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President Joe Biden holds a press conference about his meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping before the start of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Woodside, Calif., November 15, 2023. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

On the menu: Don’t expect the White House to make a big deal of it and remind everyone about one of Joe Biden’s biggest campaign liabilities, but yesterday was the president’s 81st birthday. NBC News greeted the president with a new poll showing him trailing Trump nationally and his approval rating hitting the lowest number ever recorded in its survey. Even young voters, traditionally a demographic that Democrats win handily, appear surprisingly split about their options in a Biden–Trump rematch. Finally, former Obama chief strategist David Axelrod warns that Biden’s odds in a matchup with Trump are less than 50–50, and that, as Hillary Clinton did in 2016, Biden is relying on Trump’s odiousness to put him over the top — an unsafe bet. And if Axelrod is saying that publicly, how likely is it that former president Obama concurs privately?

Over the past few weeks, when referring to Biden I’ve often written, “The president, who turns 81 in November, is . . .” Particularly over at that other publication, there are readers who grumble in the comments that mentioning his age is a not-so-subtle shot at Biden. But it’s just a fact. Whether you like hearing it or not, Biden is now past the big eight-oh.

And that insistence that it is somehow inherently unfair or out of line to mention the president’s age sums up the impasse the Democrats are facing. The president will face the voters within a few weeks of turning 82. Making this true statement is thought to be somehow mean or out of bounds — even though we know that Biden’s age and ability to perform his duties are front and center in the public’s mind. Just 34 percent of Americans think Biden will actually finish his second term if reelected.

Nor is this a reflection of the power of Fox News or “the right-wing spin machine” or any other bogeyman that Democrats prefer to scapegoat. A national poll conducted by Monmouth last month found that 76 percent of Americans, including 56 percent of Democrats, think Biden is too old to serve another term. That is about as close to a broad, bipartisan consensus as you can find these days.

The electorate’s wariness about Biden’s aging is likely rooted in people’s real-life experiences. Almost every American has seen a grandparent or parent succumb to the ravages of age. We know that some people age well and retain their health and mental sharpness as they get older, while some don’t; and sometimes those who lose their acuity decline rapidly. In Biden, lots of Americans see lots of reasons to worry — the light schedule; the rarity of sit-down interviews; the sudden angry outbursts; the odd, confused, and erratic behavior at public events; the shuffling feet and occasional falls; the meandering stories, with his voice trailing off; and the frequent off-the-cuff declarations that his own staff won’t allow him to answer questions. He’s not the same man he was when he was vice president or senator, and we can all see it.

Very few of us are at the top of our game at age 81. You have to live as long as Henry Kissinger to think of your eighties as “the good old days.”

Back in June, the New York Times reported that the president’s “staff schedules most of his public appearances between noon and 4 p.m. and leaves him alone on weekends as much as possible.” From this it is reasonable to surmise that Biden probably has 20, maybe 30 good hours in him each week. Anything beyond that is an open question. Maybe Biden will be sharp, maybe he won’t. Maybe an overseas trip will tire him out for three days, as his Ireland trip did.

We’ve all just sort of accepted that Biden can’t be a full-time president, and that it’s normal for a president to operate in public only in the middle of the day, with the occasional foreign trip or State of the Union address. This is how it’s possible, as Charlie Cooke observed, for Politico’s Jonathan Martin to casually declare that “Biden will not be able to govern and campaign in the manner of previous incumbents,” that “he simply does not have the capacity to do it, and his staff doesn’t trust him to even try,” and then write about how Biden can maximize his odds for reelection.

A presidential campaign can spin a lot of things, but it’s extremely difficult to spin what’s right there in front of us — on the president’s face, in his walk, in his words — every time we see him or hear him. Minimizing the amount of time that the president is in front of the cameras or giving unscripted remarks is just a quiet confirmation that age is taking its toll. It is not a problem about the perception of reality, it is a problem of reality.

And the astonishing thing is, this is arguably the single most predictable problem that any president has ever faced. All you needed to see it coming was a calendar.

For several years now, on those rare occasions when Biden has taken questions and been asked about voters’ concerns about his age, he has usually responded with a grin, confidently daring the skeptics, “Watch me.” Well, the American people have watched him, and they’ve decided he’s too old to do the job for another four years. This doesn’t mean they’re automatically going to vote for the Republican alternative, but they’re really looking around for a better option. (Yesterday’s new NBC News poll indicated that any Republican but Trump beats Biden by eleven percentage points, and any Democrat but Biden beats Trump by eight percentage points. Both parties are bizarrely hell-bent on nominating the least-popular option they can offer.)

Back in 2019, Biden himself reportedly signaled to aides that he would serve only a single term. There was a lot of talk back then about Biden being a bridge to a new generation of Democratic leaders, and more than a little of that talk came from Biden himself. “Look, I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else,” Biden said at a March 9, 2020, campaign rally with Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Gretchen Whitmer. “There’s an entire generation of leaders you saw stand behind me. They are the future of this country.” (Looking back at historical events from early March 2020 feels like watching events from the first ten days of September 2001. The world’s about to suddenly change, and nobody on screen knows it.)

But Biden clearly hasn’t been a “bridge” to anyone or anything. If you wanted Biden to be a transitional president, then the work of preparing the American public for President Kamala Harris would’ve had to start much earlier.

Democrats seem to genuinely believe that democracy is at stake in 2024 — that if Donald Trump wins, the United States will cease to exist as we have known it and will turn into something meaner, darker, and irrevocably broken. (Reelecting Trump would, indeed, represent a de facto endorsement of his stolen-election claims; it would amount to saying to the world that Trump’s actions leading up to January 6 were not disqualifying for leadership of the free world.)

And yet Democrats are deliberately choosing to bet it all on the long-term health and mental acuity of an 81-year-old president and the popularity of Harris.

You can argue that Biden and his team were dealt a difficult hand, but almost every president gets one, and there’s considerable evidence that the Biden administration played it badly.

One detail in that NBC News poll offers a good lesson in the political limits of cynicism:

The erosion for Biden is most pronounced among Democrats, a majority of whom believe Israel has gone too far in its military action in Gaza, and among voters ages 18 to 34, with a whopping 70% of them disapproving of Biden’s handling of the war.

“I do not support his support of Israel,” said Meg Furey, 40, a Democrat from Austin, Texas.

“Failed promises, student loans, foreign policy in general,” said Democrat Zico Schell, 23, of San Diego, when asked why he disapproves of Biden’s job performance.

Biden unilaterally enacted his student-loan-forgiveness program and dared the Supreme Court to strike it down as an unconstitutional stretch of the president’s emergency powers. The president and his team believed that if the Court struck down the program, Chief Justice John Roberts and company would get the blame and young voters would appreciate Biden for trying. Hasn’t really worked out that way! In fact, in that survey released yesterday, “Trump holds a slight advantage within the margin of error in the survey among voters ages 18 to 34 (46 percent to 42 percent) — a reversal from past election results and past NBC News polls.”

Hey, fellas, maybe it’s better to not unrealistically raise hopes and expectations in the first place. Maybe it’s wiser in the long run to play it straight with voters about what is politically possible from the start.

This weekend, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote about Axelrod and his public warnings to Democrats. In his bluntest assessment, he told her: “I think he has a 50–50 shot here, but no better than that, maybe a little worse. 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.”

Dowd added, “The president’s flash of anger indicates that he may be in denial, surrounded by enablers who are sugarcoating a grim political forecast.”

Axelrod is a canary in the Democratic Party’s coal mine, free to publicly express doubts that elected officials feel obligated not to mention. It is unlikely that Axelrod is deliberately communicating some sort of warning from Obama-world, but if the former president thought that Axelrod was harming Biden and the Democrats with his public skepticism about the incumbent president’s odds, he could always call up his old friend and former chief strategist and say, “Hey, knock it off, you’re kicking Biden when he’s down. We’re all behind Joe, and he’s going to be fine.”

It seems reasonable to conclude Obama hasn’t done that.