Old Man Biden
The problem that won't go away.
In the comments to yesterday’s post, “Biden ‘An Elderly Man with a Poor Memory’,” my friend and co-blogger Steven Taylor notes that, despite being a quarter century younger than the President, he has long had issues with remembering dates, concluding,
Quite clearly Biden is old, but the reducing of all of his mental faculties down to specific examples is ludicrous. I bet every single person reading this said something yesterday that, if taken in isolation, would make them sound like an dottering fool.
While I’ve always been really good at dates, I’ve long been pretty bad with names—an issue that has increased significantly in recent years. I’m 58 and have no reason to think I’m going senile.
As for Biden, he’s clearly slowing down with age and is having more of these mental lapses. But, while I wish there were a younger option available, I think he’s still mentally up to the job—and light years better than the seeming alternative, Donald Trump.
Alas, this isn’t an objective conversation. People are looking at both candidates through partisan lenses and, like it or not, Biden’s gaffes are judged much more harshly than Trump’s.
NPR’s Domenico Montanaro (“Biden’s rough week highlights his biggest vulnerability — one he can’t change“):
The special counsel report about Biden’s handling of classified material didn’t charge him with a crime, but special counsel Robert Hur, a Republican, seemed to go out of his way to include damning commentary about Biden’s supposedly faulty memory, like referencing that Biden, 81, “did not remember, even within several years, when his son Beau died.”
That was stinging.
“It clears him legally and kneecaps him politically,” Paul Begala, a veteran Democratic strategist and former Bill Clinton adviser, said of the report.
The 388-page report set off a political firestorm — and an ensuing clumsy response from the White House and the president himself.
Biden angrily rejected Hur’s claim, saying Thursday night in a press conference he felt questions about Beau weren’t “any of their damn business.”
The president got choked up while showing a rosary he was wearing on his wrist in memory of Beau, then thundered, “I don’t need anyone to remind me when he passed away.”
If Biden had left it at that, that might be what people remembered about the news conference.
Instead, Biden wound up walking right into the stereotype laid out by Hur when he mistakenly said that President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi of Egypt was the “president of Mexico” while answering a question about current hostage negotiations with Israel and Hamas.
It’s a mistake. Verbal slips happen. Everyone makes them — including Trump, who is only four years younger than Biden. Trump often meanders, recently appeared to confuse his primary opponent Nikki Haley for former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; on more than half a dozen occasions in the past year mistakenly referred to former President Barack Obama when he should have said Biden; and while in Iowa, called “Sioux City” “Sioux Falls,” which is 90 miles up the road in South Dakota.
But because more Americans are concerned with Biden’s age and fitness to do the job in a second term than they are about Trump’s age, every time Biden makes a flub it will have more resonance politically.
“It’s certainly true that anything that feeds the master negative narrative is especially harmful,” Begala said. “For [Bill] Clinton, it was cheating, for [George W.] Bush, it was ‘dumb,’ Obama ‘elitist,’ which is why when Obama said 57 states, it didn’t hurt him. If it was Bush, it would have.”
“Obviously with Biden, it’s ‘old.’ So, this really really hurts him.”
“Fair or not, this just amplified Biden’s greatest challenge,” David Axelrod, a former senior adviser in the Obama White House, said of the special counsel report. “It screams through every poll and focus group.”
Axelrod went viral back in November for raising whether it was “wise” for Biden to run for reelection after a series of swing-state polls showed him losing to Trump.
“Many people have made a judgment about his age and command and discount his accomplishments and attribute every problem to it,” Axelrod said.
The Atlantic‘s Yair Rosenberg (“What Biden’s Critics Get Wrong About His Gaffes“) tries to handwave this away:
[T]he truth is, mistakes like these are nothing new for Biden, who has been mixing up names and places for his entire political career. Back in 2008, he infamously introduced his running mate as “the next president of the United States, Barack America.” At the time, Biden’s well-known propensity for bizarre tangents, ahistorical riffs, and malapropisms compelled Slate to publish an entire column explaining “why Joe Biden’s gaffes don’t hurt him much.” The article included such gems as the time that then-Senator Biden told the journalist Katie Couric that “when the markets crashed in 1929, ‘Franklin Roosevelt got on the television and didn’t just talk about the princes of greed. He said, “Look, here’s what happened.”’” The only problem with this story, Slate laconically noted, was that “FDR wasn’t president then, nor did television exist.”
In other words, even a cursory history of Biden’s bungling shows that he is the same person he has always been, just older and slower—a gaffe-prone, middling public speaker with above-average emotional intelligence and an instinct for legislative horse-trading.
But he recognizes that there’s a perception problem and that the Biden team needs to address it head-on:
The president’s staff is understandably reluctant to put Biden front and center, knowing that his slower speed and inevitable gaffes—both real and fabricated—will feed the mental-acuity narrative. But in actuality, the bar for Biden has been set so laughably low that he can’t help but vault over it simply by showing up. By contrast, limiting his appearances ensures that the public mostly encounters the president through decontextualized social-media clips of his slipups.
As Slate observed in 2008, the frequency of Biden’s rhetorical miscues helped neutralize them in the eyes of the public. In 2024, Biden will have an assist from another source: Donald Trump. Among other recent lapses, the former president has called Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán “the leader of Turkey,” confused Nancy Pelosi and Nikki Haley, and repeatedly expressed the strange belief that he won the 2020 election. With an opponent prone to vastly worse feats of viscous verbosity, Biden can’t help but look better by comparison, especially if he starts playing offense instead of defense.
But none of this will happen by itself. If the president and his campaign want the headlines to be something other than “Yes, Biden Knows Who the President of Egypt Is,” they’ll have to start making news, not reacting to it.
This strikes me as wishful thinking. Few people watch these speeches and interviews in full. If the press seizes on the gaffes—and they will—that’s what most will remember.
Rosenberg’s colleague, Helen Lewis (“Biden’s Age Is Now Unavoidable“) is more concerned:
He is older than George W. Bush, who stopped being president in 2008, and older than Bill Clinton, who gave up the job in 2000. He is older than the hovercraft, the barcode, and the Breathalyzer. And he looks it: Biden’s likely Republican opponent, Donald Trump, a mere debutant at 77, is possessed with a bronzed, demonic energy that makes him seem vigorously alive, even when his words make no sense. Joe Biden looks like he is turning into a statue of Joe Biden.
In a poll last year, 77 percent of Americans, including 69 percent of Democrats, said Biden was too old to be president. (For Trump, the overall figure was 51 percent.) But so far, the conversation about Biden’s age among commentators on the left has run something like this: So, uh, Joe Biden is pretty old. Should we be worried about that? The observation has gone nowhere, because nothing else flows from it. No one has seriously challenged him for the nomination. His family members have not helped him save face by insisting he spend more time with them. His party lacks an obvious mechanism to quietly usher him offstage. Because of those unalterable facts, the conversation about whether he is too old to be president has stalled. Lots of people think he is. But they can do nothing about it. End of discussion.
Watch his 2016 convention speech: He looks venerable but energetic. Now he often looks sluggish and befuddled. In the past few years, we have seen reports, denied by his press team, that Biden follows a restricted schedule designed to keep him from becoming exhausted, and that his team has reportedly decided to insist that he wear sneakers on the campaign trail to avoid falls. He rarely sits for interviews. As of August, he had given the lowest number of presidential press conferences since Ronald Reagan. Throughout the 2020 election, COVID precautions kept him from spontaneous public settings; he did most of his campaigning via video. In this election campaign, any deficiencies will be much more on display.
My colleague McKay Coppins recently suggested that anyone who cares about politics should go to a Trump rally, to see what they were voting for (or against). “This might sound unpleasant to some; consider it an act of civic hygiene,” he wrote. I would suggest that everyone do the same with a Biden speech: Watch it in full, and ask yourself honestly if you believe that the man you see has another four years of presidential decision-making ahead of him. If not, then reconcile yourself to the fact that you are really voting for Kamala Harris, or for a regency similar to the final years of Reagan’s tenure in the White House.
To my mind, either scenario is still more comforting than Trump’s return to power. I say this particularly as a European, who is aware that Trump would not continue to support Ukraine, and my country and others would have to deal with an emboldened Vladimir Putin as a result. But I would also say, quietly to myself, that America is a country of more than 300 million people, many of them brilliant, many of them able to finish a sentence. So how can the presidential election come down to two old men, one riffing about shark attacks, and the other communing with the dead? It’s not too late for either party to offer the U.S. a better choice in November.
I honestly don’t think there’s a way out of this problem for Biden. He actually is a very old man. He looks it. He acts it. That his opponent is nearly as old and rather obviously in way worse shape, both physically and mentally, simply does not seem to be registering with the public. The laughably hideous spray tan and fake hair are apparently fooling a lot of people.
The good news for Biden is that the economy is genuinely getting better and there’s reason to hope public perception of it catches up well before November. And his opponent clearly has a rather low ceiling. It took almost a perfect storm for Trump to win the Electoral College vote despite getting 3 million fewer votes in 2016. Biden got 8 million more votes than Trump in 2020, winning 33 more Electoral Votes than needed. Even if Georgia and either Arizona or Wisconsin (the states he won by the narrowest margins last time) flipped back into Trump’s column in 2024, Biden would still eke out a win.
But, damn, it shouldn’t even be a close contest. Trump is a horrible human being who was an awful President. He tried to steal the 2020 election, fomenting a riot to do so. He’s been found to have committed rape by a preponderance of the evidence by a jury. He’s under multiple criminal indictments. And I’d give him a 45% chance of being re-elected.