For the second week in a row, PBS’s weekly journalistic political roundtable Washington Week with the Atlantic defended the elderly President Biden’s “mental acuity,” with the author of a new Biden biography, who also lectured the press on how to properly cover the president: By emphasizing how bad Trump is.
Franklin Foer, The Atlantic: So on the mental acuity part, Nikki Haley’s talked about giving a mental acuity test for presidents. I’m sure Biden would ace that test.
Foer gave away his partisan leanings with a choice of pronoun.
Foer: ….the recent poll numbers for Biden haven't been great. The danger is that we are sleepwalking into some sort of version, a repeat version of the 2016 election, where Republicans have a very clear line of attack and are able to define Biden in a way that sticks not just with Republican voters but with independents.
What’s this “we” business? Shouldn’t an objective journalist discussing politics on a tax-supported PBS say something like “Democrats are sleepwalking…”?
The panel went on to marvel that Trump-Biden 2024 was even competitive, given the vast differences of the political problems facing the two candidates.
Host Jeffrey Goldberg: But there’s something unreal about that, because, right now, the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party is facing 91 felony counts and was twice impeached. I mean, it seems almost a bit, on the one hand, you have somebody who’s showing some visible signs of age. On the other hand, you have a guy who might be a convicted felon.
Foer emphasized the press should be helping Joe Biden by downplaying the legal woes faced by his son Hunter.
Foer: I think it’s incumbent, we’re dealing with these split-screen things, where you have the Hunter Biden trial happening alongside Trump’s indictments, you have questions about age being raised at the same time that you have all these questions about Donald Trump’s own mental stability that perpetually are being raised, and I think it’s incumbent upon media and also the Biden campaign to be able to explain the relative difference between these two things because they simply don’t exist on the same plane. Whatever Hunter Biden did is a fraction of what Donald Trump has done to democracy or the criminal abuses that are alleged against him, whatever his, yeah--
The panel pivoted to lamenting how Biden’s wonderful economy and impressive achievements weren’t getting him more love among the American people.
Foer: I was also going to say, and the economy--
Elisabeth Bumiller, Washington bureau chief of the New York Times: It’s doing super well. But, unfortunately, for the Democrats and the White House, they don’t seem to know -- voters don`t seem to know that.
Goldberg quoted PBS “conservative" David Brooks that “Bidenomics is working big time” and asked her pleadingly “So, why can’t this White House get that message out?
Bumiller called that “a very good question” and went on to brag at length on the president’s behalf on his “pretty extraordinary” accomplishments.
Bumiller: ….And I think that if you look at what Biden has accomplished or what the administration has accomplished, it’s pretty extraordinary and people just aren’t aware of it. I mean, we know what they are, The Infrastructure Act, all this thing that Trump never got done, that Biden got it done. All over the country in the next ten years, there will be huge, billions of dollars spent on roads and bridges in local communities. People probably won’t know that’s the Biden administration, pouring all that money into COVID relief. And now -- so, it’s a problem people don’t understand it.
This Biden-defending segment was brought to you in part by Consumer Cellular. Their contact information is linked.
A transcript is available, click “Expand” to read:
Washington Week with The Atlantic
8:02:07 pm (ET)
Jeffrey Goldberg: Tonight, we're going to take stock of the Biden presidency so far and look ahead at the challenges he faces.
Joining us to discuss this and more, Elisabeth Bumiller is the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, Frank Foer, my colleague at The Atlantic and the author of the new book, The Last Politician, Inside Joe Biden's White House and the Struggle for America's Future, and Nancy Youssef, a national security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.
Frank, first of all, congratulations on this book.
Franklin Foer, Staff Writer, The Atlantic: Thank you.
Jeffrey Goldberg: It's a very exciting and interesting read. And that's the last nice thing I'm going to say, but it's a very good book and we're very pleased for you.
But let's go right at this toughest question.
Franklin Foer: Yes.
Jeffrey Goldberg: You've been following Joe Biden now from the beginning of the presidency. Tell us what you know about his physical health and stamina and his mental acuity.
Franklin Foer: So these questions are not binary questions. There's an element of subjectivity to them because the nature of aging is such that it happens differently for different people.
But I think one of the assumptions that people tend to make is that there's the sell by date on a human being. And so the fact that he no longer walks the way that he used to walk or the way that he talks in the way that -- he doesn't talk the same way that he used to talk doesn't necessarily mean anything about the way that his mind works.
And I think if you --
Jeffrey Goldberg: And the energy level is an interesting question, though.
Franklin Foer: Yes. So on the mental acuity part, Nikki Haley's talked about giving a mental acuity test for presidents. I'm sure Biden would ace that test.
The energy question is a different question because he's going into this campaign and it's going to be conducted in a different way than the 2020 campaign was conducted. He didn't conduct a campaign because of COVID stumping through the country. He was able to pick his spots and let Trump essentially hoist himself on his own petard.
This is going to be a different election where he has to energetically make the case for his accomplishments and also energetically make the case for his own energy, in a way, given the doubts that voters have about his age.
Jeffrey Goldberg: That's extremely meta-sounding, energetically make the case for energy.
Elisabeth, how serious a challenge is this for his re-election campaign?
Elisabeth Bumiller, Washington Bureau Chief, The New York Times: Well, the problem is that you hear different things from the White House. You hear on one hand that -- I'll answer your question in a minute, but you hear on one hand know he's awakened at 3:00 in the morning in Asia. This is a true story told that the missile has hit Poland. The panic goes off in the national security apparatus. He convenes world leaders. He handles it. This is a story that is true. He was commander in chief.
Not too long ago, he was at the White House in the Rose Garden talking about his grandchildren, and he slipped up on the number of them. He got confused about where they lived. And you see that in public. So, you hear two different stories, and both obviously can be true.
But it is a problem, because what voters see is what you see in public. And what you see in public is an 80-year-old man who has a very stiff gait, who speaks very, very softly. He doesn't project energy, unlike Donald Trump, who has a certain bombastic energy, and he's only three years younger than Biden.
So, what voters see is the man who is showing his age doesn't help him.
Jeffrey Goldberg: Nancy, I want you to just jump in on this because you have a unique view as a foreign correspondent, somebody who's traveled with presidents overseas. Those trips can be really, really tough, not only the time zone change and everything else, but unrelenting schedule. You're watching President Biden from afar on this trip, but you've seen him up close. Can you give your own assessment of how he does in these really, really difficult circumstances?
Nancy Youssef, National Security Correspondent: Well, I think it's fair to say that those trips are indeed grueling. We're talking about going from country to country, maybe five countries in five days. And there's been no evidence, publicly at least, of him really struggling physically.
But having said that, I think we see often events start after 10:00 A.M. We see different pacings of schedules than maybe some previous presidents. And so each president is allowed to set their own tone in terms of how aggressively they hold meetings, how often they hold them.
But I think you see some signs of someone who might not have been moving as quickly or as Obama, but also we haven't seen as many foreign trips, I think, by this president than some of his predecessors.
And so I think there's been a real selective process in picking how they want to travel and at the same time signaling that the U.S. is a world leader again. So, how you strike that balance of sort of meeting the needs of the president and what the physical demands of those trips, and at the same time being able to successfully say this administration is committed to reestablishing the U.S. presence on the world stage.
Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. Frank, you've not only studied President Biden closely, but in your book, you've obviously spent a lot of time talking to Democrats about this presidency. Do you think in six or nine months Democrats are going to regret not having had a primary?
Franklin Foer: I think one reason that Democrats have not jumped to this age question is because they like Joe Biden personally. They like Joe Biden. I think that he's delivered on so much of their agenda.
Jeffrey Goldberg: But a lot of Democrats, rank and file Democrats, said they see the age as a concern.
Franklin Foer: Right. And this is the issue, is that Biden has so struggled to sell his accomplishments to connect with the base in any sort of meaningful way. There isn't the same sort of visceral love for Joe Biden among rank and file Democratic voters in the same sort of way that it existed maybe for Clinton and Obama.
So, the question is the poll numbers for Biden -- the recent poll numbers for Biden haven't been great. The danger is that we are sleepwalking into some sort of version, a repeat version of the 2016 election, where Republicans have a very clear line of attack and are able to define Biden in a way that sticks not just with Republican voters but with Independents.
Jeffrey Goldberg: But there's something unreal about that, because, right now, the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party is facing 91 felony counts and was twice impeached. I mean, it seems almost a bit, on the one hand, you have somebody who's showing some visible signs of age. On the other hand, you have a guy who might be a convicted felon.
Franklin Foer: I think it's incumbent. We're dealing with these split screen things, where you have the Hunter Biden trial happening alongside Trump's indictments. You have questions about age being raised at the same time that you have all these questions about Donald Trump's own mental stability that perpetually are being raised. I think it's incumbent upon media and also the Biden campaign to be able to explain relative difference between these two things because they simply don't exist on the same plane.
Whatever Hunter Biden did is a fraction of what Donald Trump has done to democracy or the criminal abuses that are alleged against him, whatever his --
Jeffrey Goldberg: Yes. And noting just -- I want to hear you in one second, Elisabeth, on this question, but noting this is a very important thing to say. Hunter Biden is not running for anything. Hunter Biden himself is not running for office. He's not in government. And that's one of the dissonant points here.
But, Elisabeth --
Elisabeth Bumiller: There's no parallel, whatsoever, as Frank just said. But in those polls where people say they're concerned about the president's age, do they say they're not going to vote for him because he's old? I don't think -- you can be concerned about the president's age, but you can still vote for him, especially if your choice is going to be a man facing 91 felony counts.
So, I think that -- and also the polls, it's very early, those are head-to-head matchups of registered voters, not likely voters. We all know the caveats here. It's far. They're not --
Franklin Foer: No. I was also going to say, and the economy --
Elisabeth Bumiller: It's doing super well. But, unfortunately, for the Democrats and the White House, they don't seem to know -- voters don't seem to know that.
Jeffrey Goldberg: Elisabeth, let me read you something from David Brooks just this week. Quote, Bidenomics is working big time. President Biden promised to help America outcompete authoritarian China and to heal some of the economic divides at home. Both those goals are being achieved.
Elisabeth Bumiller: Right.
Jeffrey Goldberg: So, why can't this White House get that message out?
Elisabeth Bumiller: That is a very good question. That was an excellent comment by David Brooks this morning. There was also one by Paul Krugman making the point that the economy is doing pretty well. So far, there hasn't been the recession everybody was predicting. And people actually say in polls, which Krugman cites, that they're doing really well. It's just that the economy is terrible. So, this makes no sense.
But it seems to me that it's just odd. And I think Biden is out there talking every day about the economy, but it just doesn't seem to be sinking in at this point.