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OPINION

The senility-mongering of Biden

For all the GOP disparagement of the president, he’s off to a strong start.

President Joe Biden delivers a speech on infrastructure spending at Carpenters Pittsburgh Training Center in Pittsburgh in March.
President Joe Biden delivers a speech on infrastructure spending at Carpenters Pittsburgh Training Center in Pittsburgh in March.Evan Vucci/Associated Press

A couple weeks ago, I was climbing the steps to the observation platform atop Sugarloaf Mountain when I stumbled, falling to one knee. Then, on the drive home, I heard a song I always get caught up in, but whose authorship I couldn’t immediately recall.

Who sings this, I asked my wife?

“It’s Todd,” she said. As in Todd Thibaud, who is not just one of my favorite Boston-area musicians, but a friend as well.

A stumble and a forgotten name.

I’m over the hill.

Lost to dementia.

Incompetent to handle any responsibilities.

How do I know?

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Because I’ve heard and read the same thing again and again about Joe Biden.

After all, he tripped on his way up the stairs to Air Force One. And he recently seemed to blank momentarily on the name of Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III.

Both incidents have fueled the right-wing storyline that Biden is not just infirm, but deep in his dotage.

Now, let’s acknowledge the obvious. It is hardly optimal for a president to start a term at 78, just as it was hardly ideal for his predecessor to be in his early-to-mid-70s during his presidency.

Is Biden sometimes absent-minded? Do names sometimes elude him? I’d be surprised if that weren’t the case. As we age, it happens to almost all of us. That said, I’ve covered him in several campaigns, and he doesn’t seem all that different from the guy I first met in 1987. He’s less verbose and less verbally grandiose, both positives. And he generally seems more disciplined. Usually, but not always.

Two moments I’d take back are his description of premature-mask-mandate lifting as “Neanderthal thinking” and of Georgia’s new solve-an-illusory-problem-by-making-voting-by-mail-more-difficult law as “Jim Crow in the 21st century,” the latter by statement. A president should resist the urge to wield a bombastic bazooka; his message is more likely to be considered on the merits, and thus more effective, without insults or hyperbole. But those are flaws of the old Biden, not the old Biden.

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Despite his lily-gilding assertion that his initial (low-ball) goal of 100 million vaccines in 100 days was beyond what anyone thought possible, the federal vaccination rollout has been relatively smooth and efficient. His first COVID-19 package was a big win, and another may be coming on infrastructure, as his big spending omnibus measure is now labeled.

He’s kept his own fractious party united and the Republicans on the back foot.

And yet, the insistent assertion from Trumpland is that Biden is merely a shell of his former self, mentally bewildered, a mere puppet of his advisers. (What does it say, then, that he bested Trump in both presidential debates, I sometimes ask my senile-insistent conservative correspondents?)

That was why he hadn’t held a press conference, they claimed: He wasn’t up to it. Then he had one. For my money, it was a bit too scripted; I’d like to have seen him take a question or two from obvious critics. But he did fine. Better than the White House press, really, which didn’t think to ask about a big issue abroad in the land. Hmm, what was it again? Oh yes, the coronavirus pandemic.

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One might be inclined to dismiss the senility-mongering as a purposeful misportrayal by hyper-partisans or by Trump supporters bitter at, say, the health questions raised by their champion’s slow walk down a ramp at West Point.

But it also undergirds and enables the other claim you hear or read from the conspiratorialist right: Biden will resign (or be removed) from office and leave Vice President Kamala Harris in charge.

Some of that is no doubt left over from Trump’s campaign claims that a Biden victory would mean the country would soon be turned over to Harris. She, in Trump’s telling, is that most threatening of things, a horrible communist monster, by which he really seemed to mean, a smart, confident Black woman. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a mutation of that claim, with all its undertones, offered as an argument to hand control of Congress to Republicans in the 2022 midterms.

The challenges will only get steeper as Biden’s term progresses. But as for the early going?

Well, if this is what political senility looks like, count me in.


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.