How Biden Can Handle The Age Question: Fix It, Flip It, Frame It -- Just Don't F*** It

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, February 12, 2024

In an editorial in MediaPost’s “Red White & Blog,” Joe Mandese last week defended Joe Biden’s mental acuity, accusing those who have questioned the president’s faculties of ageism.

Tellingly, Mandese’s case is far more compelling than anything Biden has put forth on his own behalf, even though this issue ticked loudly for three years before Special Counsel Robert Hur finally detonated it, stamping the president an “elderly man with a poor memory.” 

In corporate marketing, brands can counter a perceived weakness in several ways – by fixing it, flipping it, or framing it. Effective politicians do this, too. 

Fix it

I don’t mean “fix” literally. Biden’s campaign cannot reverse time, but they could mask its effects. Donald Trump is nearly 80 himself, but he looks two decades younger thanks to gallons of hair dye and layers of makeup that, upon inspection, appear to have been scraped from an industrial-sized tub and thwacked on with a spackle knife. In another time, polio-stricken Franklin Roosevelt refused to allow himself to be photographed in his wheelchair for fear of looking infirm. In other words, a little stagecraft can do wonders.



Flip it

In 2022, Senate candidate John Fetterman flipped the argument that his struggles with speech and auditory processing should disqualify him from holding office. He spoke openly of his difficulties, labelled some of the nastiest accusations as “ablism,” and marshaled disability activists to speak on his behalf. He wound up looking heroic, not impaired. By the end, if you were thinking about piling on Fetterman, you had to wonder if maybe you were the one with the problem.

Frame it

In the face of questions about whether Americans would elect a Black man to the White House, Barack Obama framed his racial identity as a strength. In March 2008, he faced a firestorm of questions about inflammatory remarks made by his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Rather than pretending the issue would go away, he made a landmark speech in which he used elements of his own biography to simultaneously put Wright’s comments in context and also highlight his own vision for a more perfect America.

Fix it, flip it, or frame it. Three viable options.  What you can’t do is what Biden’s team has done, which is nothing. (You might call their approach, “F*** it.”)

One of his key advisors dismissed concerns about the Hur report, telling CNN, “If you’re concerned about a national abortion ban or Social Security existing or the cost of your prescription drugs or your kids’ safety at school because of gun violence, Biden’s age might be something you think about, but Trump is on the wrong … side of all those issues.” 

Isn’t that precious? That’s how Miss Laughlin taught me elections work back in our fourth-grade civics unit. Ideally, though, the President’s team would demonstrate greater political precocity than a 10-year-old.  

Selling a candidate is no different than selling a product or building a brand. Consumers don’t base their decisions solely on product attributes. People aren’t loyal to Coca-Cola just because it tastes good but because of the psychological associations they have with it. If every Coca-Cola bottling facility in the world burned down overnight, that would be a devastating setback, but Coca-Cola eventually would rebound.  However, if the Men in Black came along with their neuralyzer and zapped away all our memories of Coke and all its symbolic meanings, the brand would be doomed.

Similarly, swing voters don’t vote based on issues. If they did, they wouldn’t be swing voters; after all, parties don’t gyrate wildly on policy from one election to the next. 

Instead, swing voters choose based on the emotional connection they feel with a candidate – or the level of revulsion they feel toward the other candidate. Voting is an emotional decision for everyone, but for those swing voters who decide elections, the emotions are rooted in vibes, not policies.

And Biden’s vibes are terrible. He is perceived as weak – and Americans don’t elect presidents who are perceived as weak. Part of it is that he looks and sounds downright antediluvian, but the bigger problem is that he is invisible. 

Supposedly, behind closed doors, his mind is nimble and he is in total command of the issues, but no one sees that. Given a chance at three minutes of softball questions during the Super Bowl, his campaign declined on the grounds that they prefer more targeted messaging. The Super Bowl, they said, would be a waste of time.

(Imagine the marketing team at Apple, T-Mobile, or Molson Coors being offered three minutes of airtime – free – to speak to 110 million people during the major cultural event of the year and saying, “No, thanks. We’ve got a :15 running in morning drive in Myrtle Beach and a couple of people say they might mention us on TikTok. We’re good.”)

I have been helping major brands understand their target audiences and the effectiveness of their advertising for nearly 25 years. From a marketing standpoint, the Biden campaign is an irredeemable, Hindenburg-level catastrophe.  This is the President of the United States, holder of the most powerful office in the world, but somehow he never controls the news cycle. His campaign is constantly on its back foot. His messaging is bloodless, formulaic, occasionally incoherent, and never memorable.

His opponent’s biggest weakness is his web of legal entanglements, but Biden’s advisors are terrified to even mention “91 felony charges,” a phrase that should be burned into the hippocampus of every voter.  Instead, they slouch onto the ropes, drop their hands, and take the punches.

A campaign comms team should understand at least the rudiments of psychology and persuasion. Yes, it’s naïve to think Biden can completely erase concerns about his age. It’s equally naïve to think he shouldn’t try.  

3 comments about "How Biden Can Handle The Age Question: Fix It, Flip It, Frame It -- Just Don't F*** It".
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  1. Christopher Geraci from CCG Media, February 12, 2024 at 10:16 a.m.

    Agree 1000%!

  2. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, February 12, 2024 at 12:45 p.m.

    Very good one, James. While I agree, a far better plan would be to get poor, tired, old Joe to simply retire quietly and put someone up for POTUS who dosen't need all sorts of optic/cosmetic enhancements to seem alive and functioning---before it's too late.

  3. James Forr from Olson Zaltman replied, February 12, 2024 at 5:13 p.m.

    Thank you, Ed. Your suggestion is probably the best one for Dems. Harris has never impressed me much from a communication standpoint but she is at least out there and speaking forcefully. I do think she could win in November. I am highly skeptical of Biden's chances.

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