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Biden's rough week highlights his biggest vulnerability — one he can't change

President Biden delivers remarks in White House on Feb. 8, 2024 in Washington, D.C. Biden addressed the special counsel's report on his handling of classified material and the status of the war in Gaza.
Nathan Howard
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Getty Images
President Biden delivers remarks in White House on Feb. 8, 2024 in Washington, D.C. Biden addressed the special counsel's report on his handling of classified material and the status of the war in Gaza.

When President Biden is the focus and not Donald Trump, it's generally not a good thing for the president and his reelection prospects.

That's because, like Trump, Biden has glaring vulnerabilities. His biggest one was front and center this week: concerns about his age.

The special counsel report about Biden's handling of classified material didn't charge him with a crime, but special counsel Robert Hur, a Republican, seemed to go out of his way to include damning commentary about Biden's supposedly faulty memory, like referencing that Biden, 81, "did not remember, even within several years, when his son Beau died."

That was stinging.

"It clears him legally and kneecaps him politically," Paul Begala, a veteran Democratic strategist and former Bill Clinton adviser, said of the report.

Biden slips up while defending himself

The 388-page report set off a political firestorm — and an ensuing clumsy response from the White House and the president himself.

Biden angrily rejected Hur's claim, saying Thursday night in a press conference he felt questions about Beau weren't "any of their damn business."

The president got choked up while showing a rosary he was wearing on his wrist in memory of Beau, then thundered, "I don't need anyone to remind me when he passed away."

If Biden had left it at that, that might be what people remembered about the news conference.

Instead, Biden wound up walking right into the stereotype laid out by Hur when he mistakenly said that President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi of Egypt was the "president of Mexico" while answering a question about current hostage negotiations with Israel and Hamas.

How the report fed into an existing narrative

It's a mistake. Verbal slips happen. Everyone makes them — including Trump, who is only four years younger than Biden. Trump often meanders, recently appeared to confuse his primary opponent Nikki Haley for former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; on more than half a dozen occasions in the past year mistakenly referred to former President Barack Obama when he should have said Biden; and while in Iowa, called "Sioux City" "Sioux Falls," which is 90 miles up the road in South Dakota.

But because more Americans are concerned with Biden's age and fitness to do the job in a second term than they are about Trump's age, every time Biden makes a flub it will have more resonance politically.

"It's certainly true that anything that feeds the master negative narrative is especially harmful," Begala said. "For [Bill] Clinton, it was cheating, for [George W.] Bush, it was 'dumb,' Obama 'elitist,' which is why when Obama said 57 states, it didn't hurt him. If it was Bush, it would have."

"Obviously with Biden, it's 'old.' So, this really really hurts him."

At the White House Friday, Vice President Kamala Harris defended the Biden she sees out of public view, including after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel when Biden sat for hourslong depositions with Hur.

"I was in almost every meeting with the president in the hours and days that followed," Harris said, noting that Biden "was in front of it all, coordinating and directing leaders who are in charge of America's national security, not to mention our allies around the globe for days and up until now — months. So the way that the president's demeanor in that report was characterized could not be more wrong on the facts and clearly politically motivated, gratuitous."

"Fair or not, this just amplified Biden's greatest challenge," David Axelrod, a former senior adviser in the Obama White House, said of the special counsel report. "It screams through every poll and focus group."

Axelrod went viral back in November for raising whether it was "wise" for Biden to run for reelection after a series of swing-state polls showed him losing to Trump.

"Many people have made a judgment about his age and command and discount his accomplishments and attribute every problem to it," Axelrod said.

That rankles the White House. Democrats don't have a clear idea about how to handle the Biden age question or how to package the oldest president in history as a candidate. He's not likely to do lots of live TV interviews or massive campaign rallies. And his age raises the stakes for every public appearance, like his State of the Union address in less than a month.

Where Biden has an opening against Trump

Certainly, the pandemic may have conditioned voters to not expect a candidate to do as many events and large rallies as in past elections. That could give the Biden team an opportunity to think creatively about playing to his strengths, in small groups, like when he went to a cookout in North Carolina and went viral.

Plus, the economic environment has gotten less dire, Biden is a recognizable brand, and, most importantly, he has an opponent who is, in many surveys, more disliked than Biden and facing much more serious legal troubles.

Hur himself pointed out in his report that what Trump is alleged to have done with his handling of classified documents dwarfs anything Biden did.

"Unlike the evidence involving Mr. Biden," Hur wrote, "the allegations set forth in the indictment of Mr. Trump, if proven, would present serious aggravating facts. Most notably, after being given multiple chances to return classified documents and avoid prosecution, Mr. Trump allegedly did the opposite. According to the indictment, he not only refused to return the documents for many months, but he also obstructed justice by enlisting others to destroy evidence and then to lie about it."

The bottom line is that Trump might not have been charged either if he'd just given the stuff back.

But instead, the whole ordeal highlights why Trump is also so vulnerable politically. He apparently felt the rules didn't apply to him, that the boxes upon boxes of classified documents found at his home in Florida should be his to keep and allegedly hid them on purpose and chose not to fully cooperate.

It's emblematic of why so many see Trump as a threat to democracy. He lied to the country to try to stay in power and schemed to overturn an election he lost, convincing millions falsely that the election was stolen and is using it as fuel for another run.

Not a revelation to voters, but a warning for the campaign

So with nine months to go until Election Day, it's doubtful that the Hur report and Biden's Mexico-Egypt flub was a turning point in the campaign.

"The president's age is not a surprise to anyone," said Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Hillary Clinton. "It's not a new data point. He was elected comfortably as a 77-year-old man four years ago. So, in many ways, it's baked in. People are not coming to Joe Biden seeking youthful vigor — he's been at an advanced age since he was elected vice president 16 years ago. The country turned to him in 2020 to lower the temperature and restore some normalcy, and that's happened broadly speaking."

Many Democrats would prefer someone else at the top of the ticket in 2024, and there's a deep Democratic bench of possibilities. But there's no sign that Biden is stepping aside because, frankly, he doesn't seem to want to.

The Biden campaign has stepped up attacks on Trump in recent weeks, but outside groups supporting him spent more than $50 million in 2023, mostly on ads touting Biden's accomplishments, like efforts to lower insulin prices, pass a child care tax credit and to push for renewable energy.

And his approval ratings have only gone down.

Biden was elected because of Trump (and his botched handling of the COVID pandemic). Begala said he hopes this week makes Biden and his team sharpen their focus and get fully into an anti-Trump campaign mode, because fundamentally, the frame of this election hasn't changed.

The question remains, what matters more: Biden's age or a dislike of Trump?

"It's got to be all about Trump," Begala said. "It's the only way. The only way is a wholeheartedly negative campaign."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.