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Doyle McManus: Our oldest president just turned 79. He might have something to learn from the second-oldest

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Joe Biden turned 79 last week. He’s beginning to look his age.

Joe Biden h/s

Biden

The president walks a little more stiffly now. His diction, once clear, sometimes sounds a little blurry. His syntax has always been ragged; that hasn’t changed.

President Joe Biden remains "healthy" and "vigorous" and fit for duty, but is showing some signs of aging, his doctor said Friday after the oldest president in American history underwent his first routine physical in office and in a history-making moment briefly transferred power to Vice President Kamala Harris while he underwent a colonoscopy.Vice President Harris, the first woman, first Black person and first person of South Asian descent to be vice president, was for one hour and 25 minutes acting president while President Biden was under anesthesia.Over more than five hours Friday at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the president underwent a battery of blood, physical, gastrointestinal, dental, vision and neurological examinations. Dr. Kevin O'Connor, who has been President Biden's primary care physician since 2009, wrote in a six-page memo released by the White House that President Biden, who turns 79 on Saturday, "remains a healthy, vigorous, 78-year-old male, who is fit to successfully execute the duties of the Presidency."O'Connor, however, revealed that he investigated President Biden for increased instances of "throat clearing" during public remarks and a stiffening of his gait. O'Connor reported that President Biden's coughing was the result of gastrointestinal reflux and that the stiffened gait was the result of a new diagnosis of "mild peripheral neuropathy," spinal arthritis and compensation for a broken foot sustained a year ago.Interest in President Biden's health has been high ever since he declared his candidacy for the White House in 2019 and remains intense as speculation about a 2024 reelection bid swirls. The visit to the medical center in the Washington suburbs was for his first routine physical exam as president and his first since December 2019.As part of the screening, President Biden underwent an "extremely detailed neurological exam" that ruled out stroke, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, but caught the neuropathy, which is nerve damage in the hands and feet. O'Connor said the most common cause of the condition is diabetes, but President Biden is not diabetic. The President, he said, would soon try custom orthotics to improve his gait.During the course of President Biden's colonoscopy a "benign-appearing polyp" of about 3 millimeters was identified and removed and would be studied over the coming week. O'Connor said President Biden has never had colon cancer.President Biden's reported body mass index classified him as slightly overweight, but his cholesterol was under control. President Biden, O'Connor said, is prescribed the anticoagulant Eliquis, the statin Crestor and the seasonal allergy spray Dymista, and regularly takes the over-the-counter allergy pill Allegra and the antacid Pepcid.O'Connor reported that President Biden does not use tobacco products or drink alcohol and that he exercises at least five days per week.Press secretary Jen Psaki said he resumed his duties after speaking with Vice President Harris and White House chief of staff Ron Klain at approximately 11:35 a.m.As President Biden left the medical center in the afternoon, he said he was feeling "Great!""Great physical and a great House of Representatives vote," he said, referring to the House passage of his roughly $2 trillion social and environmental agenda.After arriving back at the White House, he said "Nothing's changed" with his health, joking, "We're in great shape, and I'm looking forward to celebrating my 58th birthday."While serving as acting president Vice President Harris was working from her office in the West Wing, Psaki said. She later traveled to Ohio once President Biden awoke from the procedure.President Biden was keenly aware of the history he was making when he selected Vice President Harris to be his running mate, Psaki said, adding that she made "history every day" in the job."Today was certainly another chapter in that history I think that will be noted for women, young girls across the country," she added.During President Biden's last physical exam, doctors found the former vice president to be "healthy, vigorous" and "fit to successfully execute the duties of the Presidency," according to a doctor's report at the time.In that report, O'Connor said that since 2003, President Biden has had episodes of atrial fibrillation, a type of irregular heartbeat that's potentially serious but treatable. At the time, O'Connor cited a list of tests that showed President Biden's heart was functioning normally and his only needed care was a blood thinner to prevent the most worrisome risk, blood clots or stroke.President Biden had a brush with death in 1988, requiring surgery to repair two brain aneurysms, weak bulges

Like most of us, he gets tired at the end of a long day. At the U.N. climate summit in Scotland, he took his seat in the conference hall to hear the opening speeches and promptly appeared to doze off.

None of this appears to be clearly affecting his job. Last week he signed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, a feat his predecessor was unable to perform at the comparatively young age of 70. He’s in the middle of negotiations for the Senate version of his big social spending bill; if it passes, he’ll deserve much of the credit.

There’s no evidence that he’s suffering from senile dementia, no matter how often ghoulish critics stitch together video clips of his gaffes. They seem to have forgotten that Biden has generated gaffes for half a century.

And yet the president’s age still creates a political burden — one he doesn’t need at a time when many voters have turned sour on him.

Voters, especially elderly ones who notice their own faculties eroding, worry that someone as old as Biden won’t be able to do the job. He often faced that question when he began his third campaign for president in 2019. He often responded by challenging the questioners, including an 83-year-old Iowa farmer, to pushup contests.

Unlike a younger president, he has to demonstrate his continued competence every month. Unfair? Not really; the people he works for are entitled to ask.

And this is one place where Biden’s White House hasn’t served him especially well.

The president’s schedule on his six-day trip across Europe was brutal, with long days, meetings with dozens of other leaders, plus phone calls to Washington to corral congressional votes for his spending bills.

All important priorities — but one result was a picture of an exhausted president that went viral.

In a different context, the incident might have been trivial. CNN chivalrously found old footage of President Ronald Reagan dozing off during a meeting with the pope, which was arguably worse.

Ronald Reagan

Reagan

For a president whose last electoral opponent dubbed him “sleepy Joe Biden,” it wasn’t smart to appear in public as a real-life sleepy Joe Biden. If he needed to sit in that conference hall, he should have had an aide by his side ready to kick him under the table.

Despite his age and his quirks, Biden is undeniably good at many kinds of public events. He can deliver set-piece speeches well, especially when he restrains his urge to wander from the text.

He’s good at debates, town halls and news conferences, at least when he’s well-rested and well-prepared. In 2020, he won his only face-to-face debate with Donald Trump hands down.

At a CNN town hall last month, he delivered a solid sales pitch for his spending bills, although his syntax was sometimes tangled. He mangled his descriptions of policies on Taiwan and National Guard troops as truck drivers in ports; that was vintage Biden.

But he’s not as good off the cuff, or when he’s challenged with a question he views as hostile. And, as we saw in Europe, he’s not good when he’s tired.

This is one instance where Biden and his staff can learn a lesson from a successful Republican predecessor.

Reagan faced the age question during his reelection campaign in 1984, when he was only 73. In his debate against Democrat Walter F. Mondale, he dispelled the issue with a quip: “I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

More important, Reagan’s wife, Nancy, and his closest aide, Michael Deaver, imposed iron discipline on his schedule to ensure that when he was onstage, he always looked his best.

We now know that Reagan was contending with early stages of Alzheimer’s disease by the end of his presidency, but he found ways to compensate for his weaknesses. His actor’s discipline and his willingness to rely on strong aides enabled him to finish two terms strongly and win credit for bringing the Cold War near an end.

The times are different now, and so is the president.

Biden, who has long been known for a stubborn streak, doesn’t take stage directions as willingly as Reagan did.

“One thing I learned quickly,” a former aide told me. “You don’t tell Joe Biden what to say.”

But if he wants to complete his ambitious agenda — FDR-size domestic programs, a revamped foreign policy, and maybe even a reelection campaign when he’ll be almost 82 — it’s a practice he might consider learning.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com.(tncms-asset)ce22d262-8cb1-538f-9540-241deaf6d777[4](/tncms-asset)

Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com.

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