I listened to President Joe Biden’s recent speech in Warsaw, a few days before the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. You should check it out, too. I’m often surprised when I listen to the president speak, maybe because of how many times I’ve heard friends say disparaging things like so many others, including: 

  • Politicos: Former Trump White House adviser Stephen Miller said that Biden should be in “assisted living” and “is not cognitively present.”
  • Podcasters: “He’s so gone. He’s got dementia. There’s no if and or buts about it.” (Joe Rogan)
  • Cable news: “President Biden is plagued by his own cognitive decline. ... Does he really fully comprehend and understand what is exactly going on?” (Sean Hannity)
  • Even billboards insist: “He is not fit.”

In my view, the 20-plus minute speech in Warsaw strongly disconfirmed these blanket condemnations. I was struck at how strong and clear the president sounded. In fact, halfway through, I turned up the volume louder in my car to make sure I wasn’t missing any stumblings. 

Sure enough, if you pay close enough attention, there were some slurred words every once in a while, and a phrase or two I couldn’t quite catch. The effects of age are clearly apparent in the commander in chief, as partisans on both sides acknowledge. And there have been moments in the past two years when the president seemed genuinely baffled and confused, such as when he mistakenly asked if a deceased congresswoman was in the audience.

Have you ever forgotten something important?

What to make of those moments overall — the stories we tell about them — is where the debate gets most interesting. My 11-year old son came home the other day talking about a viral video of verbal stumbles from President Biden gathered in close succession. For a young boy, that was all the evidence anyone would need of our president being cognitively incapacitated, right? 

Just this weekend, I gave a talk in my own congregation about half the length as the president’s speech, focusing on five main points. It wasn’t until later that I learned that I had completely skipped over my third point in nervousness — thanks to a woman who pulled me aside afterward and asked, “Now, what was that third point?” 

When I think of someone watching the handful of talks I’ve given over the past year or two, I’m imagining my own “gaffe video” would be something to behold. But evidence for what exactly?  

One of the smoking-gun moments widely promoted online as evidence of the president’s cognitive state is when Biden “turned around and tried to shake hands with thin air and then wandered around looking confused,” according to one tweet. You may have seen it or heard it it mentioned. What you probably didn’t see was video footage from other angles showing the president gesturing toward onlookers behind him — precisely the context you’d leave out if you just wanted to make him look daft.

Don’t forget that a truth that is exaggerated or distorted is no longer a truth.

Other things are often left out: The fact that Biden is one of those people who’s always made gaffes, even as a younger man. And that he often catches himself and turns it into a joke, like when he said “saloon” instead of salon, or offered $100K for citizens to get vaccinated. You might have also missed how the president handled hecklers with notable grace and patience at the recent State of the Union.

And, of course, he has spoken publicly about working to overcome a longtime stutter.

Never mind the arguments

When I started writing publicly about sensitive matters, the biggest surprise was how many people largely ignored the arguments I was making, and instead just came after me personally. I was woefully lacking in “empathy” or “compassion.” I was being “mean” and “hateful.” I was just “ignorant” and not sufficiently enlightened.  

One characteristic of our angry age is that the actual arguments people are making — their message, their thesis, their ideas — are simply not center stage anymore. And why would they be, when something much more exciting and dramatic can occupy us — namely, how stupid Those People are … just plain rotten and evil. Vicious. And horrible. And undeniably despicable.

Did I mention hateful?  

Condemning someone as cognitively incompetent is just another cut from the same cloth, one more way to dismiss someone completely. 

Something similar happened in the prior administration, of course, when 350 psychiatrists and other mental health professionals signed a petition in 2019 claiming that former President Donald Trump’s mental health was deteriorating in dangerous ways.

Perspective: No country for old men?
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The alternative to all these attempts to discredit someone, of course, is to actually consider the arguments being made, including those put forth by Biden. On that level, there is plenty to talk about. And to be clear, I believe our president has been flat-out wrong about all sorts of things, maybe even the majority of things. That includes his heavy-handed management of the pandemic, and his overconfidence in the activist arm of his own party — not to mention his tragic and historic misjudgment of what our Afghan brothers and sisters needed from us.  

But that’s precisely my main point here. These disagreements matter on the level of ideas. Wouldn’t it be great if we could talk about questions at that basic ideological level, rather than devolve so quickly to character (or cognitive) attacks? 

So much can be accomplished through debate that simply never will be through animosity.  A great example of this was Sen. Mitt Romney’s brief video response to the recent State of the Union address. What a refreshing contrast Utah’s junior senator makes to the hissing and booing from some of his Republican colleagues. (Run again, Mitt, run!)  

In that video, Romney starts by saying “the president is a friend. I like Joe Biden. I’ve come to know him over the years. He’s a patriotic man who believes very deeply in the thing he talks about.” Then the senator proceeded to emphasize things the president said that he was “pleased with” — including his reaffirmed commitment to Ukraine and his comments on China. Then, and only then, did Romney say, “The president got off on the wrong foot when he said Republicans want to cut Medicare and Social Security,” adding, “That’s just not true. … that was just plain and simple wrong.” 

There’s the alternative. No need for character attacks or bromides. 

In fairness, Romney had a less charitable, unscripted moment with George Santos that same night that also made headlines, but that was uncharacteristic. And I regularly hear from friends across the nation who are grateful for what Romney has meant to the nation’s civic fabric.  You won’t see those people showing up in many preelection polling numbers, but I believe there has been an impact from Romney’s moral leadership that simply cannot be quantified (this from an admirer of Utah Sen. Mike Lee as well).

Ageism … or animosity?

If I was a believer in the new religion of social justice, with its dogmatic focus on the cardinal sin of inequity, I would speak at this point about “ageism” and the systematic bias that exists against old people today. Compared to other structural inequities, this “ism” occupies a minor spot in the pantheon of progressive transgression. 

But we could also think about what many people call “ageism” today as simply animosity or disrespect — which is why the Judeo-Christian tradition encourages us to not only “honor your father and mother” but to respect our elders generally. Even baby boomers have trouble getting respect from younger Americans, though, so of course it’s worse for the Silent Generation, of which Biden is a member.

While legitimate questions ought to be asked of the cognitive capacity required for any major leadership role, as new GOP candidate Nikki Haley herself recently did for the presidency, many critics risk missing another thing that correlates with age — something called wisdom.

And remember, if we can’t concede any goodness and thoughtfulness in our political opposites, it says more about us than it does about anything else.

So I’ll end by trying to practice what I preach, and say that despite my strong concerns about our president — his ideas, not his cognition — to see him in his aviator glasses walking alongside President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Ukrainian soil was pretty darn awesome. 

Jacob Hess is a founder of Public Square Magazine and a former board member of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation. He has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since the publication of “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” with Phil Neisser. With Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, Hess also authored “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”