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For Joe Biden, It’s Not the Years, It’s the Mileage
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For Joe Biden, It’s Not the Years, It’s the Mileage

The president’s problems have less to do with age and more to do with him.

President Joe Biden speaks to the class of 2024 during commencement exercises at West Point on May 25, 2024, in West Point, New York. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Hey,

“What you see on TV is what you get,” Republican Sen. James E. Risch told the Wall Street Journal, referring to his impressions of Joe Biden in private meetings. “These people who keep talking about what a dynamo he is behind closed doors—they need to get him out from behind closed doors, because I didn’t see it.”

The Journal’s story this morning ignited an entirely predictable response. For his defenders, it was an outrageous smear with no connection to reality. For his critics—at least on the right—it was further confirmation of what they’ve been saying all along. 

Whether he intended it the way I read it, I think Risch’s quote is exactly right. What you see on TV with Biden is what you get. For people who’ve decided that Biden is great, they think Biden seems great. For those who think Biden is deep into senility or dementia, he is obviously senile and demented. Because I think the truth is somewhere in the middle, I’m perfectly comfortable saying he’s not an invalid, nor is he reassuring in his command of words or faculties. And, yes, you can say something very similar about Donald Trump. But, as Charles Cooke notes, a better comparison is between those who think Biden has the mind of a 40-year-old and those who think Trump is a deeply moral and sincere Christian. As the English poet Ralph Hodgson said, “Some things have to be believed to be seen.”

Yesterday, Time magazine released the transcript of a lengthy interview with Biden. There’s much to complain about in the substance of what Biden said, but the reaction from many corners was that the interview read like the reporters were ER doctors assessing an old man who wandered into the hospital naked holding a dead raccoon and an Atari 2600 console. “Sir, do you know what day it is? Can we take your raccoon?”

“No, Rex stays with me.”

For instance Ben Shapiro declared, “This transcript is alarming for two reasons: (1) the president is an absolutely incompetent fabulist who has set the world on fire; and (2) he is not sentient. There is a reason Time won’t release a tape of this interview. He’s falling apart.” 

I read the transcript. Again, there’s a lot of stuff in it I think is wrong and annoying. And there are certainly signs that he’s an old dude with old dude problems. But as a matter of basic fact, Joe Biden is sentient. Of course, this is praise so faint it’s almost transparent. Sentience—the ability to sense or feel things, including basic emotions—is really one of the lowest bars in all human endeavors. It is the threshold criteria we use to distinguish between, say, a guy named Todd and a rusted-out AMC Pacer. I mean, the guy with the racoon would count as sentient.  

If you’ll forgive a bit of punditry, one of the dumbest mistakes Biden’s many critics make is setting the bar so low, FDR could roll his wheelchair over it. Conversely, one of the biggest mistakes many Biden defenders make is to claim he’s a whirligig of activity with a Vulcan’s command of the facts and logic. “I can’t even keep up with him,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said a couple of years ago. Really? If a 47-year-old press secretary says she can’t keep up with a shuffling (then) 79-year-old who spends most of his time in the White House or in his Delaware aerie, you might want to gently inquire if this was a cry for help. 

Anyway, I think the Wall Street Journal article is a little off. Oh, I think the underlying point is true. He has good moments and bad moments and shows signs of “slipping.” But virtually all of the on-the-record quotes supporting this contention come from unreliable partisan opponents, some of whom are contradicting things they’ve said in the past. Last year, the New York Times reported that, “Privately, Mr. McCarthy has told allies that he has found Mr. Biden to be mentally sharp in meetings.” Now McCarthy tells the Journal, “I used to meet with him when he was vice president. I’d go to his house. … He’s not the same person.” According to McCarthy and two other sources familiar with McCarthy’s interactions with Biden, the Journal reports, “On some days, he had loose and spontaneous exchanges with Republicans, and on others he mumbled and appeared to rely on notes.” 

Well, okay. “The president sometimes appears to rely on notes” is not exactly what you say before you call in the orderlies. 

What annoys me about this debate isn’t the concern over having a president who can reasonably be deemed too old for the job. It’s that the debate is a substitute for an actual debate about the substance of Biden’s presidency or the merits of his qualifications compared to his opponent. One of the stupider things about our politics is the hunger for silver bullets. Many anti-Trump folks want the fact that he’s a convicted felon to be dispositive. Billboards declaring “I won’t vote for a convicted felon” have, unsurprisingly, popped up after last week’s verdict. The goal is obvious: to say that any and all other concerns must fall by the wayside because Trump is a felon. Amusingly, this is precisely the argument Trump tried to make about Hillary Clinton. He claimed that the mere possibility she might be indicted should settle the issue. 

The Biden dementia argument works the same way. Convince people he’s mentally incompetent and you don’t have to make any other arguments. 

Look, I get it. Some of this is a normal part of politics. And, personally, I think Trump’s behavior leading up to, on, and after January 6 permanently disqualifies him from public office. 

But here’s the thing: People disagree with me. 

Who Is Joe Biden?

So, let’s switch gears a bit. I think one of Biden’s biggest issues is that perceptions of his age color his more substantive problem. His critics look at his inconstancy and vacillating, his stubborn cussedness, and chalk it up to old-man-yelling-at-clouds state. From the Time interview:

TIME: The last two years of Presidents, two-term President’s tenure are usually focused on foreign affairs. You are 81 years old, and would be 86 by the time you left office. Large majorities of Americans, including in the Democratic Party, tell pollsters they think you are too old to lead. Could you really do this job as an 85-year old man?

Biden: I can do it better than anybody you know.  You’re looking at me, I can take you too.

TIME: Did you consider not running again because of your age?

Biden: No, I didn’t.

For some critics, this is proof of Biden’s mental unfitness. But this is classic Biden. He’s been a blowhard and braggart his entire life. 

In 1988, when he ran for president the first time, he was plagued by legitimate questions about his academic record and charges of plagiarism in law school (this was before he was caught plagiarizing U.K. politician Neil Kinnock’s family story in a speech). In New Hampshire someone asked him about it. This was his response: “I think I have a much higher IQ than you do, I suspect.” 

He went on:

I went to law school on a full academic scholarship, the only one in my class to have a full academic scholarship. In the first year in the law, I decided I didn’t want to be in law school and ended up in the bottom two-thirds of my class and then decided I wanted to stay, went back to law school, and, in fact, ended up in the top half of my class. I won the international moot-court competition. I was the outstanding student in the political-science department at the end of my year. I graduated with three degrees from undergraduate school and 165 credits—only needed 123 credits. And I would be delighted to sit down and compare my IQ to yours.

Most of this was untrue. But that’s beside the point. Biden was 46 years old and he’s getting into bullying IQ measuring contests with a voter and rambling about his course credits. 

Three things define Biden’s political character. First, much like Donald Trump, he’s profoundly insecure. Not just intellectually but about his—what’s the right word?— seriousness, importance, gravitas, or perhaps manhood. He’s always wanted to be the most impressive guy in the room which, again, is also a Trumpian thing. This explains why he makes up ridiculous stories—to give himself unearned authority and status. He wasn’t arrested fighting for civil rights or for trying to meet with Nelson Mandela. He wasn’t an emissary or adviser to Golda Meir, either. For years, he had a rhetorical tic in which he would insist that he wasn’t being “facetious” when he said something grandiose. Similarly, as I noted 12 years ago, he loved to insist that when he said “literally” he was in fact being literal. “You are the keystone to East Africa—literally, not figuratively, you are the keystone,” he told some African students. And as I wrote then, at an event for Sen. Patty Murray he said:

I have now gone into 110 races around the country, and everywhere I go I see ordinary people who play by the rules, get everything right, paid their mortgage, showed up in their school helping their kids, made sure that they did everything they could to save to get their kid to college, took their mom and dad in when they needed help and hoped to save a little bit of money so they wouldn’t have to rely on their own kids when the time came. … And all of a sudden, all of a sudden—literally, not figuratively—they were decimated.

This tic, like his hilarious penchant for saying “I give you my word as a Biden,” is a way to prevent people from not taking him as seriously as he takes himself. So was his legendary logorrhea. Biden used to be a human filibuster. 

The second thing about Biden’s political persona is that he was never a centrist in the conventional sense. He navigated between the right and left of the Democratic Party, not the political spectrum generally. So, when there was a healthy constituency of conservative Democrats and a much smaller bloc of far-left Democrats, he planted his flag between them. But the conservative wing of the Democratic Party started to smell like marzipan, turned gangrene, and fell off years ago. Figures like former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn no longer exist in our political pantheon. As the party moved left, so did its center of gravity, and so did Biden. 

The third factor is that he’s not very good at running things. He was senator for three dozen years and vice president for eight. Both jobs substitute talking for doing to a very high degree. He wasn’t a terrible legislator by any stretch, but he acquired a legislator’s mindset. His famous crime bill was full of tough sounding stuff that was easy to brag about—more federal death penalties!—but if you looked at the details it was for stuff like murdering a mailman on a federal pier. I’m fine with that, but come on. 

Authorizing spending on a thing isn’t the same thing as managing the implementation of that thing. And deciding to do a thing is not synonymous with doing it right. The Afghanistan withdrawal demonstrated that. But so has the implementation of his major domestic accomplishments. Of the $1.1 trillion allocated for energy and investment under his administration, less than 17 percent has been spent. The Inflation Reduction Act is a $1.6 trillion piece of industrial policy wrapped around a false bumper sticker. It doesn’t really do anything to reduce inflation (the Penn Wharton Budget Model concluded, “The impact on inflation is statistically indistinguishable from zero”). Just as a matter of logic, calling $1.6 trillion in new spending an inflation reduction measure is weird. It’s like calling an all-you-can-eat-buffet the Calorie Restriction Cornucopia. All those charging stations that were supposed to be built? There are seven of them.

The Gaza pier was an idea born of the need for a talking point at the State of the Union, and it proved to be literally as sturdy as the idea was figuratively. Here’s the lede from a recent CNN story: “Hours after President Joe Biden touted the success of the temporary pier the military had just constructed into Gaza during his commencement speech at West Point last Saturday, White House staffers learned the pier was at risk of falling apart.” It fell apart last week.

All of these factors are in tension, and that tension is on constant display these days. Biden likes to say forceful, declarative, things that make him sound like a world-historic figure, but the political undertow of his party causes him to vacillate. In the immediate aftermath of the October 7 attack, he was adamantine in supporting Israel and its right to defend itself. But when large swaths of his party—and his own administration—tacked left, he tacked with them. He was elected as the boring, normal, unwoke guy. But when he was told he could go down in history as bigger than Obama and as the deliverer of a new New Deal, his ego and instincts to follow the Democratic Party where it leads him took over. Now, finally, when he’s trying to reach the actual political center by dealing with the border crisis, it looks like unprincipled capitulation—in large part because it is. If he didn’t have the authority to deal with the border three years ago, as he said, he doesn’t have it now. 

The point is that this stuff should be the point. But it’s not. Instead, we get this medieval sort of BS that suggests the presidency requires virility and manly strength, as if a younger Biden would be a much different Biden. I’m sure he would be, in superficial ways. He’d do more press conferences that wouldn’t induce the panic one feels watching Grandpa roller skate. But Sen. Jim Risch is right in more ways than he intended: The Biden you see on TV today is what you get—and always has been.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.