake, another tradition.
But she also attempted to bat away Axelrod’s comment while saying of negative polling about 2024, “There’s no alarm happening behind the scenes.”
“I’m not going to comment on everyone that has a comment,” she said, adding, “It’s not my job to tell people what to think.”
Biden announced his reelection campaign in April and said then that his age “doesn’t register with me.”
“They’re going to see a race, and they’re going to judge whether or not I have it or don’t have it,” the president said of voters. “I respect them taking a hard look at it. I’d take a hard look at it as well. I took a hard look at it before I decided to run.”
Jean-Pierre reiterated that voters will make up their own minds, saying, “We’re not going to change the minds of Americans. Americans are going to feel how they feel, and we respect that.”
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report from New York.