Why Biden’s Attempt to Prove His Old-Age Vigor Failed — and Why Reagan’s Succeeded

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The glowing and somewhat oleaginous recent profile of President Joe Biden titled “Weightlifting, Gatorade, birthday calls: Inside Biden’s day” has justifiably attracted much sniggering from various conservative commentators at not only the Washington Post, which published this piece, but also at the liberal media’s general practice of fawning over Democratic politicians. As its title may suggest, the piece lauds the 78-year-old president’s daily health regimen, which involves his “lifting weights” and “[meeting] regularly in person with a trainer.” The piece even examines, with considerable interest, his use of a Peloton indoor-exercise bike.

Conservatives rolling their eyes at the liberal media’s gushing over Biden may nonetheless vaguely recall a similar feat orchestrated by President Ronald Reagan’s team to counter concerns over Reagan’s age and health. A 1983 cover of Parade magazine featuring the indelible image of President Reagan lifting weights comes to mind. That issue also contained a collection of photographs of the president engaging in strenuous exercise, such as woodchopping, and a cover story penned by President Reagan detailing his exercising habits and love for horseback riding and “hard manual labor at the ranch.” Time magazine summed up the intended message: “If a President pumps iron, his age seems moot.”

Though there’s a similarity here, the respective results of the Washington Post piece and the Parade magazine cover were quite different. Reagan’s Parade appearance won much positive media attention. But Biden’s Washington Post feature attracted derisive chuckles. One should be careful not to judge too much from comments sections. But a glance at the Washington Post’s for the Biden article reveals that liberals readers largely chose to read the article as a celebration of Biden’s “normalcy.” So even friendly readers missed the intended advertising of Biden’s physical health and vigor.

Why the different results? The obvious answer may be that President Reagan was in fact physically stronger and more energetic than President Biden is. In fact, it may not even be necessary to speculate directly about the two presidents’ physical conditions to answer this question.

Although both Biden’s and Reagan’s image problems ostensibly arose from their advanced ages, Biden’s image of feebleness comes from more than just that. Even in “Inside Biden’s Day,” the author concedes that President Biden’s schedule is “notably light,” albeit attributing that to “steadiness” instead of the lack of energy. While not devoid of his appeal as a kind, grandfatherly figure, President Biden is not known for any spectacular public-speaking capacity, and has famously committed a series of verbal gaffes. Though public-speaking skills are not directly linked to physical well-being, they are linked to the perception of one’s mental capacity, which correlates with the issue of health.

President Reagan, dubbed the “Great Communicator,” is particularly known for his ability in delivering engaging speeches and his energetic, genial persona. His gait was generally steady, and his speedy recovery from injuries caused by the attempt on his life in 1981 also contributed to a public image of almost-mystic invincibility.

President Reagan’s image of strength can even be traced back to his earlier career in show business, in which he had often been called upon to play roles that typified physical strength and tenacity, such as various military men.

In other words, a glowing profile highlighting President Reagan’s healthy lifestyle and physical vitality was effective in diminishing public concern over his health because it had merely reinforced the image of strength President Reagan had cultivated throughout his career in the public eye, such that the public perception of his observable strength outweighed any speculation of age-induced feebleness. The Biden team, however, did not have such an image to work on. President Biden’s practice of calling early “lids” during the presidential campaign, his tendency to commit verbal slips, and his general lack of demonstrated energy all make his publicists’ jobs tougher.

This is not to say that the Biden team had consciously attempted to emulate the Reagan team’s methods of bolstering the president’s image. But if President Biden does hope to cultivate for himself an image of strength and vitality, he should start by conveying strength directly through his actions and public appearances, instead of relying on his public-relations team to do the “weightlifting.”