President Joe Biden’s “age problem” is all over the news again. The other day the president?confused the name of France’s president with the name of a dead French president. Not long after, he used the name of a late German chancellor when he meant a former living one. Then on Thursday special counsel Robert Hur, a Republican former U.S. attorney appointed by former President Donald Trump, declined to prosecute Biden for his mishandling of classified documents, in part, Hur wrote, because he believed a jury would see Biden sympathetically as an “elderly man with a poor memory.” Then, just hours after Hur’s stinging report was released, Biden, at a news conference, referred to the president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, as the “president of Mexico.”
Biden’s slip-ups and Hur’s jab have triggered another avalanche of news articles about Biden’s advanced age and his fitness for office. It’s safe to wager that this cycle is going to repeat itself again and again before Election Day.
The national media has a responsibility to document and interrogate Biden’s mental acuity. But it’s imperative that it do so responsibly. One can’t help but feel, though, that the media is entering a Hillary Clinton-emails level of fixation.
In 2016, major mainstream publications were so obsessed with the former secretary of state’s email server and the investigations surrounding it that stories about the issue eclipsed substantive coverage of policy and created a false symmetry between her and Trump’s apparent corruption. The Columbia Journalism Review found that in the six days after then-FBI Director James Comey announced his reopening of his investigation of Clinton’s email server, “The New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all the policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election.” That obsession had consequences at the ballot box.?
Similarly, raising questions about Biden’s age is shaping up to serve as the kind of foundational 2024 narrative that many mainstream reporters are likely to see as a way to appear fair-minded and nonpartisan. Though the two likely nominees were born about 3? years apart, it seems that Trump’s authoritarian ambitions will be pitted against Biden’s age as broadly equivalent signifiers of whether they’re fit for office. That’s alarming, for two reasons.?
First, Trump doesn’t deserve to escape scrutiny of his mental acuity. While Trump appears more energetic than Biden, he also shows significant lapses in memory, such as when he accuses Biden of wanting to start World War II or when he seemed to confuse Republican former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley with Democrat and former House speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California. Trump’s speeches have always been oddly discursive, and they appear increasingly so. Trump reportedly has a remarkably short attention span, and his aides reportedly tried adding more images in his presidential briefings in a quixotic bid to capture his focus during them.
There are questions about both Biden’s mental acuity and Trump’s mental acuity, and it only makes sense to compare them on the same plane. But usually they aren’t compared. Part of the problem is that Trump’s lack of focus is baked into his political persona — his uninterest in learning the truth, telling the truth or speaking with precision can mask questions about his cognitive capacity, and his vulgar strongman politics put questions of his intellectual and technocratic competence on the back burner in the eyes of reporters. For example when, just days after being inaugurated, Trump spoke about abolitionist Frederick Douglass as if he may have thought Douglass was alive, it was unclear whether his language was attributable to illiteracy or a lapse of memory. In flouting norms of knowledge, Trump ends up getting a pass on mental competence that he shouldn’t.?
Second, Biden’s mental acuity matters, but a president who struggles to remember names of politicians and lacks focus shouldn’t be seen as symmetrical with openly plotting for a police state. There’s a good chance that Biden relies more on his staff than he might have if he were younger and that his decision-making is vastly suboptimal compared to a younger version of himself. That’s a real problem worth raising, and it makes him a weaker candidate. But Trump makes use of whatever level of mental acuity he possesses and reliance on aides toward the end of subverting American democracy. The media needs to keep this sense of perspective and not use the excuse of “narrative” to diminish the differences between the candidates.
But even if the media were completely responsible and fair and proportionate, that wouldn’t mean that Biden’s problems would vanish. Democrats who deny?that Biden’s age and his struggles to communicate are problematic are only deluding themselves. This isn’t an entirely media-created controversy, nor is this a matter of people failing to appreciate Biden's lifelong stutter, which has become common knowledge. Throughout his presidency Biden has often appeared lethargic and confused in news conferences and interviews, clips of which constantly go viral. His extemporaneous speech can be genuinely difficult to follow: His argument on “60 Minutes” that his age hasn’t tainted his capacity to focus was shockingly incoherent. While memory lapses aren’t uncommon for public officials, his appear to come at an unusually frequent pace. And these moments are sticking:?Polling consistently shows most Americans are concerned that he’s too old to be an effective president.
Come Election Day, assuming Biden and Trump are their parties’ nominees, the overwhelming majority of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters will go with Biden regardless of how they feel about his age. But the small yet politically crucial contingent of swing voters in battleground states could plausibly be moved by narratives of Biden’s mental decline. Biden’s seeming difficulty in focusing also hurts his ability to mobilize the base. The vitality of a politician can help inspire voters. At a time when the Democratic coalition is already fracturing over the U.S. support of Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip, it doesn’t help Biden that he can’t charm his base with soaring speeches or viral clips of him dispensing snappy one-liners or swatting away the opposition through clear, punchy talk about his 2024 vision.
Biden should have exercised responsibility by declining to run for a second term and encouraging a full, competitive Democratic primary campaign. It seems it's too late for that option at this juncture. Given that his age problem isn’t going away, he needs to proactively take the focus off of himself. Incidentally, the best way he can offset this problem is by doing something he should’ve done a long time ago anyway: backing some sweeping policies for badly needed reform, like “Medicare for All,” that can excite people — especially young people. If?Biden can’t be lively, then he should make sure his ideas are.