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.

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The case for Biden

One thing almost nobody ever does when discussing this issue is actually make a strong defense of the president. I’d like to do that here. Not because I am his spokesperson or he needs me defending him, but because it’s not fair to raise this issue without pointing to some relevant and weighty counterpoints.

First, if you ask anyone with celebrity status about what it’s like being filmed or followed all day (and I have) they all say something to the effect of: “it sucks.” I’m such an avid reader that I often learn words without ever hearing them, and then frequently misspeak when I try pronouncing them (my wife has a running list of all the horrible mispronunciations I’ve made). That’s despite being someone who practices my public speaking and even records a weekly podcast. If someone filmed me every hour for a year and then linked up with a good video editor, I’m sure they could make me look incompetent on subjects I actually know a lot about.

Second, being a human highlight reel of gaffes and mistakes and forgetfulness doesn’t necessarily mean you have some kind of mental affliction. Go watch highlight reels of George W. Bush’s infamous “Bushisms” and one could wonder about his mental state, too (in his case, the press simply framed him as an idiot rather than someone suffering from declining mental health). Narratives have a funny way of informing new inputs. Perhaps if the narrative on Biden was that he was slow or deliberate, his current run of uncomfortable appearances wouldn’t be looked at as potential early-onset dementia but Biden just being Biden. In this case, the narrative on Biden has always been that he was gaffe-prone and sometimes spoke too much — and maybe we’re just seeing that intersect with his age and his stutter.

Third, that stutter is real. It’s impossible to calculate how much it impacts his repeated struggles to start or end a sentence, but it’s not just campaign propaganda. Biden has spoken about his stutter extensively for a while. And the essay from John Hendrickson, in which he spells out exactly how similar his own stutter is to what he witnesses in Biden, was illuminating: “A non-stutterer might not notice when he appears to get caught on words as an adult,” Hendrickson wrote, “because he usually maneuvers out of those moments quickly and expertly.”

Fourth, and perhaps most convincingly, is to simply look at the Biden government.

It’s running pretty well. Whether he’s doing things you want him to do is another story (there are things about this administration I don’t like), but an incapacitated president who was losing his mind wouldn’t be pulling off the legislative feats Biden is. He’s passed trillions of dollars in new spending and appears to be closing in on a serious infrastructure deal as well as police reform legislation.

He’s ticking off many of his promises, and based on reporting we have he’s been deeply involved in a lot of those processes. There have been no damaging leaks about his mental state — in fact, his administration has been remarkably leak-free. So far he has not been faulted for any major failures or flubs (like, say, insulting a foreign dignitary or making a poor high-pressure decision), save for the situation on the border that has hampered nearly every president in the U.S. over the last forty years.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose words I don’t suggest you ever believe without great care, was queried about Biden’s mental health after the two met last week. “He does not miss a thing, trust me,” Putin said after their summit in Geneva. “Biden is a professional; you have to be very attentive when working with him so as not to miss something.” Take it as you’d like.

Even going back to the presidential debates: everyone and their mother said over and over that Trump was going to bulldoze Biden in their first debate. Even pundits on the left wondered aloud about what would happen and cringed in fear at the prospect of “their guy” getting out-quipped and dunked on by President Trump, who we knew approached debates like boxing matches and had outperformed many opponents in the past.

But instead, the debate turned into a “shitshow,” as CNN’s Dana Bash described it live on air. I wrote the next day that it was a spectacle of the worst kind. But absent from any of those commentaries were questions about Biden’s mental health. He outperformed expectations. By a long shot. Conservative pundits and Trump homers spent most of the next day maligning Trump for ruining “the biggest layup in the history of debates” when he failed to clearly denounce the Proud Boys. Frank Luntz polled 17 Republican voters after the election in a focus group, and asked them to describe Biden in a single or a few words. The positive responses were overwhelming. “Surprised,” “better than expected,” “more professional,” “more a people person,” “confident,” “restraint and compassion,” “leader," “attentive," “humanity," “integrity.”

That feels like eons ago, but it’s still relevant.

My take.

I think it’s impossible to deny that there is something there. I don’t know what it is, exactly, and I’m not sure we will anytime soon.

But after the last year of being told not to question the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, or that Trump cleared out Lafeyyette square for a photoshoot, or that Capitol Police officer Brian Sicnick was killed by protesters at the January 6 riot, or that Russia placed bounties on the heads of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan — all narratives that have since fallen apart — I don’t think it’s unreasonable to resist the narrative that everything is just fine. That Biden is simply aging. That it’s his stutter. And I’m certainly not going to obediently ignore questions about it as so many other people are.

Maybe a more interesting inquiry is: does it matter?

If it’s true that Biden is suffering from some kind of cognitive issue, how is it possible things are… pretty normal? Is it because the president is just a symbolic figure, rather than one who is executing any kind of grand plan? And if he is little more than a symbol, how could his approval ratings domestically and abroad be rock solid if he is so “obviously” exhibiting signs of a worrisome degenerative brain disease?

What I see when I look at the president is a guy who has some good days and some bad days. Some may point to that as further evidence of a “there-there.” But for all the talk of his changes, it’s also not hard to find videos from 2015 where he exhibits many of the things that raise questions now: interrupting himself mid-sentence, stuttering, stumbling, trailing off.

It’s also true that Biden himself has addressed this stuff head-on, denying that his stutter has anything to do with his speaking mishaps but conceding that he sometimes is left “searching” for words when he’s tired. Maybe the explanation is as simple and innocuous as that, and the man we witnessed last week was just a tired president in a different time zone talking about a complex issue. Or maybe that’s just the latest talking point to distract from a worrisome body of evidence that the president is unfit.

Either way, it’s okay to ask some questions.

This one is free.

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