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Why Biden is now routinely taking the short stairs up to Air Force One

President Biden boards Air Force One at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo. on June 1, 2023, after attending the 2023 United States Air Force Academy Graduation Ceremony.
Andrew Harnik
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AP
President Biden boards Air Force One at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo. on June 1, 2023, after attending the 2023 United States Air Force Academy Graduation Ceremony.

It's one of the iconic images of the American presidency: the commander in chief, standing and waving to the cameras from the top of the stairs leading into Air Force One.

But recently, President Biden has been avoiding climbing up the sometimes-wobbly 18-foot staircase that is trucked over to the plane's upper door. More often than not, he is using a much shorter and sturdier set of stairs that fold out from the belly of the plane.

Biden, 80, has stumbled on the tall stairs more than once. The short stairs have the distinct advantage of moving most of Biden's ascent into Air Force One out of public view. But for those who have noticed the shift, it also draws attention to one of Biden's greatest political liabilities as he seeks reelection: his age.

Biden had been using the short stairs now and then since taking office, but an NPR review of two databases of news photographs show that there's been a dramatic change since June. That's when Biden tripped over a sandbag and fell on stage at the U.S. Air Force Academy graduation.

The White House has mainly brushed aside questions about the change and won't say much about it, other than there are a series of factors that go into whether he uses the short or tall stairs, including security, weather and the availability of rolling staircases.

When Biden lands at an airport where officials roll out the red carpet to welcome him, he still uses the tall stairs.

President Biden walks down the steps of Air Force One as he arrives in Philadelphia on June 17, 2023.
Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
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AP
President Biden walks down the steps of Air Force One as he arrives in Philadelphia on June 17, 2023.

There's an art to avoiding bad optics

When the American president travels, every detail is carefully choreographed, right down to the stairs the president uses to get on and off Air Force One. Kent Gray, who has worked for two Republican presidents and nine presidential campaigns, is in the business of working out all the small details, making sure everything looks just right.

"Very few people have noticed that he's mostly using the smaller stairs," Gray told NPR. "But everybody's going to notice if there's a really bad slip and fall down the tall air-stairs."

President Biden grips the hand rail of the tall stairs as he stumbles while boarding Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., on March 19, 2021.
Patrick Semansky / AP
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AP
President Biden grips the hand rail of the tall stairs as he stumbles while boarding Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., on March 19, 2021.

Gray knows firsthand how problematic it can be when an older candidate falls. Earlier in his career, he helped set up the stage for a 1996 event in Chico, Calif. for Sen. Bob Dole, who at age 73 was running for president.

Gray had placed flimsy decorative white columns at the front edge. "And somehow and nobody still knows how, Bob Dole decided to get right up on the front of the stage and kind of fell through it," Gray said.

Dole landed on the ground below, hitting a couple of journalists and a Secret Service agent. It was all caught on camera and played on repeat. It became a metaphor for the losing Dole campaign.

The short stairs may prevent a fall. But they also underscore the age issue

Democratic operatives charged with setting up logistics and details for Biden and former President Barack Obama confirmed there's been a shift in how Biden boards the plane, but they didn't want to talk on the record for this story, due to the sensitivities around Biden's age.

They see the short stairs as a way to reduce risk, though one former Biden official cast it as part of a broader issue with White House staffers being "overly protective in a way that often does him a disservice."

David Axelrod says he isn't convinced voters will care about this.

"You don't measure presidents by their ability to navigate steps," said Axelrod, who was Obama's chief strategist. "You elect presidents based on their ability to navigate problems."

President Biden points as he walks down the steps of Air Force One in Windsor Locks, Conn., on June 16, 2023.
Susan Walsh / AP
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AP
President Biden points as he walks down the steps of Air Force One in Windsor Locks, Conn., on June 16, 2023.

Axelrod says he wouldn't be worried at all about Biden's reelection chances if he were 15 or 20 years younger. But the stairs hit at Biden's greatest weakness among voters.

"It's not a secret that the questions that people have mostly go to age, so anything that underscores that point is problematical," Axelrod said. "On the other hand, it would be more problematical if he were, you know, injured on the steps of his plane."

President Biden waves from Air Force One on July 6, 2023 at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., before flying to South Carolina.
Alex Brandon / AP
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AP
President Biden waves from Air Force One on July 6, 2023 at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., before flying to South Carolina.

Recent presidents mostly used the tall stairs

Biden's switch to the small stairs sets him apart from his predecessors. Obama used the internal stairs so infrequently that when the tall stairs weren't there when he landed in China in 2016 for a G20 summit, it set off a minor international incident.

President Obama arrives in Hangzhou, China on Sept. 3, 2016, to attend the G20 summit.
Mark Shiefelbein / AP
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AP
President Obama arrives in Hangzhou, China on Sept. 3, 2016, to attend the G20 summit.

Before Biden, the short stairs were most commonly used when security made the tall stairs impractical. The U.S. military often flies a set of stairs for the president to the countries the president is visiting, in addition to the vehicles used in his motorcade.

But when visiting a war zone, like Iraq or Afghanistan, flying stairs in would tip people off to a planned secret presidential trip. So, photos of presidents visiting U.S. troops overseas often have them arriving in darkness and using the small stairs.

President Bush walks off the steps of Air Force One at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Neb. after two planes crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Doug Mills / Pool/AFP via Getty Images
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POOL/AFP via Getty Images
President Bush walks off the steps of Air Force One at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Neb. after two planes crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Similarly, on 9/11, former President George W. Bush used the short stairs, because concerns about security were so great.

Former President Donald Trump used the short stairs more than Obama, though fewer times in total during his four years in office than Biden has to this point.

Gray, who did event planning work for Trump, said the short stairs were an attractive option on particularly windy days. "Just because his hair would get messed up and it would take, you know, 10 minutes to get it put back the way he wanted it," said Gray.

President Donald Trump boards Air Force One on July 28, 2017 at Joint Base Andrews, Md.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
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Getty Images
President Donald Trump boards Air Force One on July 28, 2017 at Joint Base Andrews, Md.

Using the safer stairs is common sense, says an aging expert

S. Jay Olshansky is a professor who specializes in aging at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He said he sees this as an optics issue, not a matter of fitness for office. He says Biden's annual physical indicates a man in very good health for his age.

"If President Biden is adjusting his normal pattern of moving from point A to point B to lower his risk of falling, yeah, sure — that's exactly what he should be doing," said Olshansky. "That's what all of us should be doing to protect ourselves as we get older."

He says it's an adaptation, no different from wearing glasses or hearing aids.

When Biden is asked about his age, he often says, "Watch me." Last week, while he was on vacation, he twice went to pilates and spin classes at a fitness studio called Pelodog. And then he boarded Air Force One to return to Washington, using the short stairs.

President Biden boards Air Force One using the short stairs on Aug. 26, 2023 after a vacation in Lake Tahoe, Nev.
Evan Vucci / AP
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AP
President Biden boards Air Force One using the short stairs on Aug. 26, 2023 after a vacation in Lake Tahoe, Nev.

NPR's Leigh Walden contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.