Editor’s Note: David Axelrod, a CNN senior political commentator and host of “The Axe Files,” was a senior adviser to former President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Robert Hur may think President Joe Biden’s memory is faulty, but it’s a safe bet the president will never forget the shiv the special counsel stuck into the Biden re-election campaign Thursday.
Hur’s report, which ran a whopping 350 pages, concluded that no charges would be leveled against Biden for retaining and disclosing classified information after his vice presidency.
That was the good news.
But it was a handful of paragraphs in the special counsel’s tome that were indisputably damaging to a president already struggling with public doubts about his age and fitness.
The report characterized Biden as “a well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.” It also noted that his “diminished faculties in advancing age” and that he would make a sympathetic witness in his own defense due to his age and frailty.
“He did not remember when he was vice president, forgetting on the first day of the interview when his term ended (‘if it was 2013 — when did I stop being Vice President?’), and forgetting on the second day of the interview when his term began (‘in 2009, am I still Vice President?’),” the report said. “He did not remember, even within several years, when his son Beau died.”
The president bristled at these conclusions, which were based, in part, on five hours of interviews with Hur’s team in October. He was particularly galled by the reference to his beloved son, Beau, whose death in 2015 is an enduring heartache.
“How the hell dare he raise that,” Biden thundered at a hastily called White House press conference Thursday evening, his voice tense with outrage and emotion.
Many Democrats have cried foul, underscoring that Hur, the Department of Justice veteran who was tapped for the special counsel role by Biden’s attorney general, Merrick Garland, is a Republican who served as a US attorney in Maryland under the Trump administration.
But whatever Hur’s motives, the seemingly gratuitous language in his report was more than offensive to the 81-year-old president. It was another log on a raging fire that threatens to engulf Biden’s re-election.
Hur is a lawyer, not a medical doctor, so his assessment seemed gratuitous and out of place. But often, the most damaging stories in presidential races are the ones that confirm negative impressions voters have already formed.
When a tape surfaced, showing Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a closed fundraiser in 2012, saying that 47% of Americans were essentially wards of the state and its entitlements who would never vote for him, it added to the portrait of Romney as a callous financier. I was the strategist for President Barack Obama’s campaign at the time, and we seized on Romney’s words to depict him as out of touch with working class voters.
The same was true in 2016 when Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, also speaking at a fundraiser, denounced Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” That off-handed statement gave her opponents more opportunity to paint her as a disdainful cultural elite.
The negative image of Biden, pushed relentlessly by Republicans, is that the world is out of control and an aged and infirm Biden isn’t in command. And that narrative has taken root.
A November CNN poll found that just 25% of voters believe Biden “has the stamina and sharpness to serve effectively as president.” (Some 53% gave Trump passing grades for stamina and sharpness, though he’s just three years younger and often prone to being confused himself.)
A recent CNN poll released last week showed that nearly half of Democrats cited Biden’s age when asked to name their chief concern about his candidacy.
This concern — fueled largely by his appearances on camera — is an albatross for Biden’s campaign. Videos show the president’s shuffling gait and sometimes fumbling, low energy and, yes, forgetful performances that have become a treasure trove for social media trolls.
The image of a doddering president is belied by an array of significant achievements, including landmark legislative victories and global leadership, that speak to his competence and might normally boost a president’s standing. But voters seem unwilling to credit the president for what he’s done and are inclined to blame every problem on his perceived deficits.
Meanwhile, Trump, the de facto Republican nominee — who is viewed as more energetic but riddled by legal and ethical problems and no less prone to mind-boggling verbal gaffes — rolls on in what promises to be a brutal war of attrition.
Thursday’s press conference, meant to stem the bleeding from Hur’s report, only intensified concerns.
An angry Biden lashed out at reporters who reasonably asked about the age issue and exacerbated it by calling Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi the “president of Mexico.”
Rather than contrition over his handling of classified documents, Biden threw his staff under the bus when he said, “I take responsibility for not having seen exactly what my staff was doing.” And he contradicted elements of Hur’s report in a way that may incentivize House Republicans, who smell blood, to pursue the special counsel’s investigative materials under the cover of the impeachment probe.
With no sign of retreat, Team Biden has to regroup after a palpably miserable day, as nervous Democrats anxiously grasp for a consistent message, a campaign on the offense and a candidate who can prove he is up to the task.
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