A Tipping Point on Biden’s Decline

Sun Feb 11 2024
Rachel Long (638 articles)
A Tipping Point on Biden’s Decline

Democrats have been reassuring themselves that President Biden’s cognitive decline is no obstacle to his re-election, but perhaps this week will be a tipping point. Special counsel Robert Hur’s report about the President’s failure to recall basic facts of his life and Mr. Biden’s multiplying public lapses are ample reason for urging him to withdraw from the 2024 race.

Mr. Hur’s account of his five-hour interview with Mr. Biden opened a rare window on the President in private. His account exposed what many Americans have suspected based on Mr. Biden’s many public misstatements and faltering physical presence. He couldn’t recall which years he was Vice President or even when his son Beau died. He said an ally in the Obama Administration’s debate over Afghanistan was on the opposite side.

Democrats are raging against Mr. Hur, but they should be grateful. Mr. Biden’s mental frailty is one reason Mr. Hur offered for not presenting the President’s document-mishandling as a criminal offense before a jury. His report is also forcing Democrats to confront the political reality that Mr. Biden’s decline could re-elect Donald Trump.

Mr. Biden compounded the damage with his performance in a rare 13-minute press appearance at the White House on Thursday night. He was angry and snappish. Worse, he confused Egypt’s President with Mexico’s in relation to Gaza, of all places. He also created a problem for Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi by saying he had to be persuaded to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza.

This followed Mr. Biden’s confusion in recent days over the names of German Chancellors and French Presidents he had spoken to. These episodes are more frequent, and they are typical of someone with a failing short-term memory. Episodes and names from the past fill the void of recent events he can’t recall.

Such decline is part of the human condition, and it’s not Mr. Biden’s fault. But what is his fault is telling the American people that he can capably serve another four years as President.

The fault also lies with those in the White House covering for him. He rarely gives one-on-one media interviews. He declined the typically softball affair of the traditional pre-Super Bowl interview. The White House staff doesn’t trust him to make a sustained public case on critical issues such as aid to Ukraine or Israel. Mr. Biden’s public appearances are typically scripted. And when they aren’t, Mr. Biden tends to confuse a Mitterrand with a Macron, or a Kohl with a Merkel.

The voters can see this, which is why even most Democrats tell pollsters they doubt Mr. Biden is up to another term. A majority of Americans in the latest Harvard CAPS-Harris poll say a vote for Mr. Biden this year is really a vote for President Kamala Harris because Mr. Biden won’t make it through another four years.

This is dangerous politically for Democrats, but it’s also a grave risk for the country. The world is as dangerous as it’s been since the 1930s, with U.S. adversaries on the march. This would be challenging for a young, vigorous leader. It’s perilous for a President who will be 82 years old before a second inauguration and who is already showing visible signs of failing memory and lapsed concentration.

The ritual Democratic response to date has been that there is no alternative: Mr. Biden wants to run again, his wife, Jill, also wants him to run, and no one can stop him. But that’s only true if no one tries. So far only Rep. Dean Phillips has dared to speak the truth, but the politics would change if others began to say in public what they say in private.

A Biden renomination isn’t assured until a formal vote at the Democratic convention in Chicago in August. There’s not enough time for other candidates to get on enough primary ballots. But if Mr. Biden were to announce his retirement after a single term and free his delegates to vote their conscience, there would be a wide open race for the nomination.

Ms. Harris would run, but she wouldn’t have a free path. Expect others such as California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to get in. They would compete not in a national primary campaign but for the votes of 3,934 convention delegates.

The left would try to nominate one of its own, but most Democratic delegates understand power well enough to want to win. It’s possible they could rally behind a rising Democratic star like Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro. The attention of the world would be on the Democratic race, with genuine political excitement. Republicans would have a far more difficult challenge than beating an old man with a 40% approval rating.

Easing out an incumbent President carries risks, but hardly more than pretending that voters will ignore what they can plainly see. The main question is whether Democrats who can make a difference will continue to ignore reality, fingers-crossed, and pray that Mr. Biden doesn’t have an even larger pratfall in the next nine months.

Rachel Long

Rachel Long

Rachel Long is our Desk Correspondent covering Stock Markets across the globe. She is based in New York