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Which came first, the Biden age concerns or the coverage of them?

It is immediately obvious why the White House pushed back as hard as it did on a draft of a report from special counsel Robert Hur summarizing his investigation into President Biden’s possession of classified materials. Hur’s report, both in draft and in its final release, suggested that Biden suffered from significant memory issues, a criticism that was ostensibly offered as a predicate for not filing criminal charges.

In part because the report otherwise offered little grist for discussion, Hur’s elevation of those memory issues has become a focus of news coverage. House Republicans looped his allegations into their ongoing effort to hobble Biden’s reelection chances. The recurring discussion of Biden’s acuity had a new peg — one that generated new criticism of the media’s coverage.

The Hur report’s assessment of Biden immediately brought to mind to many on the left the discussion of Hillary Clinton’s email server in the run-up to the 2016 election. Here again, it seemed, was a (Republican) government official exploring a subject that was politically damaging to a presidential candidate, just like then-FBI Director James B. Comey. And here again was a media willing to hype this issue that Americans wouldn’t otherwise care about.

But this is overly neat. Although there is a valid discussion to be had over the focus on Biden’s age and capacity, those concerns — which are common among voters — are not obviously media-driven.

That’s not to say it’s entirely organic. One of the first people to draw attention to Biden’s faculties before his 2020 presidential bid was Donald Trump. In early 2018, Trump began referring to Biden as “Sleepy Joe.” (Only recently did he abandon this for “Crooked Joe,” repurposing the pejorative he used for Clinton.) This may have been in part a function of Trump’s new focus on his own mental fitness.

Welcome to the race Sleepy Joe. I only hope you have the intelligence, long in doubt, to wage a successful primary campaign. It will be nasty – you will be dealing with people who truly have some very sick & demented ideas. But if you make it, I will see you at the Starting Gate!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 25, 2019

Trump’s nickname didn’t get much traction until Biden announced his candidacy in April 2019. That month, “Sleepy Joe” was mentioned more than 100 times on Fox News and — generally when quoting Trump — nearly 90 times on CNN and MSNBC combined. Over the next 19 months, Fox News would mention “Sleepy Joe” nearly 1,900 times. About 1 in 9 cable-news uses of “Sleepy Joe” since Trump developed the nickname were on Sean Hannity’s prime-time show.

That was also the point at which Biden’s age became a common topic of conversation, which wasn’t without cause. Biden was already 76, not quite two years younger than Ronald Reagan at the end of his second term. He entered a Democratic field in which he wasn’t even the oldest candidate: That title was held by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). As such, the Democratic nominating contest was quickly framed in generational terms.

Because the field was so crowded, the first debate took place in two parts. Biden was relegated to the second, facing off against former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), among others.

Swalwell, then 38, made repeated references to “generational” leadership. He addressed Biden on the point directly.

“I was 6 years old when a presidential candidate came to the California Democratic Convention and said, ‘It’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans,’” he said. “That candidate was then-Senator Joe Biden. Joe Biden was right when he said it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans 32 years ago. He’s still right today.”

In his closing comments, Buttigieg made a similar appeal: “Help me deliver that new generation to Washington before it’s too late.”

A few days later, Suffolk University released the results of a poll of Iowa voters. They determined that those who had watched the debate felt that Biden had performed the worst. Suffolk asked those who didn’t have Biden — the national front-runner — as their first or second pick why they chose another candidate. A plurality responded that Biden was too old or that they wanted someone younger.

Biden won the nomination, largely on the strength of his support among Black Americans and the perception that he was the party’s best bet for beating Trump. In early 2020, The Washington Post and our polling partners at ABC News asked Americans whether Biden and Trump had the “mental sharpness” to be president. Just over half said Biden did. Just under half said the same of Trump.

The 2020 campaign was unusual, but it wasn’t the case that Biden didn’t campaign. A Post analysis of each campaign’s events show dozens in the final weeks by both candidates. But Trump repeatedly insisted that Biden was hunkered down in his “basement” as he and his allies claimed that Biden was too mentally addled to engage in the campaign forcefully. Biden’s convention speech and debate performances served to effectively rebut those criticisms. Biden won the election.

Over the course of his presidency, The Post and ABC News have again asked Americans how they evaluate Biden’s and Trump’s mental sharpness. Views of Trump’s have improved since 2020. Views of Biden’s have declined consistently, including among members of his own party.

Polling from Pew Research Center, conducted more consistently over the course of Biden’s presidency, shows a steady decline in perceptions of Biden’s “mental sharpness.” He’s declined on other measures, too, predictably for a president whose overall approval rating has also dropped since he was first elected. But the 17-point decline on sharpness is the biggest drop by category.

There was not been substantially more coverage of Biden’s age from the beginning of his presidency until the 2022 midterms than there was from his 2019 announcement until the 2020 election. CNN and MSNBC were less likely to mention his age and mental fitness in an average month during the presidency than before it; Fox News was about equally likely to do so (though much more likely than CNN or MSNBC).

This is an imperfect proxy for media coverage of the issue, certainly. But it is a measure of it — and the decline in perceptions of Biden’s sharpness occurred with no measurable increase in cable-news chatter.

Since the midterms — and since Trump launched his 2024 candidacy — discussion of Biden’s age have increased dramatically. Both CNN and MSNBC are talking about Biden’s age and mental state more often each month on average than Fox News did before 2020. Fox News is talking about it more than twice as much as it did then.

Part of this is due to the fact that Biden is up for reelection — and that he’s four years older. Americans are quite aware of Biden’s age; polling conducted by YouGov last fall found that 6 in 10 Americans could guess Biden’s age to within two years. An 81-year-old embarking on a potential four-year commitment would raise questions in any circumstance, much less one as important as the presidency. Biden’s opponents, of course, are also happy to elevate those questions.

But they don’t only come from his opponents. An underrecognized aspect of questions about Biden’s age is that his party is heavily dependent on younger Americans. This was the pitch Swalwell and Buttigieg were making: not just that the party needed a new generation of leaders but that young Democratic voters didn’t need another older person running the country. There is a real and pervasive antipathy among younger Americans to the advanced age of political leaders, and Biden needs those younger Americans more than Trump does.

A number of things can be true … and, in this case, are. Some of the earliest attacks on Biden’s age came from Trump — and from the Democrats vying against him for the nomination. Democrats were expressing concern about Biden’s age even before the primaries began, but declining confidence in his mental sharpness came only after he was elected. The media has at times focused far more on this question than at others, but the aforementioned decline does not correlate neatly to that coverage.

Here the simplest answer is probably the correct one. Joe Biden is the oldest president in American history, and he wants to be elected to another term in office by a political party dependent on young voters. Hur’s report and the ensuing coverage aren’t helping him do that, but the problem existed even if Hur hadn’t written a thing.

correction

An earlier version of this column incorrectly referred to Pete Buttigieg as the former mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind. He is the former mayor of South Bend, Ind.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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