Something seemed to snap after President Joe Biden asked, “Where’s Jackie?”
The snap wasn’t in the president himself, but rather from much of the media, as what had been whispered about in Washington and bandied about on talk radio had become a mainstream topic. (Although a Morning Consult survey in August found that a plurality of 48% believed that Biden was not mentally fit to be president.)
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre had to field questions last week from several reporters on why the president seemed to think that Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., would be attending an event. Walorski was tragically killed in a car crash in August. The White House issued a statement from Biden as a tribute to the four-term congresswoman.
This came one week after Biden appeared confused after the conclusion of his remarks at a United Nations-related event. A few months ago, critics said that Biden looked as though he was shaking hands with the air.
Of course, long before this, Biden’s vanquished opponent, former President Donald Trump, made cognitive ability an issue in the 2020 election.
During a campaign interview, when a CBS News reporter asked Biden if he would take a cognitive test, the candidate angrily, and memorably, replied, “No I haven’t taken a test. … That’s like asking before you came on this program did you take a test whether you’re taking cocaine or not. What do you think? Are you a junkie?”
Last year, after the botched U.S. exit from Afghanistan, Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., asked, “Is Joe Biden capable of discharging the duties of his office or has time come to exercise the provisions of the 25th Amendment?” He added, “I am urging Vice President [Kamala] Harris and the Cabinet to put politics aside, act in the best interests of the American people and consider invoking the 25th Amendment.”
Scott, the chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, didn’t get any takers of course from the Cabinet, and not even much support from Republicans.
It is notable that when Trump was in office, psychologists on the left started the “Duty to Warn” movement, insisting the 45th president was crazy and must be removed through the 25th Amendment. Yale University psychiatry professor Dr. Bandy X. Lee edited the book “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,” and briefed members of Congress about the need for the 25th Amendment. More than 50 House Democrats supported a commission to investigate Trump’s mental state.
The 25th Amendment allows for the vice president and the majority of the Cabinet secretaries to determine if a president is physically or mentally unfit to do the job. If invoked, the vice president would become the acting president temporarily. If a president contests the move, Congress can remove him from office permanently with a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate.
Republican politicians and commentators on the right should be careful not to violate the American Psychiatric Association’s so-called “Goldwater Rule,” which was meant to stop psychologists from offering a “professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.” It’s named for the 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, whom liberal psychologists also called crazy.
It’s not exactly the same. In this case, opposition politicians and commentators are alleging–similarly without examination–that the president is in cognitive decline. But the principle applies and armchair doctors should proceed with caution.
Nevertheless, it’s not unreasonable for the American people to insist the leader of the free world is fit for the office. To an extent, mere observation says something.
Biden is 79 but doesn’t quite seem to be in step with his one-time primary rival Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is 81, or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who is 82, or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who is 80. Even the 89-year-old Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, seems to have more pep than the president.
Trouble With Words
To be sure, Biden has consistently been known for gaffes, as a senator and later as vice president. During a Democratic primary debate leading up to the 2008 primaries, NBC’s Brian Williams noted that “words have sometimes gotten you in trouble,” quoted a Los Angeles Times editorial that called him a “gaffe machine” and asked, “Can you reassure voters in this country that you would have the discipline you would need on the world stage senator?” Biden simply answered, “Yes.”
As a candidate, Biden talked about Indian-Americans running Seven-Eleven stores and almost seemed to oddly brag of Delaware, “My state was a slave state,” when explaining why he could appeal to South Carolina primary voters.
After eventual nominee Barack Obama tapped Biden as his running mate, Biden lacked discipline, warning that if Obama was elected, “Watch, we’re going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy.”
Still, even though Biden seemed more gaffe-prone than most politicians, at least he gaffed with gusto, rarely seeming to lack either energy or awareness.
This was doubly true on the campaign trail in 2012, when he and Obama were running for re-election. Biden’s most defining line that year, speaking to a predominantly African-American audience, was claiming of a Mitt Romney administration, “He’s gonna put you all back in chains.”
The line was certainly over the top, particularly considering Delaware’s history, but it was delivered with energy and awareness.
In 2016 Biden joked: “Barack always kids me, ‘I’m learning to speak without a teleprompter, Joe is learning to speak with one.’” As a senator and vice president, he was indeed the funny guy who didn’t follow the script. But as president, he too often seems both reliant on and confused by the teleprompter on occasion.
But, again, that’s amateur observation.
Media Is Not a Good Measure
It must be said that Biden certainly can rise to the occasion. His speech in Philadelphia, with the blood red background, flanked by Marines, was an example of the Joe we used to know. A decade after warning Romney would bring back plantations, Biden warned that “MAGA Republicans” threatened democracy. Over the top again, but he delivered the remarks with gusto.
Again, applying the Goldwater rule, this is one of many reasons to tread carefully when diagnosing someone by TV rather than an actual exam.
Moreover, it’s obscene and immoral to mock anyone for having a cognitive issue — president or not. Any questions should not be about a person, but about the stability of the country. At the end of the day, only the president has constitutional authority over the executive branch. No chief of staff, vice president, or first lady could reverse an order.
No one should presume to know the president’s mental fitness. But there have been enough moments on display for the world to see that Americans have the right, and perhaps a civic obligation, to ask some questions.
Fred Lucas is the author of “The Myth of Voter Suppression” and the Chief News Correspondent for The Daily Signal.