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Memory Challenged

City JournalWas President Biden’s disastrous press conference the beginning of the end?

“My memory is fine!” insisted a defensive President Joe Biden at a hastily convened press conference last Thursday, at which he identified Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as the president of Mexico and blanked on the name of the cathedral where he received a rosary upon the death of his son Beau. For much of the press conference, Biden, 81, resorted to indignation to bat away questions about his mental acuity from an unusually insistent White House press corps.

Just before the press conference was called, Justice Department special counsel Robert Hur released what should have been welcome news for the Biden administration: a 345-page report concluding that the president should face no criminal charges over his improper storage of top-secret government documents and sharing of top-secret information with a ghost writer who held no security clearance. Hur’s report, however, also found that Biden displayed significant memory lapses during the investigation, including an inability to state when he had served as vice president or the year in which his son died. Biden, Hur concluded, is an “elderly man with a poor memory.”

Were it not for Biden’s ill-advised press conference, the main topic of discussion might have been the legal implications of Hur’s report. Biden and his supporters could have claimed vindication, while his opponents might have carped about prosecutorial double standards in light of Donald Trump’s federal indictment for broadly similar alleged offenses. But after Biden left the podium, the desperation was like blood in the water for the beltway sharks, who closed in to feed on a public relations catastrophe—a “nightmare,” according to an anonymous Democratic congressman interviewed by NBC News.

Doubts about Biden’s mental competency can no longer be ignored in any serious analysis of American electoral politics. As long ago as May 2023, a Washington Post/ABC poll found that only 32 percent of Americans believed Biden had the “mental sharpness” to serve as president, against a majority that thought so only three years earlier, when candidate Biden led the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. By last September, however, a CNN poll found that 73 percent of Americans were seriously concerned about Biden’s physical and mental competence, and that 67 percent of Democrats favored another nominee for their party in 2024. Four days before this week’s press conference, an NBC poll registered Biden’s lowest approval rating ever, 37 percent. More than three-quarters of those surveyed said that they have “major” or “moderate” concerns about Biden’s health in a second term, which would end in his 86th year, with the “major” category accounting for 62 percent. Only 11 percent registered no concern.

All the while, Biden’s verbal gaffes have become more frequent and profound. Earlier last week, the president misidentified President Emmanuel Macron of France as his long-ago predecessor François Mitterrand, who died in 1996, and whom Biden seemed to believe hailed from Germany. The day before the press conference, Biden twice claimed at New York City campaign events to have spoken recently with former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who left office in 1998 and died in 2017, apparently meaning to name Angela Merkel, who left office in 2021 and is still alive.

The episodes seem to be influencing the presidential race. The same NBC poll that registered mass concern about Biden’s health days before the press conference found that Trump holds a 16-point lead in being considered “competent and effective.” This registers as a 25-point swing since 2020, when voters favored Biden in that category by nine points. The current numbers represent Trump’s greatest lead on any issue except for immigration and border control. Before the day was out, the Republican National Committee released a mock Biden campaign ad using Hur’s “elderly man with a poor memory” comment. An ABC poll taken over the weekend found that 86 percent of Americans—including 73 percent of Democrats—now believe Biden is simply too old to serve a second term.

Overall, according to NBC’s pre-press-conference polling, Trump leads Biden by five points in the national popular vote in a hypothetical rematch. RealClearPolitics polling averages, compiled before the press conference, show the former president ahead nationally by a similar margin and in all six 2020 swing states. Even if Trump is convicted of a crime before the election (which remains far from certain), NBC’s polling data put Biden up by only two percentage points, still a statistical dead heat in the popular vote and leaving plenty of room for a Trump victory in the Electoral College.

Leading Democratic strategists, including James Carville, Paul Begala, David Axelrod, and, reportedly, former president Barack Obama, have expressed serious misgivings about Biden’s ability to lead, as well as fear that this factor alone may cost him the election. Commenting on CNN, Washington State’s Democratic representative Adam Smith opined that Biden “does not have the normal strength to go out there and campaign.” But these voices have not prevailed so far in persuading Biden to drop out in favor of another candidate. In early primary contests, Biden has won commanding victories over fringe challengers like Marianne Williamson and Dean Phillips. The registration deadlines for new candidates in about 80 percent of Democratic state contests have now passed.

It’s unlikely that Biden’s cognitive disposition will improve in the nine months before Election Day. Though much else can happen in that time, the paths leading to a Biden second term have become increasingly tangled.

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