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Barack Obama and Bill Clinton to Raise $25 Million with Biden Amid Concerns About His Age

Bill Clinton was 22 years younger than George H.W. Bush when he unseated him in 1992. He had just turned 50 when he won a second term by defeating the 73-year-old Bob Dole four years later. In 2008, Barack Obama was just 47 when he won the White House by defeating John McCain, a Senate colleague who was a quarter-century his senior.

On Thursday, both former presidents — now 77 and 62 years old, respectively — will suspend their active retirements to try to provide a political jolt to the campaign of their successor Joe Biden, 81, with a rare joint appearance for a campaign fundraiser in New York.

The rare and highly anticipated gathering of three Democratic presidents will raise over $25 million, according to a release by the Biden campaign, which is characterizing it as the most successful political fundraiser in American history.

But it also may serve to highlight Biden’s main vulnerability this year, one that his campaign has increasingly taken steps to overcome.

Unlike Obama and Clinton before him, Biden is running against a candidate only a few years his junior. Still, Biden has already been adopting some of the tactics and even language that Dole and McCain used when they ran against much younger men.

Take, for instance, Biden’s last trip to New York, where he offered a new answer to the age question.

“It’s about how old your ideas are,” he told NBC “Late Night” host Seth Meyers, adding that former President Donald Trump “wants to take us back on a whole range of issues.”

It was a twist on how Clinton answered a question about Dole’s age during the second presidential debate in 1996.

“I don’t think Sen. Dole is too old to be president. It’s the age of his ideas that I question,” he said. 

Dole said that “wisdom comes from age, experience and intelligence,” also mirroring an answer Biden has given this year.

Scott Reed, who was Dole’s campaign manager, said the campaign was often frustrated at how age was a frequent focus of the media covering the race. The campaign released detailed medical records and did focus groups and polling to test ways to address the issue — and found that older voters tended to be especially concerned about it.

They “could never imagine being president. They couldn’t even keep their own checkbooks, let alone be commander of the free world,” Reed, who recently was a co-chair of a super PAC supporting Mike Pence’s presidential campaign, told NBC News.

Dole campaigned more aggressively than any of the other principals in the race, Reed argued, including a final 96-hour nonstop campaign in the closing days that he said helped Republicans at least maintain control of Congress. 

“Beating an incumbent president is very difficult, especially when there’s a growing economy and a world peace. So our challenge against Clinton back in ’96 was bigger than age,” he said.

Twelve years later, McCain, like Dole, tried to use humor to defuse the age issue. Both men, in fact, made cameos on “Saturday Night Live” — McCain multiple times — where age was a punch line.

“I ask you: What should we be looking for in our next president? Certainly, someone who is very, very, very old,” McCain said in one appearance. “I have the courage, the wisdom, the experience and, most importantly, the oldness necessary.”

Mark Salter, a longtime senior adviser to McCain, said the campaign also recognized age was a challenge but aimed for a show-not-tell response.

“We didn’t make him up or change his wardrobe or have him do push-ups in front of the cameras or anything,” he said. “We would often draw reporters’ attention to the fact his schedule was more crowded than Obama’s. In New Hampshire, he would do 100 or whatever town halls and stick around until the last question was asked. And then he talked to reporters all day, worked all night.”

Clinton’s campaigns — especially a re-election theme of “Building a Bridge to the 21st Century” — sought to capitalize on the generational contrast more conspicuously than Obama’s. For Obama, “Change” as a theme was more a one-two punch in the Democratic primaries, running to succeed the unpopular George W. Bush while challenging the initial Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton.

Salter said McCain’s team did consider the idea of a one-term pledge, “not so much to address a concern about his age as it was to get a piece of the ‘change’ message.” Ultimately, though, McCain shot down the idea.

“He never had any doubt” about his ability to serve, Salter said. “He never seemed his age until he got sick.” McCain was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2017, the year a potential second term would have ended.

There is not much precedent for the event Biden’s campaign is putting on Thursday. The high-profile evening, which will draw more than 3,000 people, is expected to sell out, the person familiar with the planning said. 

The event is designed to impress. 

Actor Mindy Kaling will host the program at Radio City Music Hall, which will open with remarks from first lady Jill Biden and feature musical guests Queen Latifah, Lizzo, Ben Platt, Cynthia Erivo and Lea Michele, according to a Biden campaign official.  

Some of the biggest donors will have the opportunity to have their pictures taken with the three Democratic presidents, shot by famed portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz. The cheapest tickets have sold for $250, with the largest contributions coming from people who gave $250,000 and $500,000.

Biden-Harris campaign co-chair Jeffrey Katzenberg, finance chair Rufus Gifford and Biden Victory Fund finance chair Chris Korge have taken the lead on organizing the fundraiser, along with Condé Nast Editorial Director Anna Wintour.  

Beyond the in-person component, other donors will have access to a “grassroots virtual conversation” with the three presidents that will be moderated by Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez. That access costs as little as $25, according to the online invitation.

The first lady will also hold a “500 person VIP afterparty” after the event, which will be co-hosted by DJ D-Nice, whose profile rose during the coronavirus pandemic after he held virtual “Club Quarantine” events on Instagram live.

In planning Thursday’s fundraiser, the Biden, Obama and Clinton teams have sought to balance how “you look forward and backward at the same time,” a source familiar with the planning said. Obama, Biden and Clinton will inevitably go down memory lane during a discussion moderated by comedian Stephen Colbert. 

Some of the legislation Biden is proudest of from his time as a senator — the crime bill and the Violence Against Women Act — were signed into law by Clinton. And Biden’s loyal service as Obama’s vice president was a major factor in overcoming other vulnerabilities, including age, as he ran in a crowded field of Democrats in 2020.

But Biden has increasingly been using the word “future” in his speeches while describing policies like tax reform, universal pre-K and affordable housing that would be part of a second-term agenda.

“I want to talk about the future of possibilities that we can build together — a future where the days of trickle-down economics are over and the wealthy and the biggest corporations no longer get all the tax breaks,” he said in his State of the Union address this month.

Biden speaks regularly to both former presidents, according to multiple sources familiar with the relationships. Obama and Biden met in person Friday to record an event tied to the 14th anniversary of the Affordable Care Act.

During a private conversation in the White House’s Family Dining Room, Obama told Biden how effective he thought his State of the Union address had been, as had been the busy travel schedule Biden embarked on afterward, said a source familiar with the matter.

Aside from private conversations, Biden also often directs his top aides to follow up with Obama or Clinton on various topics of conversation. Chief of staff Jeff Zients, senior advisers Anita Dunn and Steve Ricchetti, deputy chief of staff Bruce Reed and campaign advisers Jen O’Malley Dillon and Mike Donilon have all held calls with Obama recently at Biden’s direction. 

Similarly, a longtime Clinton aide met last week with Ricchetti to discuss Clinton’s desire to play an active role in support of Biden this year. 

Beyond traditional campaigning, both men are likely to participate in more unconventional campaign tactics the Biden team has been experimenting with to reach especially younger voters. Thursday’s fundraiser is just one component of what an official involved in the process called an “extensive program” for the three commanders in chief in New York on Thursday, including recording a podcast together.

Reed, the Dole campaign manager, said Biden’s best approach in dealing with age is not an “ice cream cone strategy” of trying to appear more dynamic. 

“The best thing Biden can do is go after Trump and show the energy he shows when he’s behind closed doors with these donors,” he said.

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