Let’s fact check Biden’s so-called mental decline

Questions about the president’s fitness for office aren’t in good faith – if the GOP really cared about the issue, it would have divested itself of Trump long ago

Noah Berlatsky
Tuesday 11 July 2023 12:21 BST
King Charles appears to usher Biden on after he loiters talking to soldier

This week, Axios published an article reporting that President Joe Biden has a nasty temper that contrasts sharply with his friendly, avuncular public image. Biden, the article says, regularly yells at staff, dresses down aides for failing to be sufficiently prepared, and is generally so unpleasant to deal with that those who work with him try not to meet with him one-on-one. The article noted that as a Senator, one former campaign and Senate aide characterized Biden as a “egomaniacal autocrat...determined to manage his staff through fear.”

The Axios piece is a negative assessment of the president and his leadership style. You’d think Republicans would be eager to embrace it and amplify it. But instead, Donald Trump Jr, former president Donald Trump’s son and a prolific right-wing commentator, took the article as an affront. “That story was so obviously placed & written to make it sound like Biden isn’t suffering from late stage dementia,” Trump Jr huffed on Twitter.

Jr’s tweet highlights a major problem with the right’s anti-Biden strategy. Republicans have put a lot of effort into claiming that the 80-year-old Biden is mentally incompetent to hold the Presidency. And to some extent, they’ve been successful in raising doubts. Some 62% of respondents in a May NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll said that Biden’s mental competence was a concern, while only 51% said the same about former president and current Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump (who is only four years younger than Biden).

But the insistence that Biden is incompetent and weak also has real downsides for the GOP. If Biden is in mental decline, it should, in theory, be easy to defeat him, and to win electoral and strategic victories. But for the most part, those victories have not been forthcoming. Instead, the GOP keeps underestimating Biden — and then, partially perhaps as a result, losing.

Electorally, Biden of course won the 2020 election. In 2022, Republicans assured their voters of a “Red Tsunami,” with sweeping GOP victories in the House, Senate, and local races. Instead, Democrats overperformed, with the best midterm results for the president’s party in at least 20 years.

Biden’s also managed a number of impressive policy successes in the teeth of Republican opposition. He passed a bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill in November 2021 — a package that many Republicans are now touting as a success, even though they voted against it. He passed bipartisan gun control legislation in 2022, to the fury of the Republican base. And he negotiated a debt ceiling increase with minimal concessions, again infuriating Republican hard-liners.

We can’t say for certain that low expectations helped Biden to these wins. But we do know that Republican primary voters consistently nominated poor candidates in 2022. Senate hopefuls Mehmet Oz (PA), Blake Masters (AZ), and Herschel Walker (GA), and Gubernatorial candidates like Doug Mastriano (PA) and Darren Bailey (IL) were underqualified and unlikeable. GOP voters elevate extremists who can’t win general elections. It seems reasonable to think that they are motivated in part by the right-wing media bubble’s overconfidence, which tells them that Democratic policies are unpopular, and that Democratic leadership is inept.

By portraying Biden as useless, Republicans create a problem for themselves
By portraying Biden as useless, Republicans create a problem for themselves (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Similarly, Republicans overpromised when they assured their voters they could win massive concessions from Biden in the debt ceiling negotiations. Some Republicans may have even believed their own hype. When they failed, they turned their anger on each other, with radicals torpedoing GOP messaging bills.

There’s virtually no evidence that Biden is in cognitive decline, and a lot of evidence — including the successful debt ceiling negotiations — that he remains fully able to do his job. It’s Trump who regularly babbles reality-detached and irresponsible nonsense, such as suggesting that people who suffer from Covid should inject bleach, or that Joe Biden is addicted to cocaine.

If the GOP really cared about fitness for office, it would have divested itself of Trump long ago. But it hasn’t because it isn’t. The question about Biden aren’t in good faith. Republicans are simply attempting to exploit prejudice against old people and against disabled people (Biden has a stutter) in order to gain electoral advantages.

But saying untrue things, and believing untrue things, can make it harder to craft effective political strategy and to win political victories. The GOP’s general disarray doesn’t assure Democratic victories on all things forever, obviously. They aren’t making things easier for themselves, though, by convincing themselves that Biden can’t win, even though he keeps doing just that.

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