The Diplomatic Room — a charming room on the ground floor of the White House, decorated in pastel tones — is typically used for the formal photographs that the president takes with his guests at Christmas parties and various other celebrations. Due to its smaller dimensions than the large rooms on the main floor, it was chosen on Thursday, February 8, for Joe Biden to appear before the press after the devastating report released by Special Counsel Robert Hur.
The document exonerated Biden of having appropriated classified material, but it questioned his memory and mental sharpness. The idea was that — in a more secluded setting, where the president usually performs better than in front of crowds — he would demonstrate excellent mental abilities in front of the cameras. The result was the opposite: the various gaffes he made during the session fueled the controversy over whether he’s fit to run for a second term.
The White House and Democratic insiders have come out en masse to defend the president, who — during his heated interaction with the press — confused Egypt with Mexico and stopped short while describing the rosary of his deceased son, Beau. “No one who works here [agrees with Hur’s report]. We all see a person who works very, very hard, who perfectly understands how Americans feel and how to respond to the issues that matter to them,” said Biden’s press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, at her daily press conference on Friday.
The prosecutor’s report describes Biden as “an elderly man with a poor memory.” His defenders — fearful of this image — argue that this is a caricature that’s distant from what they perceive on a daily basis.
“Biden’s age is his biggest impediment to re-election and this description could be very damaging,” Dan Pfeiffer acknowledges on his blog. He served as an advisor during the Obama administration (2009-2017), when Biden was serving as vice-president.
Hur’s report has added fuel to a debate that’s been quietly discussed for some time, regarding the president’s suitability to run for re-election. Photos, videos and memes abound on social media, portraying his rigid walk, collapses and blunders. The polls show that he’s the least popular American president since George W. Bush, while placing him behind his foreseeable Republican rival — former President Donald Trump — ahead of the November elections. A poll for The New York Times in November 2023 indicated that 70% of voters in swing states agreed that Biden “is too old to be an effective president.” Only half thought the same about the Republican candidate, who is four years younger than Biden. Trump has also confused names and events in public.
Still, the Democratic Party hierarchy remains steadfast in its support of Biden, a man who has always struggled with public speaking (he stuttered as a child) and who has been prone to gaffes throughout his political career. His supporters point to his economic management — with unemployment at its lowest level in half-a-century — and his normalization of relations with allies after the upheavals of the Trump administration. They also remember that, in 2019 and 2020, a similar debate was already raised about Biden’s age and popularity. His early results in the 2020 Democratic primaries were disappointing, although he ultimately prevailed and went on to win the general elections. In 2024, Biden has been obtaining resounding victories in his primaries, although turnout has been quite low.
Biden has shown no sign of reconsidering his candidacy. He’s convinced that he’s the best-placed person to defeat Trump again in November. This past Thursday, when a journalist asked him about voters’ concerns about his age, the president angrily insisted that this was merely the reporter’s opinion.
In modern times, neither of the two major parties in the United States has attempted to replace their candidate. In 2016, the then-Democratic candidate — Hillary Clinton — fainted while she was attending a ceremony commemorating the attacks of September 11, 2001. This incident briefly made Donna Brazile — then-acting chair of the Democratic National Committee — consider the possibility. But Brazile quickly abandoned the idea (as she writes in her memoir). Something similar happened in the Republican camp that year, when a conversation was leaked in which Trump noted that he could grab women “by the pussy” with no consequences. However, Reince Priebus — who was chairman of the Republican National Committee at the time — declared that “there was no mechanism” to remove the nominee.
If he changes his mind, Biden could suggest a replacement at the Democratic National Convention, the party’s big meeting in August, which will formalize the nomination of the 2024 presidential candidate. The organization’s rules stipulate that the delegates who vote in that forum are “entrusted” — but not “committed” — to a candidate. They must represent “in good faith” the opinions of those who appointed them.
There are few precedents for a direct appointment at a convention. The last occurrence dates back to 1968, when incumbent Democratic President Lyndon Johnson decided to not seek re-election. After the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy — the favorite of Democratic voters — Vice President Hubert Humphrey was named at the party convention in Chicago (the same city that will host this year’s convention) over the course of a chaotic few days. Humphrey ultimately suffered a resounding defeat against Republican Richard Nixon.
If such a situation were to arise, one of the problems that the party would face would be regarding who would replace Biden, who is practically unopposed in the Democratic primaries. Vice President Kamala Harris has even lower approval ratings than him. Other possibilities — such as California Governor Gavin Newsom, or Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer — are extremely loyal to the president. They appear to be biding their time for 2028.
For now, Biden’s supporters plan to continue their firm defense of the president. A recent New York Times editorial suggests that the occupant of the White House should appear more often in public: “[Biden must] reassure and build confidence with the public by doing things that he has so far been unwilling to do convincingly… [He must do] more town hall meetings in communities and on national television. He should hold regular news conferences to demonstrate his command of and direction for leading the country.”
Meanwhile, his Republican rival — Donald Trump — has chosen to remain silent on the age debate, instead focusing on the key issue in Hur’s report: how Biden was legally exonerated of his improper handling of the classified documents in his possession after leaving the vice presidency. The former president — who faces 41 charges for improperly retaining much more material — has limited himself to noting that, if prosecutors have exonerated the current tenant of the White House, “they shouldn’t file charges against me, either.”
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition