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What Biden's physical means for a 2024 White House run

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

On the day he was sworn into office, President Biden was the oldest president in U.S. history. If he runs for re-election and wins a second term, he will be 86 years old at the end of it. Now, Biden is active and healthy for his age, as his physical this week demonstrated. But as NPR's Scott Detrow reports, many voters say his age is still a concern.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Sarah Longwell spends a lot of time speaking to swing voters. The Republican strategist conducts regular focus groups and often talks to people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, then flipped to Biden four years later.

SARAH LONGWELL: They're pro-Biden. They like Biden. And in our most recent focus group, they liked the State of the Union.

DETROW: And yet, over and over and over again, when voters talk about the next presidential election...

LONGWELL: Immediately, when they start thinking about 2024, the first place that they go is his age. They are simply worried that he is too old for another term. People know how old he is, generally. They understand that he's in his 80s. I've had a lot of people say things like, well, you know, he's going to be closer to 90 at the end of his second term than 80.

DETROW: Longwell talked to a group of nine Biden voters after last week's State of the Union. Two-thirds said they didn't want him to run.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I don't think so, for me. I mean, just because of his - you know, I hate to say it and sound like, you know, an ageist, but, you know, his age is getting really up there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They've - I agree with David, and it's...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You know, do we want to elect a president and then have him die in office?

DETROW: A woman on the panel was quick to agree.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Give that man a break.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You know, it's...

DETROW: Recent polls show only a third of Democrats want Biden to run again, and Biden's political opponents are increasingly making age an attack line. Here's former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley announcing her run for president this week and taking a dig at both Biden and 76-year-old Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKKI HALEY: And mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years old.

(CHEERING)

DETROW: Biden's response to all of this is often, watch me.

KATE BEDINGFIELD: The test of whether the president is capable of being president is watching the president be president.

DETROW: Kate Bedingfield is the White House communications director. She's confident Biden's track record can overcome any concerns voters have. And, she argues, there's a flip side to Biden's half-century in office.

BEDINGFIELD: Look, I - you know, I think we live in a volatile world. We live in a chaotic world. And I think people are looking for stability and strong leadership, and I think that experience and wisdom is part of that.

DETROW: Still, there's all those polls and focus groups raising the age question. S. Jay Olshansky is a public health professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

S JAY OLSHANSKY: Absolutely, it's a fair question - no question about it. You know, once you get up into that age range, the risks are high that something can go wrong.

DETROW: Olshansky has researched presidents and aging and found that, despite the stress of the job, they actually live longer-than-average lives.

OLSHANSKY: The good news is that we don't die from gray hair and wrinkled skin.

DETROW: Biden, who's faced a lifelong stutter, often stumbles during speeches. Biden's physicals note his gait has gotten stiffer over the years, due in part to a foot injury.

OLSHANSKY: The real question is not the shuffling - it's his cognitive functioning. And will that change? And I don't know the answer to that, and I don't think anybody else does either. And my general philosophy is is that, if the cognitive functioning is fine, you can't draw conclusions about what might happen after the election.

DETROW: Olshansky says what stood out to him from this week's physical is how consistent it is to previous years' medical reports. He says all factors point to Biden living a very long life.

Biden's team thinks about the age question the same way they think about his underwater approval ratings. In the end, they argue, the next campaign will be a choice - not a referendum held in a vacuum. And they bet Biden voters worried about age will end up more worried about Trump-style Republican politics. Biden has a go-to quote from his father he likes to use.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: He'd say, Joey, don't compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative.

DETROW: Indeed, even though just three of the voters in that focus group said they wanted Biden to run again, when asked who they'd vote for in a Biden-versus-Trump election, all nine raised their hand for Biden.

Scott Detrow, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.