Only 5% of Americans in their 70s have dementia. There’s no reason to assume Joe Biden is one of them, unless you’re looking for political ammunition.
Casual ageism is a staple of the conservative arsenal against the president, and it would be laughable except that it’s so insulting – not just to him but to two generations of seniors. Like the “big lie” that Donald Trump actually won the 2020 election and will be reinstated as president any day now, we now have the big lie that Biden, at 78, is muddled and incapacitated.
A relative told me he’s worried about the country because Biden just naps and watches TV all day, and no one is in charge. And where might he have heard that? Well, Tucker Carlson says Biden is senile and can’t think clearly. Sean Hannity calls him “President Sippy Cup” and says he’s lazy. A few days ago, he reamed Biden for “enjoying another long weekend off in Delaware” instead of “working around the clock” at a command center to secure the release of Americans and allies still in Afghanistan. (I guess Hannity's not familiar yet with the concept of remote work.)
'This is a puppeteer act'
In a hospital waiting room last week with the TV tuned to Fox News, I happened to catch the truly weird clip of Idaho Sen. Jim Risch trying to get Secretary of State Antony Blinken to admit Biden is controlled by someone authorized to turn off his mic to shut him up.
“He can’t even speak without someone in the White House censoring it or signing off on it. As recently as yesterday, in mid-sentence, he was cut off by someone in the White House who makes the decision that the president of the United States is not speaking correctly. I would like to know who this person is. This is a puppeteer act,” Risch said at a hearing on Afghanistan.
Blinken could barely suppress his amusement as Risch repeatedly demanded to know the identity of the mystery puppet master, and Blinken repeatedly replied that Biden is running his own White House.
Risch: “The media showed the American people his sentence was cut off in mid-sentence. Are you saying that didn’t happen?”
Blinken: “I really don’t know what you’re referring to. All I can tell you is … the president very much speaks for himself.”
Risch: “He does speak for himself but what happens when somebody doesn’t want him speaking?”
Blinken: “Senator, I’m telling you based on my own experience with the president over the last 20 years, heh, anyone who tried to stop him from saying what he wanted to say, speaking his mind, would probably not be long for their job.”
Here I should note that Risch, like Biden, is 78. And that I, like Blinken, would have been in the dark if not for that waiting room TV tuned to Fox News.
The big mystery turned out to be one of the “pool sprays” routinely listed on Biden’s advance schedule – a time when photographers get their video and stills at the start of a private event and then leave, at which point the audio and video feeds end. Inside the conservative media bubble, this blew up and inflamed the right’s narrative about Biden's acuity.
When Biden delayed his first news conference to March, there was endless speculation about what shortcomings it might reveal. The answer was few if any. He was crisp (for him) and knowledgeable and mostly kept his temper. He gave a major speech Tuesday to the United Nations General Assembly and the delivery went fine. (One clue: Republicans went after him on substance, not style.)
Conservative 'concerns' are overblown
The age-related conservative offensive reprises the blatant psychological projection of the Trump era: attributing his worst traits to someone else and weaponizing them. Trump set many hours aside to tweet and watch TV in the residence ("executive time”) and made nearly 300 trips to his own golf clubs and resorts. So Trump and his defenders claim Biden shirks his job and takes long vacations.
Likewise, the attacks on Biden's capacities are rooted in the many questions about Trump's. The former president's disordered speech drew attention from experts who said it reflected cognitive decline. He himself has never stopped marveling at his “amazing” performance on a cognitive test in 2018 (best captured by comedian Sarah Cooper). Trump bragged about the test on the 2020 campaign trail and was still bragging in Texas this summer: “I aced it. And I’d like to see Biden ace it. He won’t ace it.”
That was around the time Trump’s former White House doctor, now in Congress, demanded Biden take the test based on a few minor memory slips dating to March 2020. Conservatives have also latched on to video of Biden tripping on a stairway. And the New York Post editorialized in June that his remarks on gun violence were confusing and horrifying and said he seemed exhausted.
But a transcript of the event suggests those concerns were overblown. And no, despite a distorted edit on TikTok, Biden did not say COVID vaccines offer protection from hurricanes; he sensibly advised people to get vaccinated to reduce their COVID risk in the event hurricanes forced them to evacuate or go to shelters.
USA TODAY's opinion newsletter: The best insights and analysis delivered to your inbox.
It’s a fact that Biden is the oldest newly inaugurated president we’ve ever had. But it’s also a fact that everyone has memory lapses, more often as they age, and that’s not the same as dementia. It's true as well that Biden occasionally goes awkwardly off script, or gets testy, or mangles sentences, but he has been doing all that for decades.
Attacking Biden for his age seems like a strange way to court the baby boom and silent generations, especially since they voted more Republican than Democratic in 2020 and Trump – age 75 – may well run again in 2024.
More fundamentally, the tactic is out of whack with reality. I mean, what are you going to believe, Fox News or your own eyes?
Jill Lawrence is a columnist for USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock." Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence