There was something missing from Sunday night’s Super Bowl, the biggest date in the U.S. sporting calendar, that not even the appearance of Taylor Swift cheering on her football star boyfriend Travis Kelce could make up for.
Joe Biden skipped the traditional pregame presidential interview, a 15-year-old White House tradition. Given that it’s a light-hearted affair with no searching questions, and went out to some 40 million viewers on the night, any presidential candidate’s decision to pass it up with a general election around the corner seems almost inconceivable.
The explanation from Biden’s team was unconvincing. Sports fans “don’t want to hear from a politician so I think he made the right choice for himself at this time”, explained campaign co-chair Mitch Landrieu.
Actually, Americans would love to hear from Biden but get precious little opportunity to do so beyond rare and tightly controlled press conferences and meetings with international politicians such as Rishi Sunak where the Leader of the Free World works off cue cards. When he goes off script, it’s invariably disastrous.
Republicans have, of course, been issuing warnings about the increasingly doddery Biden for years. Donald Trump was insisting before the 2020 election that his gaffe-prone political rival had slipped into senility. Back then, such jibes were dismissed by Democrats as tasteless scaremongering. But now the Left, too, are starting to express their fears.
“Biden is not just in a bubble — he’s in bubble wrap,” observed one of America’s most famous political commentators, Maureen Dowd, on Sunday. “Cosseting and closeting Uncle Joe… eschewing town halls and the Super Bowl interview just aren’t going to work,” she said.
“Stealth about his health” is no longer possible, she added, and the sooner President Biden’s team stops being in denial, the better off Democrats will be. Americans are concerned about the President’s “crepuscular mien”, warned Dowd. “It’s the elephant in the room — except that elephants never forget.”
That concern has sky-rocketed following a string of absent-minded “senior moments” from the 81-year-old President in the past few days, not least his penchant for confusing the names of world leaders. Dowd isn’t some Trump Is Sleepy Joe clinging to power so he can give Michelle Obama a shot at the White House?
Democrats are panicking over their doddery 81-year-old President. But he may have one last trick up his sleeve… cheerleader, she’s a senior columnist on the Left-wing New York Times and up until now a staunch supporter of Biden. In recent days, its pages have been full of doom-laden pieces about the President’s age and election prospects.
The paper has as good as said that he must step aside and let the Democrats choose a candidate with a better chance of saving America from what they regard as the Apocalypse: a second Trump term. At a time when the world is arguably more beset by dangers than at any time for nearly a century, it’s all hands to the pumps.
“Biden should step aside, but how?” demanded the headline over another piece on Sunday by a New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat. “This is a dark moment for Mr Biden’s presidency,” intoned the Times in an editorial. “The combination of Mr Biden’s age and his absence from the public stage has eroded the public’s confidence. he looks as if he is hiding, or worse, being hidden.”
And the Times is hardly alone in being gripped by panic. Hillary Clinton, who beat Biden to the Democrat nomination in 2016, became the highest-profile Democrat so far to raise concerns about his age. She made the comments in an interview recorded last Wednesday but transmitted at the weekend.
“I talked to people in the White House all the time,” she said, “and you know, they know it’s an issue, but as I like to say, look, it’s a legitimate issue.” James Carville, a veteran Democrat strategist who masterminded Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 campaign, observed witheringly that Biden passing on a Super Bowl Sunday interview was a sign that his staff had little confidence in him.
And given the evidence of the past few days, it’s easy to see why. Last Sunday Biden mixed up Francois Mitterrand, a French president who died in 1996, with Emmanuel Macron. On Wednesday night, during a pair of campaign fundraising events in New York, Biden twice confused conversations he’d had in 2021 with European leaders at the G7 meeting in Cornwall.
In both cases, he said that former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who died in 2017, asked him about the January 6 U.S. capitol riot that took place in 2021. On Thursday, Special Counsel Robert Hur, a Republican and senior official in the Justice Department during the Trump presidency, delivered the coup de grace.
Explaining why the department wouldn’t be prosecuting Biden for mishandling classified documents, he said it was in part because he was a “well-meaning elderly man with poor memory”. Investigators who quizzed Biden said that his memory “appeared to have significant limitations” and he “did not remember, even within several years, when his son Beau died”. (It was in 2015.)
Biden could also not remember when he was Vice President or the details of a debate about sending extra troops to Afghanistan, they said. Biden swiftly compounded the damage by giving a press conference in which he petulantly defended his cognitive powers — only to confuse the presidents of Egypt and Mexico in a conversation about Gaza.
Little wonder his White House team — reportedly spearheaded by his super-protective wife Jill — preferred not to risk even a few “softball” questions in the Super Bowl Sunday sit-down. Of course, Robert Hur’s remarks about his age and memory wouldn’t have had nearly so much impact if the issues he raised hadn’t already been weighing on U.S. voters’ minds.
Repeated polls have shown that both Republicans and Democrats have deep misgivings about Biden’s age and his ability to serve a second term. Sleepy Joe — as Trump dubbed him — is already the oldest person to become President in U.S. history.
If he reclaims the White House, he will be 82 at the start of his second term in January 2025. (If Trump wins, he would be 78.) A recent poll showed a staggering 71 per cent of swing-state voters — the people who will very likely decide the outcome of November’s presidential election — agreed that Biden “is too old to be an effective president”.
Another new poll found that 76 per cent of all voters have concerns about the President having the physical and mental strength for a second term. Biden’s long-established reputation for embarrassing gaffes and misstatements — in 2019 even he described himself as a “gaffe machine” — has in one sense benefited him up until now, allowing his team to explain away mistakes as his Uncle Joe folksy, goofy charm.
But the dramatically increased frequency of his verbal stumbles is causing alarm. And it has been accompanied by evidence of physical frailty, too. Since 2021 he has reportedly tripped at least eight times while navigating the steps of Air Force One, the presidential jet, including three times on a single flight to Atlanta.
In 2022, he fell off a bicycle after getting caught up in his pedals; in 2023, he stumbled descending a small set of steps at the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan; later that year he tripped over a sandbag and fell on stage at an Air Force academy graduation ceremony.
And when the stairs to Air Force One were shortened last year so that he entered the plane at a lower level, Biden tripped on them, too. The two brain aneurysms (bulging or ballooning blood vessels) Biden suffered in 1988 were fully treated and he showed no signs of mental problems as a result, according to a surgeon who operated on him.
In an annual physical last year, White House doctor Kevin O’Connor attributed his stiff gait to “significant spinal arthritis, mild post-fracture foot arthritis and a mild sensory peripheral neuropathy of the feet”. However, the doctor refused to comment on his mental acuity. One of Biden’s most frequent mistakes has been to refer to Vice President Kamala Harris as “President”.
And that, say some Washington insiders, may be a Freudian slip. they believe that the main reason that Biden is intent on running again is that he knows that if he steps down and is succeeded by Harris — widely regarded as useless and even more unpopular than him — the Democrats have an even worse chance of beating Trump.
There is a way out, however: he could hang on, win the party nomination and then, at the Democratic national convention in August, announce he’s withdrawing and will not endorse a replacement. The convention, made up of party bigwigs rather than the idealistic rank-and-file who decide the primaries, can then choose someone who has the best chance of winning over crucial swing voters and vanquishing the Donald.
That would mean Harris would likely be swept aside by stronger contenders such as California governor Gavin Newsom or Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer (although both may be a little too woke for independent voters). Some haven’t given up hope that Michelle Obama may yet be persuaded.
Harris was chosen largely because of her race and gender. Some Washington watchers believe that if Mrs Obama could be moved to overcome her expressed aversion to politics and run, her candidacy would effectively silence howls about racism and sexism that would likely come from “progressives” if the party ditched Kamala.
All of this, however, remains wishful thinking for now. And, given that it would be very difficult to force Biden out, it depends on him playing ball. This brings us back to square one — because privately he’s understood to believe still that he’s the only Democrat who can beat Trump.