Jun 25, 2021

Is President Biden okay?

Is President Biden okay?

Questions about his cognitive state persist.

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Today’s read: 7 minutes.

The President of the United States doesn’t seem quite right.

I know we’re really not supposed to say that. For some reason, it’s become one of the most taboo issues for a pundit or reporter to discuss. A few months ago, when I answered a reader question about whether I was concerned about Biden’s cognitive state, I was inundated with emails: “you’re an ageist,” “you’re ignorant,” “you’re not a doctor,” “you’re not qualified to say so” and, of course, “have you seen Trump?” And that was after I said I wasn’t that concerned. All of those responses (except for me being an ageist, which is absurd) might be reasonable retorts. But they’re not arguments that are hard to address either.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks to Department of Defense personnel, with Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Feb. 10, 2021. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

Before I respond to them, though, I’d like to present my position:

I don’t know what’s wrong with President Biden. I don’t know if something is wrong with President Biden. Some people, especially on the right, like to claim he is frequently exhibiting signs of dementia. His defenders, on the other hand, have pointed to his lifelong stutter (which was the inspiration for one of my favorite essays during the campaign, in which a reporter wrote about seeing his own stutter in Biden). A lot of people have simply dismissed his visible and obvious changes as a product of natural, normal aging.

Regardless of where you land, the result of those changes has prompted some reasonable questions that we should not simply ignore. Last week, Biden made his first trip abroad. After multiple public appearances and addresses, questions — on social media, by the foreign press, and here in the U.S. — were once again raised about his mental state. Many people saw a bumbling old man, while others saw a commanding, articulate leader. I think it’s worth addressing the conversation.

My position, and the argument I do feel comfortable making, is that Joe Biden seems markedly different than he did just five years ago. To illustrate that, I’m going to ask that you watch a couple of short clips.

Here is Biden in 2016 talking about Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. You don’t even have to note his appearance (in which he does look noticeably younger). Just close your eyes and listen to him speak for a minute and a half:

I think this clip is a nice baseline because it’s a video of Biden speaking off his teleprompter and discussing an issue with reporters. Of course, it’s a clip where he’s discussing something he’s most comfortable with: working-class America, and some of the angst across the country.

Now, here he is discussing a more complex issue just this week:

Can anyone watch these videos objectively and conclude that they’re watching someone with the same verbal capacity? As Caitlin Johnstone, an independent and fiercely progressive writer who recently compared some of these clips said,  “If you tell me you're seeing the same level of cognitive functioning in the first video as the second and third video, you are lying.”

If you’ve spent any time on the internet, you’ve probably seen the highlight reels — some of them from the left — of Biden’s stumbles, stutters, mix-ups, and trail-offs. He has, in no particular order, forgotten the words of the most well-known passage in the Declaration of Independence, forgotten the name of his defense secretary, repeatedly confused nation-states, misnamed the cities he was in, and trails off mid-thought in just about every public appearance he makes.

The result of this “obvious” cognitive decline, as some have put it, created a lot of buzz during the campaign. But that buzz is circling back again now with these most recent examples. Last week, the former White House doctor and 13 House Republicans demanded Biden “take a cognitive test.” Some 33 percent of Americans don’t believe Biden is mentally fit for the job, while the other two-thirds are satisfied with his mental acuity. I guess, depending on where you sit, that’s either a very good or very bad poll for Biden.

The elephant in the room

Believe it or not, it wasn’t such a big deal to talk about this stuff two years ago. Glenn Greenwald very clearly documented the way questions around Biden’s mental capacity became “low blows” and “disgusting” only after he became the favorite to win the Democratic nomination.

Cory Booker pointedly brought it up on the campaign trail, telling CNN that he wasn’t sure Biden had the mental fitness to endure the campaign. During one of the Democratic debates, Julian Castro asked Biden directly if he had forgotten what he’d said just two minutes before. Rolling Stone writer Jamil Smith invoked his late family member, who died of dementia, to raise questions about what he was seeing from Biden. Andrea Mitchell asked her audience how sharp Biden was, or if he still had the “stuff” to be able to defend himself in a debate.

One Twitter user who was documenting all the prominent reporters and pundits questioning Biden’s mental state in 2019 made a thread online. I checked it this week, only to find that about half the tweets had been deleted — perhaps by people who are still reporting on the president and didn’t want those old comments to circle back to them (now that it has become “off-limits”).

That’s because, as Greenwald illustrated, conversations about Biden’s health became increasingly inappropriate as his status rose. CNN reporters who are supposed to be speaking truth to power instead decried organic, viral videos of Biden’s mishaps and gaffes as “coordinated” political attacks. Julian Castro’s communications director insisted Castro had never actually questioned Biden’s cognitive competence, and said the same of Cory Booker (despite each of them doing it on tape in front of millions of people).

None of this, of course, means any of the speculation is true. It just means the reason Biden’s cognitive state went from an open question to an off-limits territory is that people were worried he was going to lose to Trump, and questions about his mental capacities could play an outsized role in causing that loss.

The arguments

There are some standard responses that I’ve now encountered every time I have even remotely inquired about the president’s mental health. I’d like to address them briefly.

“You’re an ageist.” Nothing I’m writing or observing here is because of my biases about Joe Biden’s age. There is, for example, a stark difference between Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who is a year older than Biden. There’s often a stark difference between Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Biden, and Grassley is eight years older than Biden. I have previously written about Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who like Biden has been the subject of concern over her mental ability. Not because of what year she was born, but because of how she presents herself in public.

“You’re not a doctor.” No, I’m not. But I have eyes and ears. Watching President Biden, for someone like me, is like watching a family member. I’ve been watching him speak publicly, address Congress, interact with reporters and go on television regularly for almost 10 years. In the last six years, I’ve seen video clips of him nearly every day. Nobody would question my concern over a family member or friend who I saw regularly because I’m “not a doctor,” and pretending I can’t tell the difference between Biden now and then is… a little bit ridiculous.

“You’re not his doctor.” Again, no, I’m not. But I know enough to wonder. I know he’s 78 years old, the oldest president ever. I know he suffered two life-threatening brain aneurysms in 1988. I know he has slurred his words publicly and the last time he spoke in front of the press he didn’t make a lot of sense.

“Have you seen Trump?” Yes, I have. And I covered him extensively, writing frequently about his bizarre ramblings and ridiculous comments and profound ignorance on many issues he should have known more about. Trump also has absolutely nothing to do with Biden’s current state compared to how he was three, five or ten years ago.