Former US President Donald Trump praised Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán for his leadership in Turkey and confused Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi. Current American President Joe Biden mentioned deceased European leaders when describing his contemporaries and referred to Egypt as Mexico.
These episodes could have raised parallel concerns about age and mental capacity. However, while Biden, 81, has been increasingly questioned by doubts and concerns about his advanced age, Trump, 77, is not facing the same political impact.
The answer suggests profound differences not just between the two men, but in how they are perceived by the American public and what their supporters expect of them — a divide that could play an important role in the upcoming presidential election.
In a New York Times/Siena College poll of six key states, an overwhelming majority of voters said they had serious concerns about Biden’s age, with 70% saying he is too old to be president. Less than half of voters expressed similar concerns about Trump.
“While we know both candidates are three and a half years apart, one side seems to be more concerned about this,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin.
Some of this comes down to basic physical differences. Biden’s voice became softer and huskier, his hair thinner and whiter. He is tall and thin, but he moves more cautiously than when he was a candidate in 2019 and 2020, often keeping his upper body rigid, which gives the impression of fragility. And he’s had falls in public: falling off his bike, tripping over a sandbag.
Trump, on the other hand, does not appear to be suffering the effects of time in such visible ways. The former president often dyes his hair and appears to be tanning. He is burly and tall, and uses his physical size to project strength in front of crowds.
When he takes the stage at rallies, Trump bathes in adulation for several minutes, dancing to an opening song, and then gives speeches — filled with macho and bombastic rhetoric — that often last more than an hour in a show of resistance.
“It’s the perception of how you communicate,” said Carol Kinsey Goman, speaker and leadership presence coach. “When Trump makes mistakes, he just ignores it, and people don’t say, ‘Oh, he’s getting old’. He makes as many mistakes as Joe Biden, but he does it with bravado, not senility. It looks like passion.”
Regarding Biden, Goman said the lapses “look like weakness.” It’s difficult to go beyond public perception to compare the two men’s physical health. Democrats and some Republicans said Biden remains sharp in private conversations. Biden and Trump have released limited medical information.
Nearly a year ago, the White House released a letter from Biden’s longtime doctor describing him as a “healthy, vigorous man in his 80s” after a physical exam. In November, Trump released a vague health report describing his condition as “excellent.”
Democrats and Biden supporters say the two men are held to different standards. Last week, the president was forced to publicly defend his mental capacity after a special counsel report cited evidence that he may have intentionally withheld classified documents.
The counselor wrote in the report that he would not recommend charges, in part because Biden would likely appear to the jury as “a friendly, well-intentioned elderly man with a bad memory.” He said, for example, that the Democrat had difficulty remembering the date his son Beau died.
When Biden gathered reporters to dispute aspects of the report and angrily denounce claims about his memory and mental state, he also answered questions about the Middle East — and confused Egypt with Mexico.
Trump also faced questions about his health and fitness for office. He is prone to long, incoherent speeches and slip-ups. He suggested he defeated Barack Obama, not Hillary Clinton, in the 2016 presidential election, and warned that the country is on the brink of World War II. While in office, he was seen walking with difficulty down a ramp and struggling to hold a glass of water.
While Biden acknowledged that voters’ concerns about his age were reasonable, Trump responded to these episodes with his typical hyperbole. In 2015, he released a hastily written medical note declaring that, if elected, he would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the Presidency.” In office, amid news reports about his erratic behavior, Trump asserted that he was actually a “very stable genius.”
Today, he regularly mocks Biden for his age while boasting about having done well on a test that detects cognitive decline. Trump’s responses point to a basic asymmetry of expectations that appears to be working in his favor: His impulsiveness and willingness to go off script in ways that can be confusing only add to his image as an unvarnished agent of chaos, a key source of his popularity among Republicans.
Biden’s verbal mistakes, on the other hand, undermine the image of experience, competence and professionalism that carried him to election, and which even his supporters silently fear is being lost.
Henry Barbour, a Republican strategist based in Mississippi, said he thought Americans were simply responding to what they saw and heard. “Donald Trump is not a young man, but he appears to be, for the most part, at the top of his game,” he said. “Is he what he was five or ten years ago? I’m sure not. Any 78-year-old person would tell you that.”
But it’s different with Biden, Barbour said. “I don’t think you can compare the two,” he said. “Clearly, the American people are uncomfortable with Joe Biden remaining president solely because of what is happening before his eyes.”
Barbour supported Nikki Haley, Trump’s last Republican challenger, but is prepared for Trump to be the Republican nominee and face Biden. “It’s painful for the American people that these are both options,” he said.