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Artillery Row

End of the Biden farce?

The President’s fragility has been obvious for years — but was he ever in control?

Back in the dark days of the Bush administration, the inarticulate president was often mocked for his “Bushisms”. “I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family,” he would announce, or, “Rarely is the question asked: is our children learning?”

Somehow, Bidenisms have not achieved the same notoriety. Last year, Biden claimed that Vladimir Putin was losing the war in Iraq. Once, he asked to see a Republican lawmaker who had died months before.

Perhaps people have felt bad about making light of an old man’s cognitive decline — understandable, though somewhat ominous when we are talking about the President of the United States. More probably, left-wing and centrist commentators have been reluctant to draw attention to the President’s deficiencies when the alternative appears to be Donald Trump.

This seems dishonest. I can understand concluding that Joe Biden is the best of the available options. But behaving as if he is the ideal candidate is like a right-winger insisting that Donald Trump is a devout Christian, a faithful husband and a humble man.

For years, journalists hyperventilated about Trump’s alleged mental unfitness and cognitive decline. Then Biden was elected and similar suggestions were liable to be dismissed as sinister misinformation. Now, though, the media is suddenly informing us that Joe Biden might not be all there. One looks forward to their announcement that the sun is hot and beer is best served cold. A Department of Justice report into allegations that President Biden misused documents has suggested that his memory is “significantly limited”. For example, he repeatedly forgot the years in which he was Vice President (I don’t have the memory of a high-ranking politician myself but I remember when I was Stothert & Pitt under-13s Batsman of the Year).

This matches President Biden’s behaviour. He recently announced that he had met President  François Mitterrand, who died in 1996, rather than President Emmanuel Macron. He mixed up Angela Merkel and Helmut Kohl (who died in 2017). Even in last night’s remarks defending his memory against the allegations of the Department of Justice, he declared that Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is the President of Mexico.

it seems unarguable that the 81-year-old is struggling in a manner that no president should

Granted, the fact that President Biden is not all there does not mean that none of him is there. I smiled when he told a journalist who had asked about his memory that he must indeed have a bad memory or he would have refrained from taking a question from him. It is also hardly surprising that an octogenarian tires easily and gets a bit confused sometimes. But it seems unarguable that the 81-year-old is struggling in a manner that no president should. 

The sudden wave of acknowledgement of this uncomfortable fact across the media raises the question of whether President Biden is going to be replaced by a younger, fitter candidate before this year’s elections. Don’t get me wrong: in casting aspersions at Biden’s health I am by no means suggesting that Donald Trump is in peak physical and psychological condition (as well as being completely free of personality disorders). But Democrat officials must be having sleepless nights imagining Biden’s performance in the debate.

Yet this raises another question: are the American establishment and its allies concerned about Biden’s abilities as a president or about his credibility as a figurehead? Back in the noughties, no one would have claimed that George W. Bush was running the show. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove were household names — in Europe as well as in the USA. Everybody had at least a vague sense that the neoconservatives were behind the “Bush Doctrine”, rather than GWB dreaming it up.

Now, I think far fewer people would know Anthony Blinken, Secretary of State, or Jake Sullivan, National Security Adviser, or Jeff Zients, White House Chief of Staff (people know Kamala Harris, of course, though I doubt that anyone imagines that she is the real force behind the throne). Last night, a friend reminded me of a 2023 Tablet interview with Barack Obama’s biographer David J. Garrow, which asked (in the words of the interviewer rather than the interviewee):

… as President Biden [continues] to fall off bicycles, misremember basic names and facts, and mix long and increasingly weird passages of Dada-edque nonsense with autobiographical whoppers during his public appearances, it [becomes] hard not to wonder how poor the president’s capacities really [are] and who [is] actually making decisions in a White House staffed top to bottom with core Obama loyalists.

The interview was briefly notorious last summer for its claim that President Obama had had “fantasies of having sex with men”. The argument that Obama and his team were still exerting a powerful influence over Washington went almost unnoticed.

Somehow, in almost a quarter of a century, we have become more naive about American power — and American power itself might have become more obscure. Witness Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin disappearing into intensive care for four days without the public, or allegedly the White House, being informed.

Again, none of this is to suggest that if Donald Trump is elected the adults will be back in the room and functional governance will be quietly restored. I doubt even Melania Trump would make that claim without her tongue in her cheek. But that’s the point — Western fear of Trump’s belligerence and corruption, and bias towards a well-groomed managerial establishment, has enabled the existence of a farcically opaque and dishonest administration, posing as the return of calm normality.

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