Joe Biden’s 79th birthday celebration Saturday came with a big slice of bad timing. It was right on the heels of a poll indicating Americans are starting to wonder if the oldest president in the nation’s history is still fully in possession of all his marbles. The Politico/Morning Consult poll shows that almost half of Americans (48%) doubt Biden’s mental fitness, a 19-point drop compared to polling from a year ago.
And what’s driving this notion that the sitting president may soon be in need of a bib? Did he instruct his staff to lie about the size of his inauguration crowd in service to a cripplingly frail ego? Did he make up childish nicknames for members of Congress and pick petty fights with global allies for no discernible reason? Did he brag that his “nuclear button” was “much bigger” than that of a foreign adversary?
Because if a hypothetical president (a-hem) was actually that emotionally infantile, it truly would be cause for concern.
But Biden has done nothing like that. Everyone knows he’s no silver-tongued devil — he’s been tripping over his own syntax since he was a young senator — and now he has that old man’s way of pausing between sentences a little longer than he used to. But even the Politico piece laying out the dismal poll numbers doesn’t point to a specific episode indicative of loss of cognition. Instead, it quotes a Republican pollster saying, vaguely: “You get a sense that he’s just missing a beat.”
Huh. This is the crowd that spent four years defending Donald Trump, whose norm-shattering antics and obsessive self-aggrandizement were so bizarre that psychologists are still debating whether he was literally a full-on sociopath, or merely a clinical narcissist. But America should question Biden’s mental stability, because he’s, um, “missing a beat.” Whatever that means.
It’s almost like no one holds these partisan hacks to any kind of factual standard.
And that, I’d argue, is what’s going on with these poll numbers.
I’m not saying the Politico poll is wrong. It’s probably right. After more than a year now of the most shamelessly ageist smear campaign any president has ever endured (Ronald Reagan included), it would be weird if it didn’t finally start moving the needle.
Today’s GOP is good at getting people to believe in things that aren’t there — just by sheer, audacious repetition — whether it’s critical race theory that isn’t in classrooms, or socialism that isn’t in federal pandemic policies, or the economic elixir that doesn’t spring magically from coddling the rich. It’s why a dangerously large minority of the country still believes the big lie of mass voter fraud that Trump perpetrated, and that most officials in his party still dutifully promote.
The campaign to smear Biden (who, for the record, is less than 4 years older than Trump) is more of the same. Call it Big Lie 2.
Take the viral video in May of Biden saying, “The biggest problem we had in the Revolutionary War is, we didn’t have enough airports.” The video, accompanied by derisive commentary, was edited to remove some rather relevant context: When Biden made the comment, he was repeating something Trump had said, as evidence of Trump’s unfitness for office.
In the same speech, Biden also referenced another Trump gem: His suggestion that nuclear bombs could be used to stop hurricanes. Talk about “missing a beat.”
Then there was the story earlier this year about congressional Democrats sending Biden a letter asking him to overhaul America’s nuclear strike protocol so that the president wouldn’t be able to launch missiles with no one else’s input. Fox News and others made it sound as if those Democrats were worried about Biden’s mental stability. “Do Democrats trust Biden?” tweeted Sean Hannity. But in fact the letter specifies that the impetus to tighten up the launch protocol (which, by the way, still needs to happen) came from concerns that arose about Trump’s mental stability when he controlled the codes.
And let’s not forget the bizarre Senate hearing in September in which Sen. James E. Risch, R-Idaho, grilled Secretary of State Antony Blinken about a false claim that someone in the administration is assigned to cut off Biden’s microphone if he starts wandering into verbal la-la land.
It’s the kind of fever-swamp story that gets endlessly passed around Trumpland no matter how many fact-checkers debunk it (and they have), but Risch spent a half-hour ripping into Blinken about it like a deranged pit bull. “Somebody in the White House … has authority to press the button and stop the president, cut off the president’s speaking ability and sound. Who is that person?” Risch kept asking, seemingly not even hearing Blinken’s repeated, unequivocal denials that any such person exists. “Who is that person? … It’s been widely reported … Who is that person?”
Risch — who was exactly Biden’s age at the time of the hearing — frankly didn’t sound like he had a firm grasp of reality.
But in Republican politics today, that’s not a dealbreaker. Heck, it’s practically a requirement.