By Jim Geraghty, National Review
On the first day of November, President Biden visited the OB Johnson Park and community center in Hallandale Beach, Fla., to deliver remarks on “protecting Social Security and Medicare and lowering prescription drug costs,” as the White House described the event. Unsurprisingly, Biden departed from the main topic, and in the middle of his remarks he executed the rare double-cringer: “Inflation is a worldwide problem right now because of a war in Iraq. . . . Excuse me, the war in Ukraine. I’m thinking of Iraq because that’s where my son died.”
This was the second time in a month that the president inaccurately claimed that his son Beau died in Iraq. Beau Biden was deployed in Iraq from October 2008 to October 2009, and in 2013 he had a “small lesion” removed from his brain and was diagnosed with brain cancer. In 2015, Beau Biden passed away from that cancer. President Biden has contended several times, without medical proof, that his son’s brain cancer was caused by burn pits used on military bases in Iraq. As the New York Times’ chief White House correspondent, Peter Baker, gently put it, Biden’s “misstatements have become more pronounced, and more noticed, now that he has the spotlight of the presidency constantly on him.”
Aside from worries about the upcoming midterms, Biden endured a particularly odd and rough autumn. In late August, unnamed White House aides said that he would be “embracing the role as his party’s top campaigner” with a “more aggressive” attitude. But as late summer turned to fall, Biden’s role as “the party’s top campaigner” involved mostly speaking to groups of Democratic donors, with no cameras or recording devices allowed, and only one pool reporter present taking notes. Biden held no rallies with Democratic candidates in September or October, holding his first only in November in Florida.
This extraordinarily limited use of the president is quite unusual. In 2006, President George W. Bush went out and held rallies with Republican candidates in then solidly red states such as Indiana, Georgia, Montana, Nevada, Texas, and Nebraska. In October 2010, Obama held 16 rallies with Democratic candidates, and Trump appeared at 26 in October 2018. All of those presidents had fairly lousy job-approval ratings but went out and campaigned for their party’s candidates anyway.
One possible explanation for Biden’s relative absence from the campaign trail this fall is that he just can’t handle a normal travel schedule, in contrast with implausible spin efforts such as the claim of White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre that Biden has so much energy she “can’t even keep up with him.” Biden’s concessions to age are difficult to hide. Biden routinely has a light schedule by presidential standards. He almost never appears at more than two public events per day. Most days he has just one, and it is rarely early in the morning or late at night. The New York Times reported that Biden’s schedulers “try to guard Mr. Biden’s weekends in Delaware as much as possible.”
Another possibility is that Biden was just too unpopular to be of any use to most Democratic candidates; Biden’s job-approval rating is in the low 40s, and it’s usually a few percentage points worse in those key swing states. (Curiously, in the final weekend of October, First Lady Jill Biden traveled to New Hampshire for campaign events for Senator Maggie Hassan and to New York State for Democratic House candidates, while President Biden remained at his residence in Wilmington, Del.)
But the third, and most unnerving, possibility is that Biden, never the most disciplined speaker, has reached the point where he just can’t control what he blurts out when he’s allowed on stage, and everyone around him has decided that the safest course is to keep him effectively locked away, minimizing his time in front of the cameras.
This fall, Biden has contended that the economy was “strong as hell”; claimed, off the cuff, that the situation in Ukraine was headed toward “Armageddon” (while no one else in the U.S. government seemed to know what he was talking about); insisted that his student-loan bailout was passed by Congress (it wasn’t); claimed he had brought down the cost of energy (he hadn’t, by any measure of any form, since the start of his presidency — electricity, natural gas, gasoline, diesel, heating oil); exhibited a long, odd pause during an interview with MSNBC’s Jonathan Capehart; declared that John Fetterman’s wife would make “a great lady in the Senate”; and, during remarks, appeared to forget that Representative Jackie Walorski of Indiana had died in a car accident a month earlier.
He has boasted, “I got my start at one of those other HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities] — Delaware State University.” Biden attended the University of Delaware, not Delaware State University. He has also claimed he “was sort of raised in the Puerto Rican community at home, politically,” not specifying whether this was the Puerto Rican community of Scranton, Pa., or Mayfield, Del. Biden claimed he had talked to the doctors who “invented” “that insulin drug for diabetes.” Both died before Biden was born.
Biden increasingly seems like the national doddering grandfather who insists on discussing whatever pops into his mind at the Thanksgiving dinner table, from his old girlfriends to archaic terms for racial-minority groups. During a summer appearance on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night program, Biden segued, seemingly unprompted, to a soliloquy about the prevalence of biracial couples in television commercials: “You turn on the TV, look at the ads, when’s the last time you saw biracial couples on TV? When’s the last time you saw, the way, I mean, people are selling products, they do ads and sell products . . .” After a few more moments of rambling comments, Kimmel mercifully interrupted and said the program had “some biracial commercials we need to show.”
To hear the White House tell it, Biden is remarkably sharp-minded, regularly getting detailed classified briefings about topics such as quantum computing, Chinese development of hypersonic missiles, and the Ukrainians’ need for high-mobility artillery rocket systems. This image is hard to reconcile with what we see of Biden.
Back in July 2021, as the U.S. presence in Afghanistan was ending in disaster and Biden’s public appearances were limited to short statements and he was refusing to take questions, John Ellis, formerly of the Boston Globe, summarized how it was acceptable to acknowledge Biden’s age and mental condition if you used certain euphemisms.
“Somewhere along the way of the last few years, Biden transitioned from ‘young old’ to ‘old,’” Ellis wrote. “Veteran reporters describe the transition in code. ‘He’s lost a step or two.’ Or: ‘He’s lost something off his fastball.’ You’re not supposed to talk about it. If you do, and you’re a Democrat, you’re scolded for aiding and abetting the enemy. . . . The problem is that it’s there for all to see. Pretending not to see it is untenable.”
And yet the White House pretends no one can notice Biden wandering around oddly at public events, see the vacant look in his eyes at times, or hear the meandering stories and mumbling. Anyone who has watched a parent or relative succumb to the ravages of age is familiar with the sad, inevitable decline. Biden is not well, and he’s not going to get any better. The presidency ages the most energetic and dynamic of men, and Biden was not among them when he took the oath of office.
There’s one other wrinkle to the issue of Biden’s age and health in the coming months and years. Many voters may have long suspected that elected officials and candidates are less than fully honest about their health, but this fall brought a vivid example. Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman suffered a severe stroke in mid May, and his recovery kept him off the campaign trail entirely for about three months. When he returned to campaigning, he stuck mostly to ten-minute appearances before friendly crowds, and in the occasional interview used closed-captioning to read the questions that reporters asked.
In mid October, the lone debate with Mehmet Oz approaching, Fetterman’s campaign released a note from the candidate’s doctor declaring he was “recovering well,” had “no work restrictions,” and could “work full duty in public office.” The doctor also said that Fetterman had “spoke[n] intelligently with no cognitive defects.” And then Fetterman went up on the debate stage and looked and sounded awful, struggling to articulate his arguments — “missing words, pausing awkwardly and speaking haltingly,” as Politico summarized his performance. MSNBC morning host Joe Scarborough concluded, “John Fetterman’s ability to communicate is seriously impaired. Pennsylvania voters will be talking about this obvious fact, even if many in the media will not.”
Voters now know that certain doctors are willing to sign letters offering what appears to be an excessively rosy assessment of a candidate’s health. How much faith should voters have in the declaration of Biden’s physician, Kevin O’Connor, who declared last year that Biden was a “healthy, vigorous 78-year-old male” and “fit to successfully execute the duties of the presidency”? If the president is so healthy and vigorous, why does he look and sound so unwell and exhausted to the rest of us?
Biden is a man who belongs in a retirement home, not behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.
Empower Wisconsin | Nov. 22, 2022