I got in my car one day last week and heard a short sound bite of President Biden’s latest speech. At one point, the 78-year-old Delawarean seemed to fumble for the right word (saying “president” instead of “present,” or something like that). I felt a slight wince, not because of his less-than-mini-gaffe — I do the same thing sometimes, and I’m 16 years younger — but because I know how right-wing media jumps all over these awkward moments, in their increasingly desperate hunt for any ammo to end the 46th presidency after just one term.
There’s two words that I keep hearing again and again to depict Biden every time I monitor talk radio or talk to the handful of Trump voters that I know in real life: “Cognitive decline.” Almost six months into a presidency with sweeping ambitions to show America — after 40 years in the wilderness — that a government can actually help the citizens who elect it, and to restore global faith in the United States and rebuild democracy after the Former Guy nearly wrecked it, that’s all they got. That somehow Biden will blow up America by reaching for the wrong word.
Last month, Rep. Ronny Jackson of Texas — Donald Trump’s former White House doctor who tried to tell America with a straight face that the junk-food junkie at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. was as healthy as a horse — lined up 13 GOP House colleagues to demand Biden take a cognitive test. You know, like the one Trump won’t stop talking about, which POTUS 45 claims he “aced” after distinguishing between a rhino and an elephant.
“Unfortunately, your mental decline and forgetfulness have become more apparent over the past 18 months,” insisted a letter signed by Jackson and his colleagues, citing incidents in which Biden appeared to forget the name of his defense secretary and stumbled over a line in the Declaration of Independence, which presumably would have been one of the impeachment counts if the GOP had won back the House in 2020. But Jackson was also echoing what he presumably hears every night on Fox News, where Sean Hannity has insisted Biden’s mental struggles “are getting a little scary.”
There is, of course, political method to the madness of these ridiculous attacks. Biden, as he nears the six-month anniversary of his presidency, remains persistently popular, with a Real Clear Politics average approval rating of 52.6% that’s a lot higher than Trump ever tallied in his four years. What’s more, Fox and its unholy alliance of right-wing media isn’t really calibrated to slam an older white man who kinda looks just like their viewer base. So it’s better to pretend to pity Biden and say the real power is someone the audience would love to hate, like a Black woman (VP Kamala Harris) or an honest-to-God socialist (Sen. Bernie Sanders) or a faceless uber-liberal bureaucrat from the Deep State (like chief of staff Ron Klain, whom top Republicans apparently call “Prime Minister Klain” or “the guy behind the curtain,” pretending that every modern-day president hasn’t relied heavily on his chief of staff.)
The truth about the presidential mind is, well, complicated. I believe a president’s mental health can be vitally important. Richard Nixon’s paranoia and obsession with proving his toughness (watching Patton three times before his immoral 1970 invasion of Cambodia) led to Watergate, while Trump’s narcissistic personality disorder is clearly tied to the Jan. 6 insurrection. But cognitive skills don’t seem as critical. Most of the Republicans now going after Biden also venerate Ronald Reagan, despite serious questions from experts over whether he showed early signs of his Alzheimer’s disease during his second term. But Reagan, who had a vision (albeit one a lot of us disagreed with) and a talent for delegating the day-to-day details, still pulled off a landmark arms deal with the USSR.
This seemed like a good time for an interim report card on Biden, partly because we’re nearing the six-month anniversary of his inauguration — on that dark January day just after the insurrection and when the pandemic was peaking — and also because he comes to Philadelphia on Tuesday to unveil his plans for saving U.S. democracy in the face of a Republican voter suppression wave, an issue that will define the future of his presidency and America.
I tend to be a harsh grader of both Republicans and Democrats, so I’ll give him a B+. But there’s been a lot to like, with the promise of even better things to come. The last couple of days have been a good microcosm of what a functioning presidency with a vision for where the nation ought to be headed should look like. On Friday, Biden signed a sweeping executive order with the broad goal of increasing competition across a wide range of business sectors from Silicon Valley to Big Pharma — another sign that his team has a real critique of late-stage capitalism and is thinking of ways to make life better for consumers and rank-and-file workers. Hours later, his administration canceled the student debts — worth more than $55 million — of 1,800 people scammed by yet another fraudulent for-profit university. It was a reminder of something that had been easy to forget for four years, that good government can solve problems.
Big picture, I’ve been most impressed with the way that Biden — showing there can be good aspects to a “career politician,” if he’s willing to understand his voters’ current problems and adapt — has accepted the need to tackle the gross unfairness and inequity in modern America, from economics to race and gender. What’s more, the president has been highly focused on hiring smart people with real ideas on how to make this happen. None of the skilled folks on Team Biden are going to accidentally bomb Libya just because their boss misspoke, which is why the GOP/Fox obsession with Biden’s mental acuity is such a red herring.
So why a B+ and not an A or A-? Because there are a few disturbing blind sports, most notably too much respect for the institutional inertia of the actual “Deep State,” at a moment when every decision must be viewed in the context of saving democracy. Continuing to defend some Trump-era decisions — in particular, an OK for the Line 3 pipeline across Indigenous land and wetlands, when the world is on fire from climate change — feels unconscionable. Attorney General Merrick Garland seems blinded by his institutionalism to the real threats that America faces, and his hiring might be Biden’s biggest mistake so far.
But at the end of the day, I’ve always felt that the average voter cares a lot less about the neurons firing and occasionally misfiring inside the president’s brain, and a lot more about what’s inside their heart. After witnessing a president who seemed psychologically incapable of feeling any humanity for more than 400,000 Americans who died from the coronavirus under his watch, it was both touching and reassuring to watch Biden and his wife, Jill, spend three hours consoling families with loved ones in the Surfside, Fla., condo collapse, and express human grief in visiting an impromptu memorial. Brain cells usually vanish in old age, but Biden — in surviving two unthinkable family tragedies — reminds us that empathy can often grow. I think that’s a big reason why a record number of folks lined up at the polls last Nov. 3.
Of course, Biden’s final grade will likely pivot on what happens in the next couple of months on Capitol Hill —where $4 trillion in spending to help everyday people and rebalance America awaits action — and with whatever voting-rights strategy is unveiled here in Philadelphia. If these measures fall short, the culprit will likely be incorrigible GOP obstructionism, in a nation whose politics have broken beyond repair. It will have nothing to do with Joe Biden’s “cognitive abilities,” and definitely won’t be from a lack of heart.
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