Opinion

Joe Biden, the Man Who Won鈥檛 Call It a Day

AFP/SAUL LOEB - El presidente de Estados Unidos, Joe Biden
photo_camera AFP/SAUL LOEB - Joe Biden

Is Joe Biden hiding in plain sight?

Is his most extensive public effort these days fending off signs of age, hiding his infirmities, and clinging to the hope that he can still win in the election just over a year from now?

Sotto voce, the savants of the Democratic Party worry and complain in private that Biden is too old and infirm and should move over before it is too late. In public, they point to the health of the economy, receding inflation and the high employment rate, and foreign policy wins.

Indeed, the Joe Biden of today isn鈥檛 the Joe Biden of yesterday.

The Biden we in the corps knew over the years in Washington was accessible, friendly, keen to please 鈥 and he talked. How he talked. Biden would give a speech, but he didn鈥檛 stop. He seemed to tack a second speech onto the first.

Biden didn鈥檛 change the course of history with his eloquence, nor set the audience to thinking in ways they hadn鈥檛 previously, but he was easy to take.

Now, he seems to approach the podium with caution, reading the speech with a just-get-me-through-this stoicism. The man who used to love the microphone appears to fear it.

Likewise, the man who used to enjoy the cut and thrust of interacting with the press eschews press conferences. He doesn鈥檛 hold them.

This absence of press conferences isn鈥檛 unimportant. They are messy and unruly, but they are where the acuity of the leader is tested and on display. They are where we might get a look at how he might be in negotiation with foreign leaders.

Press conferences are part of the democratic process, where the president reports to the public through the press. Like question time in the British House of Commons, they are where we see the president in action.

Boastful press releases 鈥 which every administration puts out 鈥 are no substitute. The nation deserves to see the president in action. Everything else is curated image-building by the White House staff.

A few questions tacked on ritually to the end of joint appearances with foreign heads of state aren鈥檛 a substitute. They are Potemkin affairs.

Republicans would love to bear down on Biden鈥檚 age, but dare not. Their frontrunner, Donald Trump, is 77 鈥 only three years younger than Biden; and, at 81, the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, is showing signs of health challenges linked to age.

Trump鈥檚 age is less discussed because his epic legal problems distract from whether he also might be too old.

The sad end of Winston Churchill鈥檚 political career should be a warning for all who cling to office too long.

The Conservative Party under Churchill lost the election immediately after World War II but was elected again in 1951, and Churchill became prime minister for the second time. He was about to turn 77. Health warnings were ignored by his party and by his family.

The infirmities of age got in the way. Churchill was often confused, and new issues baffled him, said his friend the publisher Lord Beaverbrook.

According to historian Roger Scruton during Churchill鈥檚 second administration, the seeds of what would haunt Britain later were sown: He failed to arrest the open border flow of immigrants from the former empire or to check the growth of trade union power.

When Churchill retired in 1954, his longtime deputy, Anthony Eden, took over and led the disastrous attempt to seize the Suez Canal in 1956.

Biden鈥檚 uncertain future is exacerbated by the seeming shortcomings of Vice President Kamala Harris. Despite attempts to bolster her, like referring in press releases to the Biden-Harris administration, she is reportedly inept.

She is known to have had difficulty with her staff. In public, she appears frivolous, laughing inappropriately and showing little grasp of issues. She has left no mark on significant assignments handed to her by Biden, including immigration, voting rights and the influence of artificial intelligence. 

No wonder a late-August poll from The Wall Street Journal showed 60 percent of eligible voters think Biden isn鈥檛 鈥渕entally up for the job of president.鈥 In a CNN poll, 73 percent of Americans say they are seriously concerned that Biden鈥檚 age might negatively affect his current physical and mental competence level.

Churchill鈥檚 sad political decline shows even great men grow old. Biden can be seen on television going here and there: a blur of travel. But is this a man in hiding from a truth 鈥 his age?

On Twitter: @llewellynking2

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of "White House Chronicle" on PBS.