President Biden’s age is on the minds of American voters as they think about the 2024 election. It’s no wonder: In a poll I did last year, there was broad support (63 percent of Democrats, 55 percent of Republicans and 61 percent of independents) for establishing an upper age limit of 70 for any person to be sworn in as president. This past July, a Pew Research Center survey found that about half of respondents believed the best age range for a U.S. president was in the 50s — well below Mr. Biden’s 80 and Donald Trump’s 77.
As a pollster and strategist who has been involved in four Democratic presidential campaigns, including Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012, I don’t believe that age will determine this election. But it is a formidable reality that Mr. Biden and his team must deal with and transcend, just as Ronald Reagan did at age 73 in his 1984 re-election race. Mr. Reagan passed that test, removing age as a distraction for his campaign and voters and making the contest about “morning in America,” our economic turnaround and our leadership in the world. The 2024 election is going to hinge similarly on core issues and a vision that speaks directly to the lives and hopes of voters.
Getting past the age question won’t be easy. It will involve persuading voters in memorable ways and will require a deft touch. But this is a winnable race for the president, even if it sometimes seems his team is shielding him from the public. The fact is, he’s old. A failure to confront the issue risks reinforcing that impression rather than overcoming it. Americans will be watching him closely in big moments, like his trip to Israel this week to deal with one of the most significant crises of his presidency. The Biden team needs to get the president out in front of the public more, finding opportunities for him to talk about age with a directness and confidence that convinces people it isn’t the core issue. Talk about it now so you aren’t talking about it next summer, then use the fall debates in 2024 to deliver a Reaganesque line that puts the topic to bed.
If Mr. Trump becomes Mr. Biden’s opponent, this task is simpler. They’re both old, so I think the question of age will become moot for a lot of voters. Winning presidential candidates learn quickly not to launch attacks that can come back and bite them. Take Mitt Romney’s debate-stage effort in 2012 to cast Mr. Obama as unfit to be commander in chief over his handling of a deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. Mr. Obama’s stinging response won the president headlines praising his smackdown performance: “While we were still dealing with our diplomats being threatened, Governor Romney put out a press release, trying to make political points, and that’s not how a commander in chief operates,” Mr. Obama said.
It’s likely that many independent and swing voters will be less concerned with Mr. Biden’s and Mr. Trump’s ages than about the preponderance of legal issues facing Mr. Trump, which would seem to give Democrats the edge. Despite his dominance in the Republican race, a poll my firm conducted shortly after he was indicted on criminal charges for the fourth time found that 24 percent of his party’s voters said his legal issues made them less likely to vote for him. That’s four times the 6 percent of Republicans who defected from him in 2020. Even worse for Mr. Trump, 61 percent of independent voters said his legal problems made them less likely to vote for him.
The RealClearPolitics polling average currently shows Mr. Trump up by less than a point over Mr. Biden, 45.3 percent to 44.5 percent. A year ahead of the election, that’s meaningless information. The party of Hillary Clinton has learned the hard way not to take a slight polling edge for granted. I was Mrs. Clinton’s pollster in 2016, when public polling had her about two percentage points ahead of Mr. Trump. She won 48 percent of the vote to his 45.9 percent but, of course, lost the Electoral College by losing three battleground states that are crucial for Democrats in presidential campaigns. The campaign’s leadership had ordered a stop to most in-depth polls in those battlegrounds during October, which left us blind to the state of play.
Our country has split down the middle in its politics for decades now. When I was on Bill Clinton’s polling team for his 1996 re-election campaign, he won with 49.2 percent of the vote. When I was the lead pollster on Mr. Obama’s team in 2008, he won with 52.9 percent of the vote; in 2012 he won with 51.1 percent of the vote, making him only the fourth president in over a century to be elected and re-elected with more than 50 percent.
So what will it take for Mr. Biden to win? From both wins and losses, I’ve learned that there are three things every candidate needs to remember: Campaigns are about big things, not small things. Campaigns are about the future, not the past. And campaigns are about the voters’ lives, not the candidate’s.
For Mr. Biden, following that mantra means making this election a forward-looking choice built on a contrast of economic vision and values. More important, it means leaning into his greatest asset: his long record of working across the aisle.
He built his career on doing the hard work of compromising with the other side to get things done for the American people. Since he took office in 2021, he won passage of the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law to repair the nation’s roads, bridges and railways; bring high-speed internet to rural communities; and more, an achievement made possible by 32 Republicans who crossed the aisle (13 in the House and 19 in the Senate). He signed the most significant gun-safety legislation to pass Congress in nearly 30 years, with 29 votes from Republicans (14 in the House and 15 in the Senate).
Those numbers may not sound like much, but in a country exhausted by political division and with him most likely up against a Republican opponent whose only game is to divide, it’s a critical advantage. By focusing on bipartisanship and doing less name calling about MAGA and the right, he would not just recite his accomplishments; he would bring focus to what government can do for the American people when both sides work together.
Mr. Biden should also lean on his gifts of public empathy. Joe from Scranton is someone who understands that we can’t keep telling people that what they see and feel isn’t real. Month after month, the economic numbers of his presidency have provided evidence that our economy is recovering and our society is stable.
But public opinion polling shows many Americans experiencing a sense of corrosive instability — worry that our rapidly changing economy and technological world may leave them behind, coupled with fears about crime and immigration. Connecting with those voters is about providing them with the tangible evidence that you’ve heard them, that you’re invested in improving their lives and that you have a vision for governing that addresses their fears and will create a better future for them and their families.
During Mr. Obama’s 2012 campaign, we faced a similar disconnect. The country was still in the throes of an economic crisis that began before he took office in 2009. We knew we couldn’t overstate claims about the improving economy because people weren’t feeling it yet. The campaign needed to focus on the future and lift up working- and middle-class Americans in a way that Mr. Romney, with his private-equity background, could not effectively rebut.
From our research, we developed key principles for the campaign: Talk about a country facing a make-or-break moment for the middle class and those striving to get there. Talk about the importance of building an economy from the middle out, not the top down. Talk about an economy in which hard work pays, responsibility is rewarded and everyone gets a fair shot and a fair shake.
One thing Mr. Biden should stop talking about: Mr. Trump. It’s tempting. It’s the red meat his base wants. But it’s not the job. The months of Republican debates and headlines about court cases against the former president will inflict damage without Mr. Biden having to say a word.
Come August — when most Americans start paying attention to a November presidential election — if Mr. Trump is indeed the G.O.P. candidate, he can be depended on to continue his campaign of doom, destruction and despair.
But despite the aberration of the 2016 election, I believe Americans want to hear about the values and beliefs that bring us together, not the things that drive us apart. Mr. Biden is uniquely able to communicate a credible message of hope that we might again be a country that works together rather than a nation that is mired in perpetual division. He is a man I know to be an optimist by nature, and he believes unity trumps division. So do I.
Joel Benenson is a veteran Democratic adviser who was the pollster on Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns and chief strategist and pollster on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
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