Aides let President Biden take the shorter staircase to board Air Force One. When it comes to press conferences, they shout loudly – and quickly – to end the questions, sometimes adopting a classic awards show tactic and playing loud music to signal the conclusion of the event. And forget the regular interviews with major news publications, including a traditional presidential sit-down on Super Bowl Sunday.
Over the years, some of Mr. Biden’s key aides have gone from allowing “Joe to be Joe” to wrapping him in a presidential cocoon designed to protect him from verbal gaffes and physical stumbles.
All presidents are shielded by the limitations of the office, but for Mr. Biden, who at 81 is the oldest person in history to hold the office, the decision is not only situational but also strategic, according to several people familiar with the Dynamics are familiar. The isolation of his White House reflects concerns among some of his top aides that Mr. Biden, always prone to gaffes, is at risk of making a mistake.
These risks were starkly highlighted in this week’s events.
After a special counsel report into Mr Biden’s handling of classified documents was released on Thursday, the president was furious at the way it was portrayed, viewing the report as a partisan and personal attack that depicted one of the worst experiences of his life included – his death of son Beau.
His staff discussed options, including whether they should wait a day to respond. In the end, however, the president chose to answer questions from reporters gathered in a random scrum rather than at a formal news conference.
Helpers tried several times to break up the crowd. But Mr. Biden kept talking and vigorously defended his memory.
He also made mistakes. As he walked toward the door, the president turned back to ask a question about the war in Gaza. He criticized Israel’s campaign against Hamas as an “excessive” operation that had led to human suffering in the besieged strip.
He described his work urging other leaders in the region to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza. But then he confused Mexico and the Middle East while remembering the negotiations.
It wasn’t the only mistake.
At campaign events this week, he confused dead European leaders with their living counterparts and said he had spoken to François Mitterrand, the former French president who died in 1996, and Helmut Kohl, the former German chancellor who died in 2017.
Amid criticism and concern over his words, some of those closest to Mr Biden – including Jill Biden, the first lady – are concerned that the presidency could weigh on him. A small number of aides close to the first couple are diligently monitoring Mr. Biden’s schedule, working out the finest details, down to the particulars of a motorcade route.
Mr. Biden has given fewer interviews and held fewer news conferences than any of his predecessors since President Ronald Reagan, prompting criticism that a president who promised “transparency and truth” early in his term has not done enough to give Americans his Explain decisions, particularly regarding foreign policy.
Even the way Mr. Biden walks to the presidential plane is carefully controlled. After tripping and falling over a sandbag at an inaugural ceremony last summer, the president began taking a short flight of stairs straight into the belly of Air Force One instead of using a high staircase that led up to a higher point on the plane. When he gets out, a Secret Service agent is standing at the bottom of the stairs. (Mr. Biden’s immediate predecessor, 77-year-old Donald J. Trump, often took the short flight of stairs in bad weather.)
White House officials have not said when Mr. Biden will receive another physical exam. The most recent was performed nearly a year ago by Kevin C. O’Connor, the president’s longtime physician, who declared his then 80-year-old patient “healthy” and “vigorous.”
Outside the White House, Mr. Biden’s allies worry about the optics of his appearance, which has become a breeding ground for conservative attacks and online memes. And the problem isn’t just partisan; A recent NBC News poll shows that half of Democratic voters say they have concerns about Mr. Biden’s mental and physical health.
His gait is somewhat faltering, a trait that several people close to the White House say is due in part to his refusal to wear an orthopedic boot after suffering a hairline fracture in his foot before taking office.
Still, aides say Mr. Biden will continue to increase the number of appearances that allow him to interact directly with the public, including unscheduled visits to restaurants and stores.
The White House dismissed concerns about the president’s mental capacity.
Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman, said in an email that Mr. Biden is “traveling the country at an aggressive pace.” He added that Mr. Biden was using “interviews, speeches and innovative digital events” to convey his message.
Democrats who have spent time with Mr. Biden in smaller settings, including fundraisers, private meetings and roundtables after events, say he remains sharp – even combative.
Jay Jacobs, the chairman of the New York State Democratic Party, said Mr. Biden recently spoke at a fundraiser without notes and touched on a range of topics, including foreign policy and the risks of the election. After the event, the President asked Mr. Jacobs detailed questions about the special election for a House seat in New York’s Third Congressional District.
“The characterization I’m seeing right now is just unfair,” Mr. Jacobs said. “Yes, his voice can sound older. That is beyond question. But I can tell you from my personal conversations with him that this guy did his best.”
Mr Biden’s allies say there is no evidence he is unfit for office and that the coverage of his mistakes – and his age – do not compare to the substance of the things he has done right.
“I care about the campaign,” said Robert Wolf, a longtime Democratic donor who attended one of Mr. Biden’s fundraisers in Manhattan on Wednesday. “I care about legislation. I care about the people he has around him. I don’t care if he makes a mistake between the Middle East and someone’s name.”
Mr. Wolf said that at the end of a long day of headlining campaign events in New York City on Wednesday evening, Mr. Biden grabbed a microphone and privately answered about a half-dozen questions from a group of donors, mostly focused on foreign policy.
Others point to the president’s accomplishments and say it’s time for Democrats to stop attacking him – or harboring quiet hopes that someone will replace him on the ballot – and get behind his candidacy.
“I’m not going to tell voters to ignore the president’s age. The age of an elected official and a candidate for office is an important consideration,” said Rep. Jake Auchincloss, a Democrat who represents a suburb of Boston. “But I will encourage them to consider his full profile and track record, everything he brings to the table.”
Mr Biden’s allies also say the president’s legislative achievements, from a bipartisan infrastructure bill to a measure to boost semiconductor production in the United States, are a testament not only to his mental acuity but also to his ability to to negotiate decisive – and not predetermined – negotiations. moments.
“Republicans would have loved to come out of these meetings and say, ‘We’d really like to get something done, but unfortunately this guy doesn’t remember anything,'” said Jesse Lee, who worked in communications until November on the White House’s National Economic Council house. “It’s not like there’s a sacred cone of silence that, you know, is never broken, except in this case.”
Doug Mills contributed reporting.