Joe Biden skipped the traditional pre-game presidential interview, a 15-year-old White House tradition. Given that it’s a light-hearted affair with no searching questions, and goes out to some 60 million viewers on the night, any presidential candidate’s decision to pass it up with a general election round 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 beyond rare and tightly-controlled press conferences and meetings with international politicians like Rishi Sunak where the Leader of the Free World works off cue cards. When he goes off script, it’s invariably disastrous.
Joe Biden, pictured with Kansas Chiefs stars in 2023, last night skipped the traditional pre-SuperBowl presidential interview, a 15-year-old White House tradition
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 expressing 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.
Joe Biden, pictured in his days as a US senator, has been accused by investigators of suffering memory lapses
Joe Biden with his family after declaring he would run for president in 1987
Dowd isn’t some Trump cheerleader, she’s a senior columnist on the Left-wing New York Times newspaper, 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 made clear its view 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 Sunday piece by a 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, said his age is a ‘legitimate issue’.
James Carville, a veteran Democrat strategist who masterminded Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 campaign, said witheringly that Biden passing on a Super Bowl Sunday interview was a sign his staff had little confidence in him.
The evidence is clear in just the past few days. Last Sunday Biden mixed up Francois Mitterrand, a French President who died in 1996 with Emmanuel Macron.
Joe Biden, with wife Jill in 1988, mixed up conversations he had had with European leaders
On Wednesday night, during a pair of campaign fund-raising 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 US capitol riot which took place in 2021.
On Thursday, Special Counsel Robert Hur, a former 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’.
Investigator, who quizzed him, 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 US 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 he was dubbed by Trump - is already easily the oldest person to become president in US history. If he reclaims the White House, he would 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 percent 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 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 mis-statements - in 2018 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 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 sand bag 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 Biden suffered in 1988 were fully treated and he showed no signs of mental trouble as a result, according to a surgeon who operated on him.
In an annual physical last year, a 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 Washington insiders, may be a Freudian slip.
They believe that the main reason that Biden is intent on running again is because 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, wins 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 overcome her oft-expressed reservations and run.
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. Which brings us back to square one - because privately he’s understood to believe that he’s the only Democrat who can beat Trump.