Why Biden is now routinely taking the short stairs up to Air Force One The built-in stairs lead to the belly of the plane. They're less photogenic than the tall, outdoor steps. But the sturdier stairs pose less of a health and political risk to the 80-year-old president.

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

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And here's a story that points to the advanced age of another politician. When the American president travels, every detail is carefully choreographed, right down to the stairs the commander in chief uses to get on and off Air Force One. Traditionally, it is a tall set of stairs trucked over to the plane's door, which is about 18 feet up from the tarmac. That has changed for President Biden. NPR senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith explains.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The tall stairs are wobbly, and President Biden has stumbled on them more than once. In recent months, he has started routinely using a much shorter built-in set with the distinct advantage of moving most of his ascent into Air Force One out of public view.

KENT GRAY: It's about nine steps. It's about eight feet in the air.

KEITH: Kent Gray has worked for two Republican presidents and nine presidential campaigns. He's the guy who works out all the small details, making sure everything looks just right.

GRAY: Very few people have noticed that he's mostly using the smaller stairs. But everybody's going to notice if there's a really bad slip and fall down the tall air stairs.

KEITH: Gray knows firsthand all about this. In 1996, Bob Dole was 73 years old and running for president. Gray helped set up the stage for an event in Chico, Calif.

GRAY: And somehow - and nobody still knows how - Bob Dole decided to get right up on the front of the stage and kind of, like, fell through it.

KEITH: It became a metaphor for the losing Dole campaign. When it comes to Biden and the short stairs, David Axelrod isn't convinced voters will care.

DAVID AXELROD: You don't measure presidents by their ability to navigate steps. You elect presidents based on their ability to navigate problems.

KEITH: Axelrod was the chief strategist for former President Barack Obama, and he says he wouldn't be worried at all about reelection if Biden were 15 or 20 years younger. But he's 80 years old, and the stairs hit at Biden's greatest weakness among voters.

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

KEITH: NPR reviewed available photographs of President Biden, and the majority of instances of Biden using the short stairs have been since June, when he tripped over a sandbag and fell on stage at the Air Force Academy graduation. The White House won't say much about the stairs other than there are a series of factors that go into which set he uses. But Biden's switch to the small stairs sets him apart from his predecessors. Obama used the internal stairs so seldom that when the tall stairs weren't there when he landed in China in 2016, it set off a minor international incident. Former President Donald Trump used the short stairs more than Obama. But Gray, who did event planning work for him, says it was often on particularly windy days.

GRAY: 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.

KEITH: Jay Olshansky is a professor who specializes in aging at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He sees this as an optics issue, not a matter of fitness for office.

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

KEITH: When Biden is asked about his age, he often says, watch me. And 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.

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