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At 79, Biden is testing the boundaries of age and the presidency

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Managing the schedule of the oldest president in American history presents challenges beyond what other administrations have faced.

PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) – When President Joe Biden leaves Tuesday (July 12) for a four-day swing through the Middle East, he will presumably be more rested than he would have been had he followed the original plan.

The trip was initially tacked onto another journey last month to Europe, which would have made for an arduous 10-day overseas trek until it finally became clear to Mr Biden’s team that such extended travel might be unnecessarily taxing for a 79-year-old president, or “crazy,” as one official put it.

Aides also cited political and diplomatic reasons to reorganise the extra stops as a separate trip weeks later.

But the reality is that managing the schedule of the oldest president in American history presents challenges beyond what other administrations have faced.

And as Mr Biden insists he plans to run for a second term, his age has increasingly become an uncomfortable issue for him, his team and his party.

Just a year and a half into his first term, Mr Biden is already more than a year older than Ronald Reagan was at the end of two terms.

If he mounts another campaign in 2024, Biden would be asking the country to elect a leader who would be 86 at the end of his tenure, testing the outer boundaries of age and the presidency.

Polls show many Americans are convinced that Mr Biden is too old, and some Democratic strategists do not think he should run again.

It is, unsurprisingly, a sensitive topic in the West Wing.

In interviews, some sanctioned by the White House and some not, a dozen current and former senior administration officials uniformly reported that Mr Biden remains intellectually engaged, asking smart questions at meetings, grilling aides on points of dispute, calling them late at night, picking out that weak point on Page 14 of a memo and rewriting speeches like his abortion statement on Friday right up until the last minute.

But they acknowledged that Mr Biden looks older than he did just a few years ago, a political liability that cannot be solved by traditional White House stratagems like a staff shake-up or new communications plan.

His energy level, while impressive for a man of his age, is not what it once was, and at least some aides quietly watch out for him.

He often shuffles when he walks, and aides worry he will trip on a wire.

He stumbles over words during public events, and they hold their breath to see if he makes it to the end without a gaffe.

Mr Biden has said questions about his fitness are reasonable to ask even as he reassures Americans that he is in good shape and up to the challenges of his office.

Even for some of his admirers, though, the question is whether that will last six or seven more years.

“Frankly, I think it’s a real risk,” Mr David Gergen, a top adviser to four presidents, told CNN anchor John Berman in a recent television appearance.

“I just turned 80 and I can just tell you, John, you lose a step. Your judgement is not quite as clear as it was. There are a variety of other things you can’t do much about.”

The president’s medical report in November indicated that he had atrial fibrillation but that it was stable.

Mr Biden’s “ambulatory gait is perceptibly stiffer and less fluid than it was a year or so ago,” the report said, and gastroesophageal reflux causes him to cough and clear his throat, symptoms that “certainly seem to be more frequent and more pronounced.”

But overall, Dr. Kevin C. O’Connor, the president’s physician, pronounced him “a healthy, vigorous 78-year-old male, who is fit to successfully execute the duties of the presidency.”

Questions about his fitness have nonetheless taken a toll on his public standing.

In a June survey by Harvard’s Centre for American Political Studies and the Harris Poll, 64 per cent of voters believed Mr Biden was showing that he is too old to be president, including 60 per cent of respondents who were 65 or older.

Mr Biden’s public appearances have fuelled that perception.

His speeches can be flat and listless.

He sometimes loses his train of thought, has trouble summoning names or appears momentarily confused.

More than once, he has promoted Vice President Kamala Harris, calling her “President Harris.”

Mr Biden, who overcame a childhood stutter, stumbles over words like “kleptocracy,” finally retreating to “bad guys” instead.

He has said Iranians when he meant Ukrainians.

Republicans and conservative media delight in highlighting such moments.

Mr Biden, of course, was famously prone to gaffes even as a younger man, and aides point to his marathon meetings with families of mass shooting victims or his working the rope line during a trip to Cleveland this past week as evidence of stamina.

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