February 12, 2024
Candor rather than deflection can overcome the president’s biggest drawback.
Joe Biden needs to be rescued from some of his most vocal supporters, who think they are lifeguards saving a drowning man but are in fact dragging him to the bottom of the ocean.
With the release on Thursday of special counsel Robert Hur’s report that exonerated Biden of wrongdoing in bringing classified documents home during the Obama administration but also characterized him as an elderly man with memory problems, long-festering questions about the president’s age have quickly come to dominate the political discourse. In response, some Biden supporters have come forward with some of the most ludicrous and unconvincing arguments ever made on behalf of an election campaign.
In New York magazine, centrist pundit Jonathan Chait, who styles himself a liberal, boldly argued that senility should not prevent someone from having control of enough nuclear weapons to extinguish all life on earth. In a transcribed conversation with his colleague Benjamin Hart, Chait responded to concerns about a cognitively impaired president by saying,
Well, if [Biden is] controlled by advisers, is that unacceptable? If the advisers are making good decisions? Reagan was pretty senile and controlled by advisers. Everybody’s forgotten this, but the accounts of his mental state are harrowing. Nobody cared because the results were fine.
Another centrist pundit, Michael Cohen, made a slightly more restrained version of this argument by tweeting that “memory loss is not necessarily a factor in being able to do the job of president.
Chait went to say, “Biden seems more feeble than Reagan.” Trying to put the best possible spin on his own account of Biden’s incapacity, Chait argued that “there’s no aspect of the presidency other than communications that [Biden has] been inhibited from doing.” The problem with this argument is that communication—with staff, with other world leaders, and with the American public—is among the major tasks any president has, especially in an election year.
There’s so much wrong with Chait’s self-defeating argument that it’s hard to know where to begin. It’s strange for a putative liberal, even a moderate one, to think the Reagan era was “fine.” Reagan’s bellicose rhetoric brought the world closer to a nuclear war than any time since the Cuban missile crisis. The Iran/Contra machinations, done to override a congressional limit on funding a proxy war in Nicaragua, were as serious an assault on the Constitution as anything done by arch-criminals Richard Nixon or Donald Trump. Under Reagan, the US funded a horrific counterinsurgency in Guatemala that is now universally recognized, even by the Guatemalan government, as a genocide.
Bringing up Reagan’s senility, or even the claim of memory loss, seems like an attempt to anticipate a problem that hasn’t yet occurred. It’s a strange and unnecessary concession to Biden’s Republican critics, who do often make the unwarranted claim that the president has dementia. There’s plausible evidence that Reagan started suffering from Alzheimer’s during his presidency, although a diagnosis wasn’t made until 1994, five years after he left office.
But Biden doesn’t suffer from dementia. He is just an 81-year-old man who is visibly aging. That aging manifests itself in slower and softer speaking, occasionally mangled by verbal flubs. These speaking mishaps are embarrassing because part of the president’s job is to confidently speak from the bully pulpit. Biden has in recent days conflated François Mitterrand with Emmanuel Macron, Helmut Kohl with Angela Merkel, and Mexico with Egypt. This type of verbal transposition is common as people age, and it’s not the same thing as memory loss. Biden hasn’t forgotten that Mitterrand and Kohl are dead; he just conjured their names when thinking about European leaders.
If Chait and Cohen are adopting the strategy of lowering expectations (in Chait’s case radically so), then Keith Nagy, a Democratic press secretary in the House of Representatives, took the opposite tack, claiming that behind closed doors Biden displays a towering intellect. In a tweet, Nagy quoted an anonymous account in Axios describing Biden as regularly peppering his staffers with difficult questions. Nagy then sarcastically commented, “Biden’s mental acuity is so far gone that he regularly…runs circles around young Ivy League-educated staffers.”
If Nagy’s claims are accurate, Biden’s staffers would be well advised to release videos of Biden’s private brilliance. But, tellingly, the White House has taken the opposite approach. As The New York Times reports, “Over the years, some of Mr. Biden’s key aides have gone from letting ‘Joe be Joe’ to wrapping a presidential cocoon around him that is intended to shield him from verbal slips and physical stumbles.”
Other Biden apologists have adopted the more plausible strategy of attacking special counsel Hur for partisanship and the mainstream media for hyping the story of Biden’s aging. There’s more than a kernel of truth to both accounts. Hur is a Republican, and his characterization of Biden was clearly partisan and gratuitous. But criticizing Hur gets you only so far: He was, after all, appointed by Merrick Garland, Biden’s handpicked attorney general. Hur’s report thus raises another question of Biden’s judgment.
As for the media, the feeding frenzy against Biden is shameful. Pundits are over-selling Biden’s aging problem. But neither the media nor Hur invented the idea that Biden is too old. All the evidence suggests that this is a concern that the public has long held. As CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski accurately noted, the idea that the media is making the public worried about Biden’s aging might be true “if all of a sudden polling showed a huge spike and concerns about Biden‘s age—but it’s been voters number one concern about him for two years.”
Nate Cohn of The New York Times reports, “In Times/Siena polling last fall, more than 70 percent of battleground state voters agreed with the statement that Mr. Biden’s ‘just too old to be an effective president.’” Cohn goes on to observe:
Of all the reasons Mr. Biden has narrowly trailed Mr. Trump in the polls for five straight months, this is arguably the single most straightforward explanation. It’s what voters are telling pollsters, whether in open-ended questioning about Mr. Biden or when specifically asked about his age, and they say it in overwhelming numbers. In Times/Siena polling, even a majority of Mr. Biden’s own supporters say he’s too old to be an effective president.”
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Biden has an age problem. Hur and the media are irresponsibly making it worse. But critiquing Hur and the media smacks of deflection, since it doesn’t answer the underlying problem. Further such critiques simply keep the story alive without solving the political problem.
Last fall, at age 80, Biden announced his intention to seek reelection. He hopes to hold the presidency until January of 2029, when he will 86 years old. The Democratic political elite have coalesced around this reelection bid, and no credible alternative has challenged him in the primaries. Biden and the Democratic Party are choosing to gamble with the very survival of the republic. If Donald Trump wins the presidency this year, Biden’s decision to seek a second term will be seen as one of the greatest blunders in American history.
Since Biden is running again, the question is how his age liability can be mitigated. My Nation colleague John Nichols suggests Biden could burst out of his current presidential cocoon and give more interviews, press conferences, and speeches. This is a risky strategy, since seeing more of Biden will radically increase the odds of embarrassing gaffes. It’s unclear that seeing more of Biden makes him a more appealing candidate.
Another tactic would be to give a frank speech acknowledging his aging but distinguishing it from incapacity. Such a speech could be modeled on John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech addressing worries about his Catholicism and Barack Obama’s 2008 speech rebutting racist anxiety about his candidacy. A frank confrontation with voter worries would clear the air and perhaps assuage anxiety.
Since Biden has trouble communicating, he could give greater prominence to Vice President Kamala Harris, making her the designated voice. Making the public aware that Harris stands by as a ready and able alternative would strengthen the case for Biden. The president could also make the 2024 battle more of a partisan struggle rather than a personal one by recruiting the large number of eloquent Democrats as spokesmen, everyone from Barack Obama to Pete Buttigieg to Elizabeth Warren to Bernie Sanders.
Biden needs also to consider the policies he has that reinforce the idea that he is weak, feckless, and hobbled. Since the Israel assault on Gaza started last October, Biden has repeatedly expressed frustration with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s disregard for civilian life. But Biden continues to finance and arm the Israeli army. This makes Biden look unable to stand up to an ally that is heavily dependent on the United States. The age issue is intimately tied with Biden’s style of governance, which conflict-averse, cautious, hidebound, and slow-moving.
Finally, the age issue could be put in perspective by emphasizing the dangers of Biden’s opponent. While Donald Trump is not getting any younger, he remains a vigorous speaker. But in his speeches, Trump doesn’t hide the fact that he’s an unstable aspiring dictator prone to fantasies of violent retribution, as on Saturday when he warned that he would encourage Russia to invade NATO allies that didn’t pay their dues. In effect, this is a promise to run NATO as a protection racket.
The 2024 race will be close. Biden’s age is undeniably a problem, but being honest about the problem might alleviate it enough to avert a catastrophe.
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