Friday, February 09, 2024


Yes, it's bad. I know that the Pollyannas in my comments will tell me that nothing is ever bad for President Biden and he's about to win the biggest Democratic landslide since 1964, but I think some of you, at least, will agree that this is not great:
President Joe Biden sidestepped any criminal charges as the investigation into his handling of classified documents concluded, but the political blowback from the special counsel’s report Thursday could prove even more devastating, reinforcing impressions that he is too old and impaired to hold the highest office.

Special counsel Robert Hur’s portrait of a man who couldn’t remember when he served as Barack Obama’s vice president, or the year when his beloved son Beau died, dealt a blow to Biden’s argument that he is still sharp and fit enough to serve another four-year term.

In deciding not to charge Biden with any crimes, the special counsel wrote that in a potential trial, “Mr. Biden would likely present himself to a jury, as he did during our interview with him, as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”
Obviously, as Josh Marshall writes, this was a political hit job.
DOJ guidelines make clear that if you’re not bringing charges you don’t bash the subject of the investigation in your announcement (a la James Comey). You certainly aren’t supposed to affirmatively attempt to demean the subject of the investigation with clearly political attacks that aren’t even related to what you’re investigating. Hur might as well have called him “Fake News Joe Biden.” It’s really that transparent and that bad.
But it's damaging, coming just days after Biden confused current French president Emmanuel Macron and 1990s president Fran├žois Mitterrand, and later confused two former German chancellors, Angela Merkel and Helmut Kohl.

I think Biden is struggling with specific details, which isn't the same thing as losing the ability to make the rational judgments a president needs to make. I don't think he's experiencing dementia. I agree with Paul Krugman -- because I see it in my own family -- that you can retain vivid memories of a beloved family member's death and not recall the specific year the death took place. (As adults, we don't necessarily think in years.)

But of course this will reinforce the view many voters have of Biden's unfitness to serve. It might be forgotten by November, but it doesn't help right now.

Marshall says, "The White House will need to get Biden in front of interviewers, where he actually does quite well, and in widely seen venues, to counter it." That's risky advice, but if Biden can will himself to do a better job in interviews, he should go for it. Maybe Biden's people should get in touch with CBS and say that the president has changed his mind about that Super Bowl halftime interview and, in fact, he'd be happy to do it live. But he'd better get it right.

A less risky strategy would involve Kamala Harris. Last fall, after reading a couple of Harris profiles, I wrote that Harris's problem seems to be an unwillingness to do the kind of grand, inspirational speechifying we expect from presidents and (to a lesser extent) vice presidents. The Atlantic's Elaina Plott Calabro wrote that Harris is out of her comfort zone when asked to talk in large generalities:
Go to enough of Harris’s events and you’ll notice a pattern. Many of them—conversations with community leaders at, say, a college campus or a civic center—begin shakily. The moderator opens by asking Harris a sweeping question about the state of the country, or the administration’s approach to some major issue—the sort of question that a seasoned politician should be able to spin her way through on autopilot. And yet Harris often sounds like she’s hearing the question for the first time.
But then:
During a discussion at Georgia Tech focused on climate change, I listened as Harris was asked to speak about the administration’s progress over the past two years in addressing the crisis....

Only when Harris assumed the role of interrogator herself did she seem to find her rhythm, pressing the moderators on the stage—two scientists—to discuss their personal journey toward an interest in climate issues. She then leveraged one moderator’s story to explain the administration’s plan to replace lead pipes across the country—using $15 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure deal, one of the Biden administration’s marquee victories. The communities that have been suffering from contamination “have been fighting for years and years and years,” Harris noted. “It didn’t take a science degree for them to know what was happening to their children.” The audience responded as if at a church service, with murmurs of affirmation.
Astead Herndon of The New York Times Magazine wrote that Harris's career didn't prepare her to be this kind of inspirational speaker:
... [Jamal] Simmons — her former communications director — argued that it’s a consequence of her career as a prosecutor and attorney general, law-enforcement roles that did not ask Harris to communicate with the press and the public in the same way. Even in Harris’s presidential race, staff members had to push her to share details about her life, family and career motivations. It was not always successful.

“Often in the White House, national leaders have to base their arguments on emotion and gut — and as a prosecutor that’s not the job,” Simmons told me.
Harris needs to learn how to do these things -- right now.

Do they have anything to do with her job? Obviously not. But the way Harris presents herself in public is what voters who aren't steeped in the news are judging her on. In an election year when every voter realizes that the Democratic candidate might struggle to complete his second term, it would be extremely beneficial for the ticket if Harris could seem like a steady, calm, straight-talking presence, a person who's got this, or who at least appears ready to handle problems deftly if elevated to the presidency, and who has a larger vision, which is what many voters want.

I'm not saying she needs to upstage Biden -- they both need to improve their communication skills. But Biden has never been a compelling speaker. Harris probably has more room for improvement. For the good of the country, she needs to step up.

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