Everyone noticed the lack of socks.
When President Joe Biden stepped off Marine One on a recent Sunday morning at Dover Air Force Base, he had just wrapped up a Delaware beach weekend. With his bare feet tucked inside his sneakers, he walked slowly across the tarmac to board Air Force One, which was headed to London for the start of a four-day European swing.
The informality of the president’s wardrobe distracted from something else — something reporters who travel with him have been noticing for some time. Biden boarded using the shorter set of retractable stairs that fold into the belly of the plane. The routine began a few months ago, the president increasingly avoiding the grander, more traditional doorway near the front of the aircraft on the main passenger level, higher above the tarmac.
The new routine looks to be another subtle accommodation to the president’s age. It is hiding in plain sight, although the White House won’t concede that interpretation. Three weeks ago when the president traveled to New York, again using the lower stairs to board, Bloomberg’s Justin Sink pressed press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre about it during her in-flight gaggle. Was Biden having “mobility problems,” Sink asked, or was it “to address — you know, he’s had a couple incidents falling on the stairs getting up and you guys just decided that it would be better for him?”
“I don’t have any decision process to walk through,” Jean-Pierre replied. “I’m sure there’s a protocol that’s used for the — for Air Force One. I just don’t have one.”
Traditionally, presidents have used the lower stairs when heavy rain or wind makes the taller steps unusable or in rare cases — like, famously, during a diplomatic spat after President Barack Obama landed in China in 2016 — when a portable set of stairs is not available to place next to the main door.
Last week, Biden used the small steps to board Air Force One for every flight on his European trip: to London, Vilnius, Helsinki and back to Washington. None of those arrivals or departures — all of which are public and witnessed by the traveling press pool — were marked by inclement weather. He used the large stairs to descend from the plane upon arrival in London, Vilnius and Helsinki, when his hosts arranged more formal greeting ceremonies, but not to climb back aboard. And the overseas trip came on the heels of several recent domestic ones where Biden predominantly used the lower stairs on visits to and from Rocky Mount, N.C., Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia.
“There are a series of factors that go into the logistical decision-making on this, including weather, what kind of airport we’re landing at and whether there is a formal greeting planned for the tarmac where we expect that press will want an official photo at the bottom of the tall stairs,” a White House official said. “There’s not one hard and fast rule — it is a decision made on a variety of factors in a wide range of settings and circumstances.”
While many Biden advisers POLITICO contacted would not comment publicly on the change, two privately acknowledged an intentional shift to steer the 80-year-old president to the lower stairs more often to make his travel easier and limit the possibility for missteps. Why climb 26 sometimes wobbly steps at Joint Base Andrews, raised off the back of a pick-up truck that drives up beside Air Force One, when you have the option of stepping up or down just 14? Especially when few outside the press corps are likely to even notice.
The age factor is arguably the president’s biggest political problem as he embarks on a reelection campaign. Biden has addressed the issue head-on, with the occasional levity on the stump and, in interviews, by emphasizing the “wisdom” gained over his years in politics. But Democrats concede that there is no great way to paper over it.
“Satchel Paige famously said about age: ‘It’s mind over matter — if you don’t mind, it don’t matter.’ But this does matter to voters,” said Rick Ridder, a longtime Democratic strategist in the West with experience on several presidential campaigns. “And Biden’s physical fragility complicates his effort to convince voters that re-electing him is a vote for stability. Because it’s hard for anyone to embody stability at 80 years old.”
That’s largely why aides are also trying to limit situations where any signs of physical frailty might be on heightened display — and to ease the burdens of travel where possible. For instance, last week’s leaders’ dinner at the NATO summit was the third such gathering Biden either skipped or left early in the past year.
Ultimately, the White House wants to keep the focus on the president’s record of historic legislative accomplishments, a surprisingly resilient economy and a foreign policy that, even Republicans concede, has restored America’s alliances.
Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged Biden to lean hard into that approach. During an appearance Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” she said Biden should “embrace his age.” Pelosi, 83, continued: “Age is a relative thing and I think this country is very well served by his leadership, his experience, his knowledge.”
The White House has released a summary of the president’s annual physical and acknowledged earlier this summer that he is using a CPAP machine to mitigate sleep apnea.
The sneakers are another concession to comfort necessitated by age.
One person close to the president said Biden used to always resist wearing anything other than dress shoes, believing that any other footwear look was unpresidential. But he has eased up on that stance in recent months. Moreover, the person said that Biden — whose gait has noticeably stiffened, to the point where it was noted by his doctor in his annual physical — is also at times still bothered by residual soreness from the foot he broke while playing with one of his dogs during the transition more than two years ago.
Ultimately, there’s no real way to obscure how the rigors of the world’s most demanding job are affecting the oldest person to ever hold it. And maybe it won’t matter much in a general election matchup against former President Donald Trump, who is 77.
Nothing has been as dramatic as his fall on stage at the Air Force Academy’s graduation last month when he tripped over a sandbag, or his stumbles ascending the big stairs to board Air Force One during a 2021 trip to Atlanta. But as Biden wrapped up a successful trip across three countries last Thursday, he strode across the tarmac in Helsinki to board Air Force One using the lower stairs. And he still stumbled slightly going up.