Joe Biden has rarely seemed as fully 79 years old as he did sitting down with Jimmy Kimmel for a late-night interview that was supposed to showcase his lighter side.
The president rambled, occasionally mixed up words, trailed off awkwardly once or twice, and looked gaunt.
The worst moment was when he wanted to say that he hasn’t been able to communicate his purported accomplishment effectively but couldn’t come up with the best way to put it. “Well, see,” noted a sympathetic Jimmy Kimmel, “that’s kind of perfect. You haven’t been able to communicate it.
The vibe of the interview was that of an appearance by a president emeritus, an elder statesman whose stumbles could be forgiven and who was commenting mostly amiably, if not very compellingly, on the country’s state of affairs.
This isn’t to mock Biden, or to diagnosis him with any condition from afar. Age comes for us all. It just happens to have come for Joe Biden when he is holding the most taxing responsibility on the planet — one that has visibly and rapidly aged men 30 years younger than he is — at a time of international peril and profound discontent in the country.
The job of president has overwhelmed much younger men. Jimmy Carter was 55 in 1979 when the Iran hostage crisis overtook his presidency. George W. Bush was 60 when the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina brought him low. Biden now would have trouble commanding the stage in the manner demanded by the modern presidency even in much more advantageous circumstances.
The Kimmel appearance underlines how forlorn the belief is that all the Biden presidency needs is more Joe Biden. Biden and people close to him reportedly think that he should get out more, with one Biden confidante telling Politico that the White House needs to, in the inevitable cliche used by frustrated loyalists, “let Biden be Biden.”
It is true that Biden has retail campaigning abilities and the back-slapping charm of an old-school pol — the hair sniffing and shoulder massages that got him briefly in trouble during the Democratic primaries were part of his tactile quality as a politician.
Biden would surely be great if unleashed at Fourth of July picnics. What does that get him, though? He’s not running for the Wilmington, Delaware, city council. He’s trying to right the listing ship of state of a great continental nation.
Wishful anonymous comments to reporters aside, the White House gives every indication of realizing that what should be its main weapon, POTUS himself, is a flawed vessel. Whenever Biden is on the stage, even reading a teleprompter speech, there’s the possibility of a gaffe, and not a trifle like forgetting a name or what city he might be in — no, an international-incident-type gaffe that will reverberate in foreign capitals.
Biden might bristle at getting corrected by his staff, but what are they supposed to do? Leave the impression that the U.S. seeks regime change in Russia and is committed to fighting China over Taiwan? If Biden wants to make these positions into U.S. policy, it is in his power to do so. Instead, he went along with the clean-up operations because they were appropriate and necessary.
Every scuffling White House tends to believe that it can turn things around with better communications. Reality matters, though. Even a combination of FDR and Ronald Reagan would have trouble talking people into feeling good about an economy with an 8.3% inflation rate, declining real wages, and negative 1.5% GDP growth in the first quarter. Biden, needless to say, is neither of those men.
At the end of the day, every presidency reflects the president. It is Biden’s profound political and policy misjudgments that have created or contributed to the multiple crises that have him below 40% in some polls. Biden has indeed been Biden, and it’s been a disaster.
Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.