President Biden took a setback and turned it into a debacle.
It’s not like it had never occurred to anyone that an 81-year-old president seeking a second term was problematic. There has been a growing debate about whether Biden has the mental acuity and physical stamina for the job. Even a majority of Democrats say in polls that he shouldn’t run again.
I have been saying for a couple of years now, every chance I get, that it’s a mistake for the president’s advisers to shield him from the media. It makes him look disengaged. It takes him out of the news cycle. It leaves a void that is filled by Donald Trump. It’s a surrender of the world’s biggest bully pulpit.
The guy even turned down a Super Bowl interview for the second straight year, passing up a massive audience.
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What Biden’s inner circle is doing, of course, is protecting him from making gaffes (which he has done his whole life). Instead, he puts out statements, which get little play. Even when the military launched retaliatory airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, the commander-in-chief remained silent.
My view is that making mistakes is a small price to pay for being on camera, providing video that drives television and the web. Biden may be working hard behind the scenes, but if voters don’t see you out there leading, they will wonder why you vanished – especially with your likely opponent constantly engaging with journalists.
Taking a couple of questions from reporters and providing terse answers, often over the roar of a helicopter, just doesn’t cut it.
Biden had a tough time on the memory front last week. He spent 30 painful seconds trying to think of “Hamas” until a reporter supplied the name. He mixed up Emmanuel Macron and the late Francois Mitterand. Then, telling the same anecdote, he described what German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had told him in 2021, except the leader died four years earlier.
Then came the special counsel’s report.
The good news – no indictment for mishandling classified documents – was immediately overshadowed by Robert Hur’s description of the president. The most stinging quote: “a well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.” So poor that no jury would convict him.
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Biden, said Hur, couldn’t remember what years he had served as VP or the year that his son died. The president, Kamala Harris and the White House all said that Hur, originally a Trump appointee, had no business including such gratuitous insults. Attacking the prosecutor is a well-worn tactic, also practiced by the likes of Trump and Bill Clinton.
No matter. A special counsel had given an official stamp of approval to public concerns and anxieties about the president’s mental fitness and his staff had no business letting the boss do five hours of interviews on the two days after Hamas massacred Israelis.
But this is when Biden made things far, far worse. Privately cursing and furious, according to several media accounts, he decided to hold a rare news conference – the press was given a 20-minute warning – and poured kerosene on the fire.
Biden sounded angry, petty and defensive – a “crotchety grandpa,” in the words of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. He expressed outrage: “There’s even a reference that I don’t remember when my son died. How dare he raise that?”
And he turned his ire against the press, by turns combative and mocking.
“I’m well-meaning, and I’m an elderly man, and I know what the hell I’m doing. I’ve been president. I put this country back on its feet,” Biden said.
As for his memory, “take a look at what I’ve done since I became president. None of you thought I could pass any of the things I got passed. How’d that happen? You know, I guess I just forgot what was going on.”
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CNN’s M.J. Lee uncorked a long and confrontational question before being cut off by the president: “While many American people have been watching and they have expressed concerns about your age –”
“That is your judgment,” Biden snapped. “That is your judgment. That is not the judgment of the press.” But it certainly showed up in poll after poll.
“They expressed concerns about your mental acuity,” Lee said. “They say that you are too old. Mr. President, in December you told me that you believe there are many other Democrats who could defeat Donald Trump. So why does it have to be you now? What is your answer?”
“Cause I’m the most qualified person in this country to be president of the United States and finish the job I started,” he shot back.
Oh, and he described Egyptian leader Abdel al-Sisi as the president of Mexico.
It was a train wreck. His worst traits were on display. What might have been a two-day flap over the report turned into a chaotic melodrama, with reporters shouting to be recognized.
This has the feeling of a turning point. Even though the 77-year-old Trump has had his missteps, confusing Nikki Haley and Nancy Pelosi, Biden seems more frail in the way he walks and talks, but it is too late for the Democrats to change horses now. The president has nine months to convince the country that he’s up to the job.
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Footnote: Politico says in a report that “top party operatives are warning Biden aides that the president cannot retreat in response to the special counsel report that fueled concerns over his age and mental faculties. They say President Joe Biden, having largely [shielded] away from interviews and press conferences, needs to be out in public far more.
“They want to see him engage with the press and voters in the off-script and punchy exchanges he’s been known for in the past, which they believe will help chip away at concerns about the president’s mental acuity. They say that it’s worth the risk of potential slip-ups that could reinforce the image that he’s declining.”
Welcome aboard to everyone who thinks Biden should do more media. I wonder if he’ll take the advice.