Joe Biden tried to brush off concerns about his mental fitness and memory on Thursday at an impromptu press conference – but he made a glaring mistake that undermined his indignant defence of his abilities.
In isolation, it was perhaps just another relatively minor moment of misspeaking for the president, but it came at exactly the wrong moment.
He spoke to reporters on Thursday evening after the release of a special prosecutor’s report on the investigation into his handling of classified materials discovered at his home and workspace at a DC-area think-tank. The 388-page report itself did not indict the president’s character or indeed recommend any criminal charges be filed, but strongly called into question his ability to remember important details about his own life and time in the White House from 2009-2017 under Barack Obama.
In one heartbreaking passage that spread like wildfire across Washington DC, the special counsel’s team, led by Robert Hur, even asserted that the president had been unable to recall “even within several years, when his son [Beau Biden] died”. Beau, the president’s eldest son and with political ambitions himself, died of brain cancer in 2015 aged 46.
There were also references to Mr Biden being supposedly unable to remember the date range of his vice presidency.
Two versions of Mr Biden emerged to fight those characterisations on Thursday. The first came about in a private meeting with House Democrats, where the president was described as energised as he angrily swore at Mr Hur and his team’s conclusions: “How the f*** could I forget the day my son died?!” he was reported by The Washington Post as saying.
Another version, still angry but more reserved, appeared at his press conference early in the evening. This version, though he sparred briefly with Fox’s Peter Doocy, was absent the vigour of his clone; it was the same Mr Biden that reporters and Americans at large are accustomed to.
“There’s even reference that I don’t remember when my son died — how the hell dare he raise that?” Mr Biden sternly said, his strongest moment of the night by far.
And then there was the moment. The one that blew up political Twitter in the minutes and hours after Mr Biden’s public appearance: his confusion of Egypt with Mexico, as he confidently declared Egypt’s Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to be Mexico’s president and blamed him for not offering greater access to escape routes from the Gaza Strip for refugees fleeing Israel’s brutal siege.
It was a painful moment to watch, and one that kicked a hornet’s nest among Mr Biden’s Democratic detractors on social media.
Even Democratic aides on Capitol Hill who defended Mr Biden’s errant misstatement found themselves acknowledging the reach of the president’s latest gaffe.
To put it simply: The Biden campaign needed one version of the president to emerge tonight; the fired-up Joe Biden who had been angry behind closed doors; who continues to exist in meetings with Congress but rarely emerges on the campaign trail. Instead, they got the latter; a president seemingly weary of endless attacks on his stamina and fitness but with no real way to counter them.
As Mr Biden heads on to the campaign trail with greater frequency this spring and summer, he and his team need to capture that energy for the public at large. But as tonight showed, every time he steps behind a microphone, there is a reason to worry.
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