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Stop Hid’n Biden
The president sounded sharp on his round-the-world trip. More of that please.
OUR OCTOGENARIAN PRESIDENT TRAVELED 8,000 miles to meet with India’s premier, Narendra Modi, and to attend the G20 summit in New Delhi. He then flew another 2,000 miles to visit America’s new pal, Vietnam—all over the course of just five days. That’s a demanding trip even for a younger person. After meeting for several hours with the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, Nguyễn Phú Trọng, Biden held a formal press conference. And he did fine.
Yes, his voice is weaker than it used to be, and his gait is stiff, but on the matter that currently has 62 percent of the public seriously worried—namely, whether he has the mental acuity to serve as president—his performance should be reassuring.
The public’s perception of Biden’s mental decline is out of all proportion to reality. A May NPR/Marist poll found that 69 percent of registered independent voters believe Biden’s mental fitness is a real concern. A more recent CNN poll found that 73 percent are seriously concerned that his physical and mental health might not be adequate for another term. Even among Democrats, only 49 percent say he has the stamina and mental sharpness to serve another term. At dinner parties, people say the president has dementia.
To be clear, it would be better to have a younger president seeking re-election—and I would like to be four inches taller and gifted at the cello. But we got what we got, and part of being a grown-up is accepting reality. An 80-year-old president is less than ideal, sure, but there’s no reason to catastrophize.
There is just no way to watch Biden’s Hanoi press conference and not recognize that his brain is working fine. He responds to questions in appropriate fashion. His words are diplomatically chosen, and his thoughts follow in logical order. He remembers what he just said a few minutes ago and doesn’t repeat himself (or not more than the average politician).
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Anyone who has ever had a friend or relative with dementia knows that this is nothing like what they sound like. They repeat themselves constantly without self-awareness. They get confused about tenses and facts. They don’t distinguish between things that happened that morning and things that happened years ago. They sometimes begin a sentence and just stop midway through. They get angry and tearful for no apparent reason. Dementia is devastating and quite different from normal aging. In fact, while the percentage of people with dementia rises with age, only about 10 percent of those aged 70 and older suffer from it.
Now have a look at Biden’s press conference. He was asked about a Chinese official’s accusation that Biden was “insincere” about the relationship with China, and also whether he thought Xi Jinping was sincere in light of his recent move to “ban” Apple in China. Biden had trouble hearing the first part of the question (okay, that is his age showing), but then gave a careful answer.
He declined the implied invitation to get into a spitting match with Xi and emphasized that “we’re not looking to hurt China. . . . We’re all better off if China does well,” adding that “if China does well by the international rules, it grows the [world’s] economy.” To underline that point, he noted that “It’s not about isolating China. It’s about making sure the rules of the road—everything from airspace and—and space and in the ocean is—the international rules of the road are abided by.”
Without overt threats or intemperate words, Biden then noted that he is building and/or bolstering alliances with other Asian nations. “That’s what this trip was all about: having India cooperate much more with the United States, be closer with the United States, Vietnam being closer with the United States. It’s not about containing China; it’s about having a stable base—a stable base in the Indo-Pacific.”
In fact, across the political spectrum, people in the United States are highly suspicious of China. Trump fulminated about China eating our lunch, but fawned over Xi’s handling of COVID (and general awesomeness). His vaunted trade deal with China was a bust. China never purchased the additional $200 billion in American products that Trump claimed were guaranteed by the deal. Meanwhile, the tariffs he imposed (and Biden has failed to repeal) cost U.S. consumers $80 billion, and that’s not counting the $28 billion in aid to compensate farmers for lost revenue.
Biden’s policy hasn’t been perfect, but he has been skillful at aligning allies. He hosted a breakthrough meeting between Japan and South Korea at Camp David, and has initiated a new initiative with Great Britain and Australia (AUKUS) that the British prime minister called “the most significant multilateral defense partnership in generations.” The AUKUS deal includes selling nuclear powered submarines to the Australians (with technical advice from the Brits). One could say that Biden is speaking softly but carrying a big stick.
I could have done without the too-clever-by-half tactic of calling only upon female journalists (a reprise of an Obama gimmick from 2014). And Biden’s acknowledgement at the start that the five questioners had been chosen in advance was a mistake. He introduced the Q&A by saying, “And now, I will take your questions. Let me see. They told me—they gave me five people here,” which made him seem directed by others instead of in charge. And he stumbled over their names all the same.
But in the course of his basically direct, non-meandering answers, he touted the new rail and shipping corridor just announced at the G20 that will link India to Europe; spoke of the responsibilities of wealthier nations to help the “global south” combat climate change (though how popular that will be with American taxpayers is an open question); noted that the United States has the world’s strongest economy; praised a past Republican senator for working with poorer nations to maintain forest land; and mentioned the amount of carbon the Amazon rainforest absorbs.
At one point he did sound like a geezer, quoting from a John Wayne movie, and I held my breath. There was something about an Indian scout and headdresses, and boy, where is this anecdote going? But it turned out that the quote he wanted was from the scout, pointing to a soldier and calling him “a lying, dog-faced pony soldier.” Maybe a long way to go for that payoff, but it was apposite for the point he was making and it wasn’t inappropriate or crude or offensive.
Some tried to make a story about the way the press conference ended, with the press secretary announcing, “Thank you, everybody!” while the president was still speaking. Fox winked that “Biden wandered off stage” after that. Please. Press conferences are frequently halted by a staffer’s “Thank you, Mr. President.” It’s a convention, as is the tradition of journalists continuing to shout questions after that. The only difference here was substituting “everybody” for “Mr. President.” The part that was strange was the decision to play music as the president concluded his thoughts—this wasn’t a variety show. Just odd.
Biden’s physical presentation—the slow and careful walk, the slightly pitched posture—suggests age more than his words. He is perfectly capable of thinking on his feet. Whoever has been deciding to keep him under wraps for fear of gaffes is hurting his cause. People have come to believe that he is in sharp mental decline. When you see him in a Q&A, it’s clear that he isn’t, and people need to know that.