It's not really about Biden's brain — unless it is

Depending on who you ask, the renewed focus on the president's mental acuity is an election-year distraction, a legitimate point of concern, and sometimes both

President Joe Biden
"I'm well-meaning, and I'm an elderly man, and I know what the hell I'm doing"
(Image credit: Photo by Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images)

It was supposed to be a victory lap over an exonerating special counsel report that absolved President Joe Biden from any criminal liability for mishandling classified material. It was intended to be an opportunity for the president to push back on the report's allegation that Biden might appear as a "sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory" to any potential jury. And for the first part of his remarks on Thursday evening, Biden did just that, joking that "I'm well-meaning, and I'm an elderly man, and I know what the hell I'm doing" and sparring with Fox News' Steve Doocy by quipping that "my memory is so bad I let you speak."

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That feistiness, however, disappeared a short while later when Biden incorrectly described Egyptian ruler Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as the "president of Mexico." It was an embarrassing (if relatively innocuous) slip-up under ordinary circumstances, but one rendered all the more pointed and alarming given the context of the evening's press conference — called in part to refute doubts about Biden's memory. The mistake, hardly unique for a man notorious for verbal flubs, nevertheless immediately reopened a long-simmering debate over Biden's age and mental fitness. It also renewed talk on the age and mental fitness of Donald Trump, his likely 2024 presidential challenger.  

It's an issue fraught with allegations of hypocrisy, agism, and genuine questions about what it means to have an octogenarian occupying the most consequential office on Earth. So what is the debate over Biden's brain really about? 

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'We're in a grim situation'

Special Counsel Robert Hur's report "strips away the defenses that Biden's press operation has used to protect him," said Democratic party strategists who spoke with NBC on Thursday. "For Democrats, we're in a grim situation," one member of the House told the network on condition of anonymity, calling the Hur report and Biden's subsequent gaffe "a nightmare" that "weakens President Biden electorally."

With a recent poll showing more than three-quarters of Americans have "major" or "moderate" concerns about Biden's mental acuity, his advisers and Democrats at large "will be weighing whether Biden needs to take a different approach to questions about his age," Financial Times said. Questions about Biden's age are the "most persistent political threats" faced by his reelection team, said Politico, which called the issue a "profound and growing problem" for the president. 

Up until now "the conversation about Biden's age among commentators on the left has run something like this: So, uh, Joe Biden is pretty old. Should we be worried about that?," The Atlantic's Helen Lewis said, adding that nothing has come of that observation "because nothing else flows from it." What's changed, said Lewis, is that we now have "some evidence that Biden is, at best, no longer the politician he was a decade ago."

'An endless loop'

Focusing on Biden's mental health is a "disservice to the American public," political analyst Asha Rangappa said on X. Instead, the media should be "discussing the legal distinction between Biden's handling of classified documents and Trump's" to inform voters about the "relevant differences between the candidates."

On Bluesky, journalist Michael Hobbs questioned what we're doing with this "fake controversy," stressing that "if knowing basic facts about foreign countries is important to you, the choice in the upcoming election is very clear." The media hypocrisy in focusing on Biden in light of Trump's own mental health history muddles the "binary choice" between the two candidates, said conservative CNN analyst Ana Navarro. Trump "makes as many gaffes, probably just not as much scrutiny, as Joe Biden does." The former president last month repeatedly mistook GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley for Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi and seemingly claimed Barack Obama was the current resident of the White House.

Ultimately, regardless of fairness or hypocrisy, "these ongoing gaffes and the media's coverage of these gaffes will dog Biden's presidential campaign for the rest of the year," said former MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan, despite unequal attention paid to Trump's "mental health issues and fascist talk." 

"Hope the Dems have a plan (or at least a plan B)."

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