As regular readers know, I’ve spent the last two years arguing here and in The New York Times that President Joe Biden should not run for reelection. Doing so is selfish, short-sighted in terms of securing his legacy, and wrong-headed, as he has admitted, in the assumption that he is the only Democrat who can beat Donald Trump. With no polarizing progressive in sight, any of a dozen Democrats—Gretchen Whitmer, Gavin Newsom, Amy Klobuchar, and Roy Cooper among them—would stomp Trump in November and put this appalling era in the rearview mirror.
But with primary filing deadlines already passing, it ain’t gonna happen. So, my New Year’s Resolution is to stop agitating for Biden’s withdrawal and start figuring out how to help him get reelected and save the republic.
Let’s not mince words. There’s no way to minimize the political blow the president sustained on February 8 when Special Counsel Robert Hur spent much of his 345-page report documenting Biden’s brain freezes. While deciding, thank God, not to indict him for his carelessness in handling documents from his time as vice president (unlike Trump, he immediately complied with requests to return them), Hur did offer a devastating eight-word political indictment, concluding that Biden is a “well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory.”
The fact that this was a hit job by a Trump appointee is cold comfort. It was the worst kind of political wound—new facts to confirm a preexisting narrative, in this case, the presidential dementia that spin doctors diagnose around the clock on Fox and other rightwing outlets.
So, as Lenin asked: What Is To Be Done?
No Excuses. After Hur’s report, the White House issued a statement saying that the president was distracted during his deposition because it came just hours after Hamas’ October 7 massacre of Israelis. This may be true, but voters rightly expect their presidents to multi-task, and offering this argument makes it seem—wrongly—that Biden cannot do so. The adage “never apologize, never explain” is too categorical for politics. There are occasions where both are merited — but this isn’t one of them. The White House should ignore future Biden gaffes, not “explain.”
The Old Shoe Strategy. I first met Joe Biden during the 1988 presidential campaign, and I’ve interviewed him many times since. In 2016, I spent weeks with him on and off when writing profiles for the Times and Politico. He has been repeating corny stories, mixing up words (partly a product of a stutter he overcame), and tangling his syntax for all the years I’ve known him. It’s part of what made him one of the worst presidential candidates I’ve ever covered, even as he is proving to be one of the best presidents of recent years. The memory and language lapses are worse now, but only marginally so. This is what every Biden aide I’ve discussed this with confirms. The man is old but not senile. Full-stop.
The way to deal with the now-widespread impression that he might be is to abandon the current strategy of minimizing public interactions and get people comfortable seeing him out there, even when they know he will sometimes mess up. The White House made a good start on this when he went before the press immediately after the Hur Report was issued. Even though he misspoke in describing Egyptian President Sisi as the leader of Mexico and used the word “press” when he meant “public,” the appearance was a net plus because he seemed feisty and in charge.
White House aides mistakenly turned down the usual pre-Super Bowl interview. They must trust their candidate — or urge him to withdraw. If they opt for trust, they should now schedule a round of live interviews, including one with Fox News’s Bret Baier. In its inimitably lazy-minded way, the press will seize on any lapse because it fits the “pattern,” but viewers will be able to see what aides and foreign leaders know—he’s basically Okay—and each interview will diminish the impression of senility rather than compounding it.
The Nikki-Nancy Defense. Biden’s brain freezes will come up in every interview, and his first response should never vary: “Bret [or whomever], I’m not the guy who confused Nikki Haley and Nancy Pelosi not once, not twice, not three times, but four times in one speech. Last time I checked, you hadn’t asked Donald Trump about that. And speaking of Nancy Pelosi, Trump is a true sicko [in private, he says “sick fuck”] for laughing about the brutal physical attack on her husband during a home invasion by a MAGA guy. Do we really want a nasty, heartless, sick president?”
Then, if asked about it, he should repeat his near-teary denial that he didn’t know when his son Beau died. That was effective.
Hug Your Boo-Boos. To emphasize that these verbal tics are not signs of senility, Biden supporters should make a blooper reel of their candidate’s miscues and malapropisms, going back to his first Senate campaign in 1972. Each clip should be very short, lest it reinforce that he spoke more vigorously when he was younger. The blooper tape will show he’s self-effacing—always a plus—and reinforce the “old shoe” strategy.
Hunter and Hur. White House aides are spitting mad at Attorney General Merrick Garland for re-appointing Hur and for not intervening to make sure he didn’t violate Justice Department guidelines—as FBI Director James Comey did in the Hillary Clinton emails case in 2016—by including disparaging but legally irrelevant details in his report.
Garland’s refusal to intervene on Biden’s behalf was ethically correct and politically advantageous. Remember, Trump’s entire campaign is rooted in grievance against Biden’s Department of Justice for launching a “witch hunt” against him. When the Trump Coup Trial finally opens in late spring or summer—and last week’s decision by the D.C. Circuit to slam dunk Trump’s immunity claim increases the odds of that—we can anticipate a familiar ritual like the one that unfolded recently in two New York cases. Trump will lose all day in court and then go out on the steps of the Prettyman Courthouse and claim the Justice Department is persecuting him.
Biden’s response to that should be: That’s ridiculous. The Justice Department is prosecuting my son, for crying out loud. And it filed a report about me that I really didn’t like. The right-wing press will respond that a judge essentially forced the DOJ to prosecute Hunter Biden. Still, the Hur report gives Biden more ammo to push back and convince independent voters that Jack Smith is following the law, not pursuing a witch hunt.
Take Heart From the Expectations Game. Politics is always about expectations. Note how Biden did well in the February 3 South Carolina primary by exceeding expectations on how he would do with black voters.
With Republicans now routinely claiming he has dementia, every gaffe-free public appearance —mainly when they include unscripted moments — will be scored as at least a minor success.
Challenge Trump to Two Debates This Fall. The ultimate expectations game will come in this fall’s debates if they take place. It would be a sign of strength and confidence for Biden to announce now that he is challenging Trump to two debates this fall, sponsored as usual by the Commission on Presidential Debates. Trump has already repudiated the CPD, but he won’t look good dodging debates and will likely be forced to submit to them if Biden presses the point.
When they meet, the bar will be lower for Biden than for Trump, whom voters currently believe is a stronger presence. Even if Biden blows it in the first debate, as President Ronald Reagan did in 1984 against Walter Mondale, he will have a chance to come back in the second, as the Gipper did that year.
Recall the 2020 debates, which Biden won. Remember him saying, “Will you shut up, man?” The president can use a variation on that line—and Trump’s appalling disparagement of dead American soldiers—to great effect, even as the rest of us bite our fingernails down to the nub.