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The Flashcard Presidency: Biden's Aides Scramble to Diffuse Narrative That He's a Total Mess

AP Photo/Sergei Grits

Joe Biden collapsed at the US Air Force Academy’s commencement, an event that even his aides privately worked to ensure never happened again. They’ve developed a plan to make the president look vigorous and mentally sound to conduct his duties as president. And yet, the man devolved into a mumbling, soporific mess during his White House meeting/photo-op with Israeli President Isaac Herzog. 


NBC News had a lengthy piece about the Biden staff’s protocol to keep the president looking spry in the public’s view. As it was in 2020, the main concern is that Biden is both too old and too senile to be president. That narrative has grown as more public episodes of mental degeneration have presented themselves. Though buried in the piece, Biden’s staff and a former cabinet secretary, Marty Walsh, tried to relay how Joe is still working into the late night hours and how if you hugged him, you’ll see he’s healthy like a rhino. The problem is the piece goes give the impression that Biden’s aides know a mental foul-up is bound to occur again. The man will stumble even with flashcards to remind him to make certain points during meetings and speeches and a shorter staircase to Air Force One to ensure he doesn’t fall. 

Even with no major primaries or debates on the Democratic side, the rigorous schedule a national campaign takes once a Republican nominee is selected will take its toll on a man who thinks railroads can be built over oceans (via NBC News):

Biden’s answer to voters who question whether he’s up to the rigors of a second term is simple: “Watch me.” The trouble is, voters are watching, and what they’re seeing is hardening impressions that it’s time for him to step aside, polling shows. Apart from being the most taxing job on the world stage, the presidency is also the most public, and signs of advancing age are tough to miss. 

Faced with life’s unbending reality — no one gets any younger — Biden’s advisers have been trying to blunt concerns about his age since his 2020 campaign. The challenge gets trickier by the day as the oldest president in history embarks on one last race against a Republican Party eager to pounce on every miscue. 

Any misstep is bound to be magnified when voters are already prone to believe Biden should consider retirement. Biden aides aren’t promising that he won’t stumble again. 

“Physically, he’s quite frail and he falls off his bicycle, or whatever,” said a former Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk more freely. “He doesn’t have the stamina levels of an Obama or a younger president. People worry about his physical frailty and running from age 82 to 86” — the age Biden would be at the end of a second term. “That is really old by European standards. Really, really old. We don’t have anyone that age.” 


Biden’s use of the shorter staircase, which, of course, reduces the risk of a televised fall that goes viral, has more than doubled since Biden’s tumble at the commencement ceremony, according to an analysis by NBC News. In the weeks prior to tripping onstage, Biden used the shorter set of stairs to get on and off the presidential aircraft 37% of the time. In the past seven weeks he’s used them 84% of the time, or 31 out of the 37 times he’s gotten on and off the plane. 


The White House did not directly answer a question about whether Biden was using the shorter staircase to minimize the chance of a fall. An aide said the choice comes down to the weather, the airport and whether the press wants a photo on the tarmac with official greeters. (There was no rain Thursday when Biden took the shorter staircase at Joint Base Andrews.) 

Biden seems to be preserving his energy in other ways. It’s customary on foreign trips for the president to schmooze with other leaders at dinners once the meetings are over. Less formal and structured than the events preceding them, the dinners offer a chance for leaders to bond, talk through differences or amplify a point. On two recent international trips, Biden has chosen to skip the nighttime socializing. 


Other age-compensating measures are logistical, and probably familiar to many who’ve reached a certain stage in life: extra-large font on his teleprompter and note cards to remind him of the points he wants to make in meetings. 


With Biden, displays of frailty are bound to get more scrutiny given the propensity of many voters to believe he shouldn't run again. 

Advisers recognize this dynamic as well as the political cost of the next awkward moment. 

They gave a collective groan when Biden fell at the Air Force Academy, knowing the episode wouldn’t soon be forgotten. It turns out the sandbag had been camouflaged so that it would blend in, making it easier to miss, a senior White House aide said. 

“It happened in seconds,” another aide said, “but it’s going to be in front of us for months and maybe years.” 


Nixing the late-night nightcaps with leaders and other officials isn’t going to re-inject him with energy; this is the presidency. The job is already soaked in sleep deprivation, and he’s 80. If anyone knows one thing heading into middle age, like me, it’s that no matter how much sleep you get—you always feel exhausted. That’s compounded by age and lack of mental fitness with Biden. If one looks and walks like he’s frail, that’s because he is. And while age might concern voters, Biden’s bribery allegations are, at this point, the biggest threat to his presidency.  

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