“A sympathetic, well-intentioned old man with a bad memory.” That subtle and devastatingly personal description of Joe Biden, 81, in a report about his handling of classified government documents has ignited dormant uneasiness about the US president's mental abilities into a raging fire. Concerns about Joe Biden's age, rumors of his mental decline and the question of whether he can handle another election campaign — let alone four more years as president and world leader — have moved from bars, kitchen tables and right-wing corners of the Internet. Front pages and public fanfare in the Democratic Party.
On Thursday, the Justice Department released a report by Robert Harr, a Republican lawyer who was appointed by a Democratic secretary of state a year ago, questioning whether Biden should be prosecuted for possessing classified government documents. Earlier, about twenty documents from his time as Vice President (2008-2016) were found in Biden's garage and office where he should not have been. The discovery received a lot of attention because former President Donald Trump (2016-2020) took hundreds of pieces from the White House and is now accused of withholding them.
In terms of content, the report is good news for Biden: Researcher Har advises against investigation in his case. Biden's private notes on Afghanistan don't compare to the nuclear weapons data Trump shared with guests at his Mar-a-Lago resort and lied to the FBI about. But Biden's release is completely overshadowed by what Hur sees as the president's characterization. Biden writes that he has “diminished abilities and memory loss” and “couldn't remember (…) when his son Beau died” from cancer in 2015.
In a makeshift press conference, Biden responded with agitation to the “inappropriate” descriptions in the report. “How on earth dare he bring that up,” the president said of Har's comment on the anniversary of his son's death. A day when “no one has to remind me”. Biden called his memory “excellent” and “the most qualified person to lead this country and finish what I started.” He later confused Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with Mexico's President.
Polls have long shown what is Biden's main vulnerability: his age and the handicaps that come with it. More than seven in ten voters distrust the president, who will turn 86 at the end of his second term, or a post-interim term by Vice President Kamala Harris, more than Israel, immigration or the economy.
Joe Biden still has disadvantages in the race for the presidency
In 2020, Biden suggested he would be an interim pope: a president who would once again restore democratic order to the country, then make way for younger talent. But now he's headed for a new nomination without significant Democratic opponents and will again face the equally inevitable Republican nominee Trump, 77, in November. Whoever wins will be the President of the United States. A record that Biden already holds.
After the release of the 345-page Har report, internal democratic discontent has also subsided. Biden's supporters are falling over each other to defend the president as “fully capable,” “the most qualified candidate” and America's savior. Kamala Harris called the report false and “politically motivated.” Robert Hurr was previously appointed by Trump to be the attorney general of the state of Maryland. Other Democrats suggested Hurr was under pressure and wanted to use the side issue of Biden's age to deflect Republican criticism of his legal decision.
The issue has been compared to how then-FBI Director James Comey announced the day before the 2016 election that presidential candidate Hillary Clinton should not be prosecuted for sending emails over an unsecured private server as secretary of state. He called it “grossly careless”. According to some, this is the reason why he lost the election.
However, there are Democrats who recognize Biden's weakness and are implicitly advocating for a replacement. David Axelrod, Barack Obama's campaign strategist and Biden critic, said the president was “reinforcing memories that he's very old” at his press conference. According to him, the “genie is out of the bottle” after the Hur report. The debate about Biden's mental breakdown can no longer be stopped.
There are concerns within the party not only about Biden's age, but also about his approach to the campaign. During the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Biden won't have to go far to meet voters or fight his unpopular rival. The strategy also seems to be for Trump to dominate the campaign in 2024. In this way, he is reminding four-time victimized Republican voters just how cruel he is, which seems to be the rationale of Biden's campaign team.
Biden draws little attention, for example, turning down an offer to be interviewed on television this Sunday ahead of the year's most-watched sporting event, the Super Bowl. The official reason is that instead of the full interview, only a few quotes will be aired. But the truth is that Biden has made mistakes regularly during recent campaign engagements. In Nevada, he confused French President Emmanuel Macron with his distant predecessor, François Mitterrand, who has been dead for nearly thirty years. In New York he mingled with former chancellors Angela Merkel and Helmut Kohl. A slip of the tongue like this in an interview can go viral.
Trump also makes frequent mistakes. For example, in a recent speech he confused his Republican rival, Nikki Haley, with former Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But such blunders hurt the often untruthful Trump less than his opponent.
Four years ago, Americans elected a sympathetic, well-meaning old man who had suffered a setback in his youth. The question is whether they can forgive a bad memory loss this year.
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