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WASHINGTON — He’s been 198. And a little under 103. “Try being 110,” he’s quipped. Once he was even 270. Yet he looks like he’s 29.
All kidding aside — as the 80-year-old President Joe Biden likes to say — he’s been around a long time.
In the past two weeks, Biden has been cracking jokes about his age more often than usual, according to an NBC News analysis of his remarks.
He’s dropped some version of the punchline — he’s old and he knows it — during events on gun safety and international diplomacy, at campaign fundraisers and in a speech about abortion rights. The more direct approach, as Biden ramps up his re-election campaign, is a shift from the way he’s typically tried to make light of his age: by noting he’s “been around a long time.”
It also comes as voters increasingly express concern about Biden serving in the White House for another term.
A recent NBC News poll found that 68% of registered voters have major or moderate concerns about Biden having the necessary mental and physical health to be president. Already the oldest president in American history, Biden would be 86 at the end of a second term, and he knows he can’t ignore the issue, his aides have said.
As the president’s 80th birthday approached in November, White House officials began looking for ways to downplay the number with humor, according to a former Biden White House official. The conspicuous milestone invited extra media scrutiny of Biden’s age and inside the West Wing kicked off in earnest a more deliberate strategy for addressing it.
“Joking about age allows him to simultaneously own the advantages of experience and defuse through humor any doubts about fitness,” the former official said.
The president embraced the self-deprecating humor approach after discussions with aides and allies about how to best attempt to neutralize his most glaring political weakness, a Biden adviser said, given it’s something he cannot change.
Many of the recent age jokes the president has made were unscripted, the adviser said, additions to prepared remarks that Biden makes on the fly when he senses an opportunity to lighten the audience's mood.
“I know I don’t look that old,” Biden joked at a June 16 event on gun violence. “I’m a little under 103.”
White House officials argue that the president’s record answers questions about his age.
“No president has ever come to the job with more experience, and President Biden has leveraged that experience into a record of accomplishments that few presidents have matched,” White House Communications Director Ben LaBolt said in a statement when asked about Biden's jokes about his age.
Biden’s use of his age as a punchline appears to have picked up pace since June 13, when he told attendees at a White House event for U.S. diplomats that one of his friends told him to address it by trying “to connect age and wisdom.”
“I know I look like I’m only still 29,” Biden said at the event, drawing laughter from the crowd. “But I’ve been around a long time.”
Since then, the president has deployed various versions of the lighthearted tactic. He’s used it most often at campaign fundraisers when he’s addressing wealthy Democratic donors without the glare of news cameras.
“A lot of you have been helping me for a long, long time,” Biden said last week at a campaign fundraiser in Atherton, California. Then he called out an influential, longtime Democratic donor in the audience by saying: “I go back 217 years, to Joe Cotchett.”
The president’s age jokes always draw laughs, transcripts of his remarks show. And he often pivots back to the topic at hand with a single line, “all kidding aside.”
“I know I’m 198 years old,” Biden told abortion rights activists last Friday as he took executive action aimed at protecting access to contraception. “But all kidding aside.”
Last week when stating that he knows as much about U.S. foreign policy as anyone living, including Henry Kissinger, Biden explained, “That’s what I’ve done my whole life — for the last 270 years.”
That’s the oldest Biden appears to have jokingly made himself, though at a Social Security and Medicare event in February he said he’d served in the U.S. Senate for 270 years, which would have put him at 299.
While he has repeatedly recalled since entering the White House that he was 29 years old when he was first elected to public office, the youngest Biden seems to have made himself is slightly older. “I’m 34 years old,” he joked at a recent fundraiser in Connecticut, which, of course, would make him too young to be president.
Oftentimes Biden will use his line about being around a long time to underscore something in American politics that he finds highly unusual, or particularly galling. At a recent fundraiser, he mentioned the hold Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., has on military promotions, for instance. “I don’t remember it happening before. And I’ve been around. I know I don’t look like I’ve been around,” he said to laughter. “But I’ve been around. I’ve been around a long time.”
Biden also has made light of his age to show empathy. “A lot of you are tired,” he said at the June 16 event, about repeatedly facing acts of gun violence. “I get it. Try being 110 and doing it again.”
After the laughter and applause subsided, he added: “All kidding aside, a lot of people are frustrated.”
Biden isn’t the first politician to try to make light of his age. President Ronald Reagan and Republican presidential nominees Bob Dole and John McCain did the same as they competed against younger opponents.
“Controlling government spending isn’t just about Republicans or Democrats,” McCain said during an appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” “It’s about being able to look your children in the eye. Or in my case, my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren and great-great-great-grandchildren, the youngest of whom are nearing retirement.”
McCain was 71 years old, while his general election opponent, Barack Obama, was still in his 40s. Dole, at age 73, ran against a 50-year-old Bill Clinton in 1996.
“My cholesterol is better than Clinton. My weight is better than Clinton. My blood pressure is better than Clinton. But I am not going to make health an issue in this campaign,” Dole once joked.
Reagan, at 73, famously quipped during a debate with Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, who was 56, “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Biden’s political dynamic is a bit different. There’s hardly a large age gap between him and his 2020 rival and potential 2024 opponent, Donald Trump, who is 77. Yet White House officials often complain that Biden is scrutinized for his age more than Trump. In the recent NBC News poll, 55% of registered voters said they have major or moderate concerns about Trump having the necessary mental and physical health to be president, compared with the 68% who feel the same way about Biden.
Biden also mixes a strategy of deliberate spontaneity — peppering his routine remarks with off-the-cuff jokes about his age — and poking fun at himself during high-profile events or speeches where he’s expected to be funny.
The president took multiple jabs at his own age during his remarks in April at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner — beginning with the line “I believe in the First Amendment — not just because my good friend Jimmy Madison wrote it.”
“You say I’m ancient?” the president added. “I say I’m wise.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com