Can Joe Biden Recover From Anti-Trump Media Turning on Him?

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Special counsel Robert Hur’s report on Joe Biden has significantly worsened the headwinds facing the 81-year-old president when it comes to his age. Both Democratic voters and anti-Trump media have turned on him after its release, but will the new questions surrounding the viability of his reelection campaign be enough to take down his hopes for a second term?

Even as polls and press coverage are sounding the alarm, the president still has a chance to recover from the danger that the campaign has fallen into this last week. But experts say it’ll require him to make a serious change.

An ABC poll conducted days after Hur released his report on Biden’s handling of classified documents found that an overwhelming 86 percent of Americans think Biden is too old to serve another term, and 73 percent of Democrats agree.

While Hur declined to prosecute Biden, his report last week painted a picture of a forgetful commander-in-chief who has trouble recalling things like when he served as vice president. The special counsel also said that part of the reason he decided not to charge Biden was because the jury could be sympathetic to a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

In the six days since Hur released his report, a number of publications that have supported Biden and been critical of Donald Trump—including The Atlantic, The Nation, Politico, The New York Times and Minnesota’s Star Tribune—have published articles and op-eds casting doubt on the president’s ability to serve a second term. Even The View and The Daily Show have run segments suggesting another Democrat should take his place as the party’s 2024 nominee.

The last time Biden faced such widespread criticism was during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Images of the chaotic scene at Kabul’s airport, and the news that 13 service members had died in the hasty pullout, all played a part in sending Biden’s approval ratings to a low that he has never been able to fully recover from. But it’s still possible for the president to bounce back from Hur’s damaging report, partly thanks to Trump’s criminal indictments and civil lawsuits.

Given that Biden is running for reelection in “a rapid news cycle with former President Donald Trump in it,” political strategist Alex Patton told Newsweek, Biden could “potentially” recover. But to do so, he can’t make any more gaffes or suffer falls between now and November’s election.

Hur’s report has been so damaging, Patton said, because the president’s age is a “really easy for Americans to understand.” He said while Biden’s age may not as worrisome as something like Trump’s recent remark about abandoning NATO if he is sent back to the White House, an average voter is much more likely to have concerns about old age—especially when the president is caught stumbling over words and falling in public view—than to understand NATO’s mission or operations.

Damon Linker, a columnist for The Atlantic, wrote Tuesday: “If the prospect of a second Trump term really poses a dangerous threat to American democracy, why is the Democratic Party depending on an incumbent president with an approval number lower than Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, or even Trump himself were facing at the equivalent moment before their failed reelection bids?”

Linker urged the Democratic Party to “wake up” and abandon Biden as the presumptive nominee, warning that Hur’s report “confirmed what most of the country already believes: Biden is too old and frail for the job he holds right now.”

Biden and the White House have sharply criticized Hur’s report, and the president himself addressed the descriptions of his competency in remarks just hours after it was released.

He told reporters, “I am well meaning. And I’m an elderly man. And I know what the hell I’m doing. I’ve been president—I put this country back on its feet.” But those words do not seem to have been enough to stop the negative press that has targeted his 2024 campaign.

President Joe Biden is pictured in the Oval Office on February 9. Biden has faced growing concern, including from liberal media outlets, about his age after a special counsel’s report was released last week.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

A day earlier, The Nation said Biden needed to be “rescued from his most vocal supporters, who think they are lifeguards saving a drowning man but are in fact dragging him to the bottom of the ocean.”

A Politico article explained how Democrats could lay out a Plan B for their presidential nominee, arguing that even if the party is avoiding that discussion, “Hur’s report may have forced their hand.”

The Star Tribune published nine letters from readers who expressed their concerns about what Biden’s age means for his campaign, including one from a progressive Minneapolis voter who compared the president to a gifted athlete who “cannot accept that it is time to say goodbye.”

Crisis communications expert James Haggerty told Newsweek Biden’s campaign is now in “crisis” as it tries to run damage control by pushing back “against the notion that the president is elderly and forgetful, a shell of his former self, a man who is frail and confused, perhaps even deep in the throes of cognitive decline.”

But while the Biden campaign seeks to quash concerns that have been reignited by Hur’s report and the subsequent media coverage of it, Haggerty warned that those strategies could make matters worse.

He said while the campaign hopes that its defensive strategy will help make the criticisms about Biden’s age and mental fitness subside, “more often than not…it doesn’t blow over. It blows up.”

Haggerty said there’s still time for Biden to recover. He agreed with Patton that “there’s plenty of time between now and the election, especially given the public’s short attention span.” But the only way Biden will be able to do so is if he and his team “tackle the issue head-on,” he said.

“You have a chance to put this line of attack behind you. To say to the American public: “This is who I am, now let’s talk about what I’ve done,” Haggerty said.”The public will accept mistakes. They will accept being human. But what they will not accept is being played.”

He added: “It’s simple, really: The best way to change the perception that you’re hiding something is to stop acting like you’re hiding something.”

The New York Times editorial board appeared to echo those sentiments in an op-ed last Friday that disparaged Biden’s response to the report. It said that while the president wanted to reassure the public and blast Hur, “instead, the president raised more questions about his cognitive sharpness and temperament, as he delivered emotional and snappish retorts in a moment when people were looking for steady, even and capable responses to fair questions about his fitness.”

Haggerty called on Biden to abandon his current communication strategies, including an embrace of TikTok to appeal to younger voters, and find more effective ways to address the limitations of his age. He also urged Biden to sit down for a long interview where he could explain that his speech might be slower for his age while touting the strengths of his government experience and perspective in a way that Trump may not be able to.

Biden’s recent decision to join TikTok was slammed Monday night by Jon Stewart in his long-anticipated return to The Daily Show. The host wasted no time telling the president to “fire everyone” on his campaign and asked Biden’s team, “How do you go on TikTok and end up looking older?”

Last week, several co-hosts on The View suggested that Vice President Kamala Harris or California Governor Gavin Newsom should take Biden’s place. Host Alyssa Farah Griffin, a former Trump administration member who has since spoken out against the former president, emphasized that it’s “important” for the American public to know it would still be possible for someone else to replace Biden as the Democratic nominee.

After all, President Lyndon Johnson, who faced poor approval ratings at the end of his first term, didn’t announce until March 1968, an election year, that he would not seek a second term. Writing about Johnson’s dramatic exit last month in Time, historian Luke Nitcher said, “The lesson of history is that if [Biden] becomes convinced his re-election is in serious jeopardy, it would be better for him to make up some reason to step aside rather than go down to defeat.”

Patton said, “The frame of a feeble old man no longer up to the job versus a vibrant crook isn’t one the Biden administration wants to be in.”