By Jeff Mason and Heather Timmons
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Joe Biden's advisers knew in 2020 that his age was an issue for Americans but they successfully painted him as a competent leader who would restore normalcy to the White House after Donald Trump's chaotic presidency.
Now that Biden is 81, opinion polls show age is even more of a concern for voters ahead of November's election.
In office, Biden's gait has stiffened, he is slower on his feet and he regularly makes verbal mix-ups during speeches, at times confusing the names of world leaders.
He has presided over a growing economy and some foreign leaders have said after meeting him that he is sharp and focused in private meetings, but the age issue is still a drag on his poll numbers.
When a special counsel last week released a report declining to charge Biden of mishandling classified information but criticizing his memory, Republicans in the House of Representatives were quick to call the president, a Democrat, "certainly unfit for the Oval Office."
In contrast, some political experts say, the White House did not address the accusations quickly or directly enough, or mount a coordinated pushback, at least at first.
"What we've seen from this White House is in a lot of ways attempting to do business as usual, to overcome adversity and bad narratives by ignoring them," said Samuel Woolley, director of the University of Texas at Austin's propaganda research lab.
A new Reuters/Ipsos poll shows that 78% of respondents - including 71% of Democrats - think Biden is too old to work in government.
While the White House has struggled in its response to those concerns, a wave of online memes, some based on manipulated images, present the image of the president as a doddering, frail old man.
Mocking Biden's age, speech patterns and missteps has become a global phenomenon during his three years in office.
Sky News Australia has a series on its four-million subscriber YouTube channel called "Biden vs. teleprompter," and a Hindustan Times video of Biden's verbal stumbles in a 2022 speech has 2.4 million views.
Doctored videos that appear to show Biden getting distracted by an ice cream truck and wandering off, or talking to an invisible crowd are viral hits on Facebook, TikTok and X, formerly known as Twitter.
James Clyburn, a prominent Democratic member of Congress, told Reuters that a "MAGA wall" of Republican social media accounts, conservative media outlets and allies of Trump mean Democrats struggle to explain Biden's successes.
The White House and campaign aides say they will handle concerns about Biden's age in 2024 by highlighting his accomplishments in office, including strong jobs growth and ambitious infrastructure spending programs.
"We're going to continue to focus on what this president has been able to get done," White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said on Monday when asked what the White House strategy was to change voters' perception of Biden as too old.
That strategy, so far, has not quelled criticism or concerns about the president's age.
"What's crazy is thinking that we are the ones as voters who must silence concerns and criticisms," Jon Stewart, comedian and political commentator, said on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" on Monday. "It is the candidates’ job to assuage concerns — not the voters job not to mention them.”
Neurologists warn that a few public moments are not an accurate way to determine any individual's cognitive ability and that any such diagnosis should be made by a doctor.
Many hours after the special counsel's report was released last Thursday, Biden held a late-night, angry, emotional back-and-forth with reporters about his memory, which he said was "fine." During those remarks he appeared to confuse the presidents of Mexico and Egypt. Biden made the decision to make the public remarks, the White House said.
The next day, Vice President Kamala Harris, White House spokesperson Ian Sams, who works with the White House counsel's office, and others denounced the report as wrong and politically motivated.
"One could argue they should have signaled they wanted proactive aggressive pushback on the mental pieces from the beginning," said one Democrat with ties to the White House. "Initially I think people were shocked by the report ... And that time lapse created space for hand-wringing by nervous Democrats."
Some in the president's party have lingering misgivings about the wisdom of him running for a second term, and the report may have only exacerbated those worries.
"The most damning thing that can happen to you in politics is if you confirm an existing suspicion," Democratic strategist James Carville said after the report's release. "This is a problem that cannot get any better."
Biden's campaign plans to highlight what it sees as Trump's threat to democracy and extremist agenda and the restrictions Republicans have put on abortion. Since Biden declared last April he would run again, his party has mostly circled its wagons around the president, with the exception of Representative Dean Phillips, his long-shot challenger.
Donors are on board - Biden has outraised likely challenger Trump, as his campaign pitches the 2024 race as a decision for or against preserving American democracy.
A top Biden fundraiser said that his support for Biden was unaffected by the special counsel's report, but that the campaign seems confounded by the issue and that the last several days may have only reinforced concerns about Biden's age.
The age issue is "tough" for Democrats, he said. "People read the polls. It's kind of a circular thing where people talk about age, media writes about age, people talk more about age."
Biden is being unfairly targeted over the issue in the media, some political analysts say, compared to Trump who at 77 has suffered his own verbal stumbles and mix-ups while presenting a menu of radical or quixotic policy ideas like building new "freedom cities" in the wilderness, with flying cars.
"We have to ask why the questions aren't being raised about Trump's mental faculties as well," said Republican political strategist Mary Anna Mancuso. "If you have two candidates that beat their wife and people are actually only asking one campaign how they're handling the fact that their candidate was beating their wife ... it's kind of a disservice to the public."
Giving the U.S. public more exposure to Biden could clear up any questions, others suggest.
"If Joe Biden is fine in the way they say he is, we should see more of Joe Biden being incredibly active and incredibly engaged with the press," Woolley said. "That would be quite a bit more sensible then constantly acting indignant."
(Reporting by Jeff Mason, Trevor Hunnicutt, Steve Holland and Heather Timmons. Writing by Heather Timmons and Jeff Mason. Editing by Howard Goller and Stephen Coates)