Behind closed doors, Biden shows signs of slipping

The 81-year-old Biden is the oldest person to hold the presidency. (Photo: Reuters)
The 81-year-old Biden is the oldest person to hold the presidency. (Photo: Reuters)

Summary

Participants in meetings said the 81-year-old president performed poorly at times. The White House said Biden is sharp and his critics are playing partisan politics.

WASHINGTON—When President Biden met with congressional leaders in the West Wing in January to negotiate a Ukraine funding deal, he spoke so softly at times that some participants struggled to hear him, according to five people familiar with the meeting. He read from notes to make obvious points, paused for extended periods and sometimes closed his eyes for so long that some in the room wondered whether he had tuned out.

In a February one-on-one chat in the Oval Office with House Speaker Mike Johnson, the president said a recent policy change by his administration that jeopardizes some big energy projects was just a study, according to six people told at the time about what Johnson said had happened. Johnson worried the president’s memory had slipped about the details of his own policy.

Last year, when Biden was negotiating with House Republicans to lift the debt ceiling, his demeanor and command of the details seemed to shift from one day to the next, according to then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and two others familiar with the talks. On some days, he had loose and spontaneous exchanges with Republicans, and on others he mumbled and appeared to rely on notes.

“I used to meet with him when he was vice president. I’d go to his house," McCarthy said in an interview. “He’s not the same person."

The 81-year-old Biden is the oldest person to hold the presidency. His age and cognitive fitness have become major issues in his campaign for a second term, both in the minds of voters and in attacks on him by Republicans. The White House and top aides said he remains a sharp and vigorous leader.

Some who have worked with him, however, including Democrats and some who have known him back to his time as vice president, described a president who appears slower now, someone who has both good moments and bad ones.

For much of his career, Biden enjoyed a reputation on Capitol Hill for being a master negotiator of legislative deals, known for his detailed knowledge of issues and insights into the other side’s motivations and needs—and for hitting his stride when the pressure was on. Over the past year, though, with Republicans in control of the House, that reputation has diminished.

White House officials dismissed many of the accounts from those who have met with the president or been briefed on those meetings as motivated by partisan politics.

“Congressional Republicans, foreign leaders and nonpartisan national-security experts have made clear in their own words that President Biden is a savvy and effective leader who has a deep record of legislative accomplishment," said White House spokesman Andrew Bates. “Now, in 2024, House Republicans are making false claims as a political tactic that flatly contradict previous statements made by themselves and their colleagues."

This article is based on interviews with more than 45 people over several months. The interviews were with Republicans and Democrats who either participated in meetings with Biden or were briefed on them contemporaneously, including administration officials and other Democrats who found no fault in the president’s handling of the meetings. Most of those who said Biden performed poorly were Republicans, but some Democrats said that he showed his age in several of the exchanges.

The White House kept close tabs on some of The Wall Street Journal’s interviews with Democratic lawmakers. After the offices of several Democrats shared with the White House either a recording of an interview or details about what was asked, some of those lawmakers spoke to the Journal a second time and once again emphasized Biden’s strengths.

“They just, you know, said that I should give you a call back," said Rep. Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat, referring to the White House.

Bates, the White House spokesman, said: “We thought it was important that all perspectives be represented" to correct what he said were “false and politically motivated claims."

Former President Donald Trump, who at 77 is 3½ years younger than Biden, also has faced questions about his mental acuity. Indeed, both candidates have been captured repeatedly on camera slipping up on facts or otherwise botching their public remarks, providing a steady stream of fodder for both Democrats and Republicans to attack the mental capacity of the opposing candidate.

During Biden’s January meeting on Ukraine, the president laid out a forceful case for providing aid, according to administration officials and some participants, who added that using notes in such meetings is common practice. White House spokesman Bates denied that Biden had misspoken during his one-on-one exchange with Johnson in February about energy policy.

Administration aides familiar with last year’s debt-ceiling negotiations said Biden was effective, that his role was to be above the fray and to provide detailed instructions behind the scenes. They said McCarthy privately told administration officials at the time that he was impressed with Biden’s performance, and that McCarthy suggested as much in public remarks.

They said the passage of both Ukraine funding and a debt-ceiling increase without major concessions to Republicans shows he succeeded.

Some who attended the meetings attributed off-key moments to his speech impediment and his tendency to be long-winded. Those who expressed concern about Biden said the behavior they saw suggested an unevenness, not the caricature of an addled leader that some of his political opponents draw. The White House said the president’s doctors have found him fit to serve, and that his recent annual physical showed no need for a cognitive test.

Members of the Biden administration offered numerous examples of other situations that they said showed the president was sharp and engaged, including long hours in the Situation Room in April during and after Iran’s missile attack on Israel, and late nights on the phone with lawmakers from his White House residence.

Voter perceptions about the mental acuity of both candidates are being shaped partly by footage and news coverage of their public slips.

On May 20, during a Rose Garden event celebrating Jewish American Heritage month, Biden said one of the U.S. hostages held in Gaza was a guest at the White House event, before correcting himself. One day earlier, at a campaign event in Detroit, he indicated that he was vice president during the Covid-19 pandemic, which started three years after he left that office. It was one of numerous flubs in the single speech that prompted the White House to make corrections to the official transcript.

In January, he mixed up two of his Hispanic cabinet secretaries, Alejandro Mayorkas and Xavier Becerra. During a February fundraiser in New York, he recounted speaking to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl—who died in 2017—at the 2021 Group of Seven meeting. That same month, at a different fundraiser, he said that during the 2021 G-7 summit he had spoken to former French President François Mitterrand, who died in 1996.

Trump, for his part, mixed up Nikki Haley, a Republican presidential primary opponent, and House speaker emeritus Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat, during a January speech. At a rally in Virginia in March, he referred to Biden as Barack Obama when commenting on Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s opinion of U.S. leadership. During his criminal trial in New York in May, he closed his eyes for extended periods.

After the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, there was so much concern over Trump’s mental state that some of his cabinet officials discussed whether there should be a greater check on his power and at least one considered invoking the 25th Amendment to remove him from office.

A Trump spokeswoman said he is “sharp as a tack."

In a March Wall Street Journal survey of voters in seven battleground states, just 28% said Biden was better suited physically and mentally for the presidency, while 48% picked Trump.

Questions about Biden’s age were amplified in February when Special Counsel Robert K. Hur, who interviewed him for roughly five hours over two days in October during the probe into his handling of classified documents, reported that Biden’s memory had been “significantly limited." Biden responded in a news conference: “I know what the hell I’m doing."

Americans have had minimal opportunities to see Biden in unscripted moments. By the end of April, he had given fewer interviews and press conferences than any of his recent predecessors, according to data collected by Martha Joynt Kumar, an emeritus professor at Towson University. His last wide-ranging town-hall-style meeting with an independent news outlet was in October 2021.

He has had fewer small meetings with lawmakers as his term has gone on, visitor logs show. During his first year in office, even with pandemic restrictions, he held more than three dozen meetings of fewer than 20 lawmakers in the West Wing. That number fell to roughly two dozen in his second year, and about a dozen in his third year.

Bates, the White House spokesman, said the new Republican-controlled House presented fewer opportunities for a Democratic president to push major legislation.

Jan. 17, 2024: Ukraine Meeting

With Ukraine running out of munitions, the White House called together top lawmakers to discuss what it would take to get congressional funding, along with the scope of border-security changes demanded by Republicans. The president moved so slowly around the Cabinet Room to greet the nearly two dozen congressional leaders that it took about 10 minutes for the meeting to begin, some people who attended recalled.

Biden started the meeting reading from notes to make broad points about the need to give money to Ukraine, which struck several participants as odd given that the lawmakers present already generally agreed that more funds were needed. Some attendees had trouble hearing him.

Biden deferred so frequently to other lawmakers that much of the conversation didn’t include him, some people who attended the meeting recalled. When questions came directly to him, he would turn to staffers, they said.

“You couldn’t be there and not feel uncomfortable," said one person who attended. “I’ll just say that."

Gene Sperling, a top Biden aide who also worked for former presidents Bill Clinton and Obama, said it is standard practice for presidents to read from cards in serious policy meetings with lawmakers. Casey Redmon, a National Security Council official who attended, said Biden turned to aides only twice, deferring one question to National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and another to Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, a New York Democrat who attended, said Biden was “incredibly strong, forceful and decisive." The White House provided similar statements from two top officials who attended: Shalanda Young, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer. Bates, the White House spokesman, said no one in the room said anything at the time about having trouble hearing Biden.

“What you see on TV is what you get," said Sen. James E. Risch, an Idaho Republican, who attended the meeting but shared only his general impression of meetings with Biden. “These people who keep talking about what a dynamo he is behind closed doors—they need to get him out from behind closed doors, because I didn’t see it."

Others who attended said Biden’s demeanor and level of engagement fluctuated and he seemed lively and engaged at some points. When the topic moved to an immigration overhaul, Johnson, the House speaker, offered Biden a list of dozens of executive actions he could undo to improve border security. Biden, rather than responding to Johnson’s suggestions, chided him, according to people at the meeting, “I’ve forgotten more about immigration than you’ll ever know."

Bates, the White House spokesman, characterized Biden’s retort as a “lighthearted comment" about his long experience with immigration policy. Bates said Johnson later publicly described the meeting positively, and that the meeting put Congress on the trajectory to pass Ukraine aid.

Meeks, the New York Democrat, said he didn’t come away from the meeting worried about Biden’s acuity. “I found him to be the same Joe Biden that I’ve known since I came to Congress," said Meeks, who was elected in 1998.

Feb. 27, 2024: Biden and Johnson

Just after a late-February meeting of House and Senate leaders about military assistance to Ukraine, Biden pulled aside Johnson for a chat about funding and what it would take to bring the matter to a House vote.

Johnson brought up a new administration energy policy that halts future permits for shipping LNG to many countries, including in Europe, while the climate, economic and national-security impact of those exports are studied. The policy fanned concern that the ban would scuttle new projects and ultimately force U.S. allies to import more from energy-rich adversaries like Russia. The policy also affects several multibillion-dollar projects in Johnson’s home state of Louisiana by denying them, for now, key export permits.

“Mr. President, you are helping Vladimir Putin," Johnson told the president, according to one of the people briefed on the exchange. Biden said that wasn’t true, and that the new policy was only a study, according to several people familiar with Johnson’s version of what happened. Johnson was dismayed that Biden appeared to have forgotten details of his own policies, they said.

Bates, the White House spokesman, said that those who have heard Johnson’s version are repeating “a false account." He said the study is part of the new policy, and that the pause doesn’t affect current exports. Administration officials said Biden was attempting to signal to Johnson that the policy wouldn’t have the detrimental effects he worried about.

No new Energy Department permits for exporting LNG have been issued since the pause was announced.

Johnson declined to be interviewed for this article. Taylor Haulsee, a spokesman for Johnson, said the speaker stands by the account that Biden appeared to misunderstand the policy.

Senior White House officials disputed assertions that Biden doesn’t understand his policies or appears disengaged, saying he has been sharp when dealing with crises and pushing through his legislative priorities.

In mid-April, during the pressure-packed hours when Iran was attacking Israel, Biden stayed in the Situation Room tracking Iran’s missiles and drones as they were shot down while strategizing with senior aides about what to say to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when the attack ended, according to an administration official.

Biden sought de-escalation, telling Netanyahu on that call that he didn’t need a major military response to the unprecedented attack. Using military shorthand that refers to tit-for-tat responses as “turns," the official said, Biden told the Israeli leader: “Don’t do a turn three."

When the call ended, Biden told his national security team that he suspected Israel would still respond in some way, but that his argument was likely to minimize the response. He was right: Israel hit a military target in central Iran, a limited strike.

May 2023: Debt Ceiling

In 2011, when Biden was vice president, he played a central role in negotiations with Republicans over increasing the debt ceiling, striking a deal when the country was on the precipice of a default. According to some Republicans involved in similar negotiations with him in May 2023, his level of engagement was uneven.

“He would ramble," said McCarthy, who led the Republican side of the talks. “He always had cards. He couldn’t negotiate another way."

When the deal was coming together, though, McCarthy wasn’t as openly critical of the president. He said he enjoyed meeting with him, and he praised Biden’s staff. “I thought his team was very professional, very smart, very tough at the same time," he told reporters in May 2023.

For the final phase of the talks, McCarthy assigned fellow Republican House members Garret Graves of Louisiana and Patrick McHenry of North Carolina to work with White House aides on nitty-gritty issues.

At times, the White House team would defer items, saying Biden needed to make the final call. But Biden wouldn’t discuss those points in detail when he had check-in talks with McCarthy, according to people familiar with the conversations. He kept the calls general, expressing optimism about working things out, according to one of those people.

Administration officials said Biden was employing an oft-used negotiating tactic of staying above the fray. McCarthy, one of the officials said, was doing the same thing.

On May 21 of last year, 11 days away from a possible default, Biden called McCarthy from Air Force One on his way back from a summit meeting in Japan to discuss the negotiations. “On that phone call, he was more with it than any other time," McCarthy said. Biden told stories about the other foreign leaders at the conference and referenced how the debt-ceiling talks could impact various members of Congress politically, according to people familiar with it.

When McCarthy and other lawmakers met with the president the next day, McCarthy said, Biden lacked the spontaneity he had projected on the plane. “He was going back to all the old stuff that had been done for a long time," McCarthy said. “And he was shocked when I’d say: ‘No, Mr. President. We talked about that meetings ago. We are done with that.’"

Administration officials said that during a negotiation it is not unusual for the White House to reassert its original position at various points, sometimes to show Democrats that the president is still pushing for their priorities.

The president spoke so softly and with such little enunciation that attendees said they struggled to hear what he was saying, people familiar with the meeting said. He told the same story more than once about his experiences with the DuPont company during his time as a Delaware senator, one of the people said.

Administration officials who were at the meeting said they saw nothing unusual about Biden’s demeanor and that they didn’t struggle to hear what he said or recall him repeating a story. Bates, the White House spokesman, said Biden didn’t rely overly on notes, and that through his long career he has frequently repeated anecdotes in meetings.

When the Republican negotiators came out of the meeting, McCarthy was upbeat, telling reporters that the “tone" of the White House meeting was “better than any other time we’ve had discussions."

As Republican negotiators drove away from the White House, they called a colleague to update him on the talks, according to someone familiar with the call. One topic of discussion: the president and his acuity.

Jim Oberman contributed to this article.

Write to Annie Linskey at annie.linskey@wsj.com and Siobhan Hughes at Siobhan.hughes@wsj.com

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