The fuse on President Joe Biden’s age and whether he can command a second term has been alight for months. Seventy-six per cent of American voters are concerned about whether Biden is fit mentally or physically for a second term. Eighty-one per cent of independents and over half of Democrats share these concerns.

Biden’s approval rating is at 41 per cent – the lowest for a president in decades and lower at this point of the election year than Jimmy Carter in 1980, who was trounced by Ronald Reagan; George HW Bush, ousted by Bill Clinton in 1992; and Donald Trump, who Biden defeated in 2020. Biden cannot win the election from such a low rating.

Special counsel Robert Hur’s report on Biden’s handling classified documents was a legal vindication for the president. Biden will not be charged. “The bottom line is: The matter is now closed,” Biden said.

But the special counsel did not stop at a simple decision on whether Biden should be indicted. “We have also considered that, at trial, Mr Biden would likely present himself to a jury, as he did during our interview of him, as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

There was much more: “Mr Biden’s memory was worse. He did not remember when he was vice president, forgetting on the first day of the interview when his term ended (‘if it was 2013 – when did I stop being vice president?’), and forgetting on the second day of the interview when his term began (‘in 2009, am I still vice president?’).”

The fuse still burns despite the view of many Democrats that Hur, a Republican, exceeded prosecutorial norms by editorialising on his judgment of Biden’s cognitive abilities. One former Justice Department official said, “I think it’s outrageous. Prosecutors are taught that the Department of Justice should speak through charges or it shouldn’t speak at all.”

Despite all the immense age, mental and stability issues presented by Trump and his uncontrolled extremism, Biden’s age is a live issue. It will not go away. We will not know until election day whether he can overcome it.

For now, there is intense speculation about whether Biden should stand aside. There is no shortage of advice. The Wall Street Journal, which is no friend to Trump: “The president and his family, who seemed determined to risk the country on the increasingly dicey bet that he was the best candidate to save us from Trump 2.0, now have a powerful reason to rethink that assumption. Calls for four more years will inevitably make Americans wonder whether our 81-year-old president even has that many left. If ever there was a moment when someone in the White House must summon the grace to let the torch be passed to a new generation, this is it.”

Staunch conservative columnist Hugh Hewitt demands: “President Biden should retire and accept that Father Time is undefeated.”

Forty-four years ago, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher told her party: “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.” Nor is the man who is president today.

For now, the Democrats in Congress are standing firm. The Senate’s youngest member, Jon Ossoff of Georgia, said: “I’ve found him to be sharp, focused, impressive, formidable and effective.” This view is shared by conservative columnist David Brooks of The New York Times: “His memory may sometimes slip, but his judgment is good. And he absolutely runs the White House. He’s in charge of that administration. He’s completely sharp enough to do that.”

But if the Democratic Party does turn against Biden, and if the pressure to stand aside gets impossibly intense, this is what we will see in the coming weeks:

  • Insider leaks and quotes from people who work day-to-day with the president that he is no longer up to the job;
  • Stories that Biden drifts in and out of meetings and is confused as he conducts business;
  • Members of the cabinet, or the leadership in the House of Representatives or Senate, saying that it would be best for the president to stand aside;
  • Statements from Democratic governors saying it is time for a new generation to lead the party;
  • More video of a president struggling to communicate firmly and clearly.

These events are what it would take to make the president’s position untenable.

What can Biden do from here? Some Aussie-style retail campaigning for a start. Get out across the country and into the malls and the shopping districts and regular neighbourhoods in cities and suburbs and talk to people about where the country is going and what their president is doing. Help people feel optimistic about the future. Let them look you in the eye and say, “Yeah, he’s old. But Joe is OK.” Let them see the man with the clear vision and the steady hand who will keep the country safe from the madness that is Donald Trump. Hold town hall meetings. Give more direct media interviews on what you are doing now and will do in the second term.

Getting a ceasefire in Gaza and pulling aid to Ukraine through Congress would affirm Biden’s mastery in foreign policy and American leadership in the world — and help staunch the haemorrhaging of young voters deeply troubled by the catastrophe in Gaza.

The events of the past several days have weakened Biden and strengthened Trump. Right now, the Democrats’ hair is on fire, and fear is trumping hope.