On September 28, President Biden hosted a conference at the White House on hunger, nutrition, and health. Biden greeted the attendees. He took a moment to thank the bipartisan group of lawmakers who had helped organize the event. Running through the list, Biden asked, “Jackie, are you here? Where’s Jackie? I didn’t think she was—she wasn’t going to be here—to help make this a reality.”
The president was searching for Representative Jackie Walorski, an Indiana Republican first elected to Congress in 2012. There was no way he could have found her in the crowd, however, since Walorski had perished in a car crash some two months earlier. Biden knew about the accident. The terrible story had been national news. At the time, he and the first lady had expressed their “shock and sadness” at the congresswoman’s death. Biden had ordered U.S. flags to be flown at half-staff for a day.
Clearly the president had forgotten that Walorski was dead. The moment embarrassed Biden, and his staff made the situation worse. At a briefing later that afternoon, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre insisted that nothing was amiss: Biden mentioned the late Representative Walorski simply because she had been in his thoughts. “She was top of mind for the president,” Jean-Pierre said. “Top of mind” became Jean-Pierre’s mantra as she fended off questions from an unusually feisty White House press corps.
The implication was that Biden simply had made a passing reference to the recently deceased as though she were alive—something many people do after a loved one’s death. What Jean-Pierre couldn’t explain, however, was why Biden acted as if he expected Walorski to be in the room, and why her absence confused him. As James Rosen, a reporter in the briefing room, put it: “Karine, I have John Lennon top of mind just about every day, but I’m not looking around for him anywhere.”
Biden was in luck. None of the three network news broadcasts covered his mental slip. The press soon moved on to cover Vladimir Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling. And Vice President Harris diverted attention from her boss with a misstep of her own. “The United States,” she said the next day while visiting the DMZ, “shares a very important relationship, which is an alliance with the Republic of North Korea.” Biden always can count on his vice president to make him look acceptable, if not good, by comparison.
The White House staff must have breathed a collective sigh of relief. They had survived another controversy over the president’s age and fitness for office. It won’t be the last time Biden and his aides face such questions, however. To the contrary: Biden’s age and mental acuity become more of a political problem with each passing day. Concerns over his cognitive abilities and physical health may hover in the background for now. They will soon move to the fore.
Biden will turn 80 years old on November 20. He is the oldest president in American history. The second- and third-oldest, Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan, became president at ages 70 and 69, respectively. The similarities end there. Trump, to put it gently, does not act his age. And Reagan disarmed his critics with a combination of personal charm and self-deprecatory humor. Biden, by contrast, is prickly and defensive.
In his occasional pratfalls and hectoring rhetoric, Biden more closely resembles Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. He shuffles his feet. On several occasions he has tripped on the stairs to Air Force One. In June he fell from his bicycle. From time to time, at the end of a photo op or press availability, he looks lost.
Some of Biden’s miscues are harmless. The world is not going to end because the president wondered where Representative Walorski was, or honored “President Harris,” or mistook Senator Mark Warner (D., Va.) for the late Senator John Warner. Other verbal eruptions are more consequential. There are consequences when Biden says four times that U.S. troops will defend Taiwan if China invades, or declares that, “by God,” Putin “cannot remain in power,” or announces that the coronavirus pandemic is “over.” Biden’s sentiments may be correct, but they run afoul of his administration’s talking points. The mismatch discomfits audiences, both foreign and domestic. It contributes to the speculation that the president is not fully in command.
Biden’s advanced age influences his schedule. He holds few press conferences and seldom gives one-on-one interviews. He travels to his homes in Delaware or to Camp David most weekends, spending more time away from the White House than his predecessors. In a New York Times piece over the summer, Peter Baker observed that Biden “stays out of public view at night.” In recent weeks he has been more active, fundraising for the midterm election. “His energy level, while impressive for a man of his age, is not what it was, and some aides quietly watch out for him,” Baker wrote.
Biden’s condition has the makings of an insoluble dilemma. Unless he discovers the fountain of youth, voter worries about his future and national anxiety over his capacities can only grow. In a June Harvard-Harris poll, 60 percent of registered voters said they had doubts about Biden’s fitness for office. Sixty-four percent said Biden is showing that he is too old to be president.
According to the Harvard-Harris poll, Biden commanded only 30 percent support from Democrats in a hypothetical 2024 primary vote. Seventy-one percent of registered voters said Biden should not run again. When asked why, 45 percent said the reason was “he’s a bad president.” Another 30 percent said, “he’s too old.” Sixty percent said that Donald Trump also shouldn’t run.
Biden is unpopular. Worse, his own party views him as an albatross. In a July NYT/Siena poll, 64 percent of Democrats said they want another nominee in 2024. That same month, a CNN poll found that 75 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters want another standard-bearer. A late September Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that 56 percent of Democrats or Democratic leaners preferred someone other than Biden as the party’s 2024 nominee.
The Democratic desire for new leadership must be related to the fact that Biden would begin a hypothetical second term at age 82 and end it at age 86. No one likes to talk about it, but voters have deep reservations about the rising age of our political class.
A CBS News poll released in early September found that 73 percent of Americans supported maximum age limits for elected officials. Seventy-one percent of Democrats agreed. A 40-percent plurality of adults said that the limit should be set at 70 years old. Under that standard, Biden would have been ineligible to run for president in 2020.
Public fear that an octogenarian Biden will be unable to respond in a major crisis—and there are so many crises to choose from—will be a factor if the president decides to run for reelection. In mid-September, when Scott Pelley of 60 Minutes asked whether he is “committed to running again,” Biden answered, “It’s much too early to make that kind of decision. I’m a great respecter of fate.” A moment later, Biden added, “Look, my intention as I said to begin with is that I would run again. But it’s just an intention.” That’s what we in the business call “wiggle room.”
Pelley also asked Biden about his mental state. “Some people ask whether you are fit for the job,” Pelley said. “And when you hear that, I wonder what you think.”
“Watch me,” Biden replied.
We are watching, though. We just don’t like what we see.
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