ANALYSIS — President Joe Biden’s emotional and defiant surprise Thursday evening appearance at the White House offered clues aplenty about the 2024 campaign.
In some ways, Biden’s remarks were effective about a special counsel opting against charging him for his handling of classified documents after he left the vice presidency. He was forceful and clear about Special Counsel Robert Hur’s findings, declaring that the Justice Department investigator had reached a “firm conclusion that no charges should be brought against me in this case.”
“This was an exhaustive investigation,” Biden said from behind the blue presidential lectern with the seal of the office of the presidency affixed. And he spoke from the ornate Diplomatic Reception Room, using the bully pulpit of incumbency to drive home his message.
But there also were moments in which Biden’s prime-time plan appeared to backfire, raising new questions about the 81-year-old’s mental sharpness.
One of the president’s aims was to keep Donald Trump’s criminal charges over his handling of classified documents — and refusal to return them — as a campaign matter. Biden likely accomplished that, but his impromptu and sometimes angry remarks also showed an impulsiveness that ran counter to the methodical chief executive image he has cultivated since taking office.
Here are four takeaways that offered telling clues about his expected rematch with Trump.
Biden’s age, and that of the 77-year-old Trump, was an issue before Thursday evening. But it likely is a bigger one now.
Hur wrote in his report, based on five hours of interviews with Biden, that the president was a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.” Biden confirmed that during his appearance, and added: “I know what the hell I’m doing.”
Then it happened. Biden again mixed up world leaders — and it wasn’t the first time this week.
“As you know, the president of Mexico, Sisi, did not want to open the gate to allow humanitarian material to get in,” Biden said in response to a question about Israel’s war against Hamas. “I talked to him. I convinced him to open the gate.” Only that Abdel Fatah El-Sisi is the president of Egypt, not Mexico.
But then there’s Trump, who more than once recently has mixed up his lone remaining GOP primary foe, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, with former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota, who is challenging Biden in the Democratic presidential primary, has raised concerns about Biden’s age and mental acuity. He hasn’t been alone.
“I’m extremely concerned,” Mayor Van Johnson of Savannah, Ga., told the New York Times in late December. “President Biden is a man of great character. Certainly, he’s a president of great accomplishments. But that is not translating to southeast Georgia.”
Veteran congressional Democrats in recent weeks have expressed concerns with Biden’s reelection campaign. His lashing out at a CNN reporter Thursday night for bringing up a slew of poll data that show voters are concerned about his age and sharpness likely will only intensify such worries. “That is your judgment,” Biden fired back. “That is not the judgment [for] the press.”
The exchange conjured memories of then-President Trump’s often testy relationship with the White House press corps — one Democrats often criticized.
Seventy-five percent of voters have major or moderate concerns about Biden’s mental and physical health, according to an NBC News poll released this week. (That compares to 61 percent who said the same about Trump.)
The Beau factor
As Biden spoke about the anecdote in Hur’s report that the president had been murky during his deposition about son Beau Biden’s death, his anger was palpable.
“There’s even [a] reference that I don’t remember when my son died,” Biden said Thursday evening. “How in the hell dare he raise that? … I don’t need anyone to remind me of when he passed away.”
Hur clearly brought out something in the president that voters have not seen very often since he took office. It’s just the kind of personal detail Trump could use to touch a nerve and throw an opponent off kilter.
Yet, Biden did show a clear command of what was in Hur’s report and delivered a cogent assessment of Israel’s military operation in Gaza.
The “conduct of the response in the Gaza Strip has been over the top. … and I’m pushing very hard now to deal with this hostage cease-fire,” he said. “I’ve been working tirelessly on this deal … because I think if we can get the delay, the initial delay — I think we would be able to extend that so that we could increase the prospect that this fighting in Gaza changes.”
“I’ve been pushing really hard to get humanitarian assistance into Gaza,” the president said. “A lot of innocent people are starving. A lot of innocent people are in trouble and they’re dying — and it’s got to stop.”
There was no mixing up nor confusion in what was a very commander-in-chief assessment. More mixed signals for voters.