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CLARENCE PAGE: Calls for Biden to exit race raise age-old question

It’s high anxiety time for the party of President Joe Biden, although that’s hardly a novel condition for Democrats.

Only a year before the 2024 election, the latest nervousness stems from a recent poll that finds Biden trailing Donald Trump in five of the six most important battleground states.

“And what makes these poll numbers particularly shocking,” as comedian Sarah Silverman said while guest-hosting on “The Daily Show,” “is that the man Biden is losing to is currently on trial in every jurisdiction in America.”

Well, not quite. Trump faces only 91 criminal indictments, along with legal challenges under the 14th Amendment questioning his ability to run again for office.

But misgivings about the likely Republican nominee’s court fights appeared to be largely overcome by worries about Biden’s age and his handling of the economy, according to the poll by The New York Times and Siena College.

The results show Biden losing to Trump by margins of 4 to 10 percentage points among registered voters in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania — all states that Biden won in 2020.

Biden came out ahead only in Wisconsin, by 2 percentage points, the poll found. Biden’s biggest liabilities with voters were his age and economic performance, particularly regarding inflation.

As problem issues go, inflation is one over which presidents, regardless of party, have less control than they’d like. Age is something none of us can control.

As a 70-something, I’m hardly alone in wondering why the age question is so often raised about the 80-year-old Biden while Trump, who is just three years younger, gets a pass.

If Biden wins the presidency next year, he’ll be the oldest person ever elected to the White House, it is often noted, but so would Trump. Yet Trump is not facing nearly the same scrutiny for his age despite the dueling out-of-context videos that pop up on YouTube claiming to show Biden and Trump stumbling in speech or over their own two feet.

But all is not lost, I tell my Dem friends. I remember similar partisan gloom in 2012 when a grueling debt-ceiling debate sent Barack Obama sliding in The New York Times polling from “modest favorite” to “slight underdog.”

Biden’s been there before, too. He appeared to be down and out after losing the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary in 2020, before his victory in South Carolina’s primary put him back in the race.

He was the oldest presidential winner ever when he beat Trump in 2020. Now, with a year to go before the next presidential election, he’s on track to secure his party’s nomination without much opposition so far, even as most of his own party thinks he’s too old for the job, according to an August poll by AP-NORC at the University of Chicago.

David Axelrod, the Democratic consultant-turned-CNN commentator who handled Obama’s presidential campaigns, recalled Monday on CNN how “We had lousy polling numbers in our (re-election) campaign in 2011 … and we overcame those numbers and we won.”

Still, as America deals with crises in Israel and Ukraine, Axelrod strongly suggested Biden should consider stepping aside because the stakes in these perilous times are so high. “The two things that are different are that Obama was 50 and not 81, and we didn’t have Donald Trump on the other side.”

Age, said Ax, is “something that I think he needs to ponder.” So do we all.

It’s hard for anyone after a lifetime of work to know when it’s time to hang it up. Biden is having to come to grips with that now. Whatever he decides, unlike the rest of us, he has to do it in front of an entire nation.

Contact Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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