The Complicated Reality of Joe Biden, America’s Oldest President

There was the time last winter when President Biden was awakened at 3 a.m. while on a trip to Asia and told that a missile had struck Poland, touching off a panic that Russia might have expanded the war in Ukraine to a NATO ally. Within hours in the middle of the night, Mr. Biden consulted his top advisers, called the president of Poland and the NATO secretary general, and gathered fellow world leaders to deal with the crisis.

And then there was the time a few weeks ago when the president was hosting children for Take Your Child to Work Day and became mixed up as he tried to list his grandchildren. “So, let me see. I got one in New York, two in Philadelphia — or is it three? No, three, because I got one granddaughter who is — I don’t know. You’re confusing me.” He also drew a blank when asked the last country he had visited and the name of a favorite movie.

The two Joe Bidens coexist in the same octogenarian president: Sharp and wise at critical moments, the product of decades of seasoning, able to rise to the occasion even in the dead of night to confront a dangerous world. Yet a little slower, a little softer, a little harder of hearing, a little more tentative in his walk, a little more prone to occasional lapses of memory in ways that feel familiar to anyone who has reached their ninth decade or has a parent who has.

The complicated reality of America’s oldest president was encapsulated on Thursday as Congress approved a bipartisan deal he brokered to avoid a national default. Even Speaker Kevin McCarthy testified that Mr. Biden had been “very professional, very smart, very tough” during their talks. Yet just before the voting got underway, Mr. Biden tripped over a sandbag at the Air Force Academy commencement, plunging to the ground. The video went viral, his supporters cringed and his critics pounced.

Anyone can trip at any age, but for an 80-year-old president, it inevitably raises unwelcome questions. If it were anyone else, the signs of age might not be notable. But Mr. Biden is the chief executive of the world’s most powerful nation and has just embarked on a campaign asking voters to keep him in the White House until age 86, drawing more attention to an issue that polls show troubles most Americans and is the source of enormous anxiety among party leaders.

The portrait that emerges from months of interviews with dozens of current and former officials and others who have spent time with him lies somewhere between the partisan cartoon of an addled and easily manipulated fogy promoted by Republicans and the image spread by his staff of a president in aviator shades commanding the world stage and governing with vigor.

It is one of a man who has slowed with age in ways that are more pronounced than just the graying hair common to most recent presidents during their time in office. Mr. Biden sometimes mangles his words and looks older than he used to because of his stiff gait and thinning voice.

Yet people who deal with him regularly, including some of his adversaries, say he remains sharp and commanding in private meetings. Diplomats share stories of trips to places like Ukraine, Japan, Egypt, Cambodia and Indonesia in…

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