Joe Biden bristled during a fiery appearance at the White House on Thursday night as reporters pounded him with questions about his age and mental fitness to be president.
“I know what the hell I’m doing,” said Biden, who is 81. “I’m the most qualified person in this country to be president of the United States and finish the job I started.”
It has long been clear to Biden, his top aides, and many of his fellow Democrats, that arguably the president’s biggest political problem as he heads into a tough re-election fight against likely rival Donald Trump is that so many US voters believe he is too old to be president.
But those concerns flared up with venom again on Thursday after special counsel Robert Hur described Biden as an “elderly man with a poor memory”, even as he declined to issue charges in his probe of the president’s mishandling of classified documents.
What was especially upsetting to Biden — and troubling for his campaign — is that Hur cited instances of their interview last year in which the president could not remember exactly when he served as vice-president under Barack Obama, and when his son Beau died of brain cancer.
“How in the hell dare he raise that?” Biden said on Thursday, lashing out at Hur. “I don’t need anyone to remind me when he passed away.”
But the comments on Biden’s declining mental acuity in Hur’s report did not come in a vacuum.
Earlier in the week, Biden had mixed up François Mitterrand, the late French president who served from 1981 to 1995, with Emmanuel Macron, the current French leader.
He also cited Helmut Kohl, the late German chancellor who served from 1982 to 1998 when he meant Angela Merkel, the more recent former chancellor.
Even on Thursday night, Biden’s verbal mis-steps when speaking of foreign leaders continued when he addressed the crisis in the Middle East and said Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was president of Mexico — rather than Egypt.
But Biden pushed back strongly against suggestions that he was suffering from cognitive difficulties. “My memory is fine,” he said.
The president’s top allies also rushed to his defence, saying his record of legislative accomplishment and his ability to forge closer ties with top allies around the world over the past three years proved he was still able to perform in the White House.
Jaime Harrison, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, rushed to his defence on Thursday night with a post on X citing some of Biden’s speeches in Pennsylvania and South Carolina this year, and their own conversations on Air Force One “on a myriad of topics from politics to family”.
“Sharp . . . empathetic . . . powerful! This president has gotten more done to help the American people than any in my lifetime!” Harrison wrote.
Democrats also point out Trump, who is 77, has also suffered from mental lapses, including referring to Nikki Haley, his White House rival, when he meant Nancy Pelosi, the former House speaker.
Trump’s gaffes also come on top of the 91 criminal charges he is facing, including for mishandling sensitive government material, his rants on social media, and his increasingly dark rhetoric vowing political retribution against his enemies.
“Donald Trump has pledged to be a dictator if reelected, would ban abortion nationally, and vowed to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Just a small reminder,” Kevin Munoz, a spokesperson for Biden’s re-election campaign, wrote in a fundraising social media post on Thursday.
The initial reaction of some Democrats to Hur’s comments was to compare it to James Comey’s intervention in October 2016, when the then director of the FBI issued a critical report of Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server for government business — a major blow in the final stretch of her campaign against Trump.
“The special counsel isn’t a dummy and we should be very careful not to take the bait after Comey pulled this in 2016,” Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign manager, wrote on X. “Hur, a life-long Republican and creature of DC, didn’t have a case against Biden, but he knew exactly how his swipes could hurt Biden politically.”
But Democrats will be weighing whether Biden needs to take a different approach to questions about his age. According to an NBC poll in January, 76 per cent of Americans had either “major” or “moderate” concerns about him having the “necessary mental and physical health to be president for a second term”.
Biden has occasionally joked about his age, but he has never delivered an extensive explanation of why he believes it should not matter in the race for the White House, or his approach to managing his health, or even why his advanced years could be an asset, given more than half a century of service in Washington.
The president has also faced criticism for rarely agreeing to one-on-one interviews with national media, including declining to speak to CBS before this coming Sunday’s widely watched Super Bowl.
Although Trump’s advisers mocked Biden in the wake of Hur’s report and his White House remarks, the former president did not address the conclusions himself. But Haley, his rival for the Republican nomination, did.
“Joe Biden and Donald Trump have a lot in common. Neither is at the top of their game and both were reckless with American documents,” she said.