Joe Biden’s parallel universe

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There is a parallel universe in which Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin never knelt on George Floyd for 9 minutes and 29 seconds.

In that universe, the Democratic Party never genuflected to identity politics amid the 2020 Black Lives Matter unrest. Joe Biden wasn’t forced to choose a running mate as unpopular as Kamala Harris, who had been the first Democratic candidate to flame out of the primaries just months earlier.

Biden was never left without a clear heir apparent, the absence of which made staying in the 2024 race at age 81 seem like a good idea. As a consequence, in that universe, Donald Trump never seemed likely for re-election

We don’t live in that parallel universe. But it’s a powerful reminder of how one seemingly isolated event can cascade to affect complex systems.

Biden is now faced with a dilemma: to stay ensconced in a delusion that he’s the only Democrat who can beat Trump, or to leave the position he spent his life chasing with no obvious plan for whom to replace him. 

For the moment, it seems like his choice is the former. By his own admission, Biden’s performance in last week’s debate was bad. But it’s the post-debate spin from the White House that makes his campaign look like it’s the one living in a parallel universe. 

It is supposed to be reassuring, for example, that the president is “dependably engaged” during the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. In 2008, Hillary Clinton famously ran an ad about who voters should trust to take the “3 a.m. phone call.” This White House’s apparent answer? “Leave a voicemail, and we’ll return your message within seven hours.” 

Biden offered another line the day after the debate, acknowledging that he doesn’t walk as easy as he used to, speak as smoothly as he used to or debate as well as he used to. Apparently, voters aren’t supposed to ask the obvious: whether Biden can negotiate with foreign leaders as easy as he used to, work with an opposition Congress as smoothly as he used to or make decisions about nuclear weapons as well as he used to. 

Third, the White House tried to chalk up Biden’s disastrous debate to “preparation overload.” It’s a good thing that decisions in the Situation Room don’t require processing copious amounts of complicated information.

Fourth, we were told that the president had a cold. Yet Biden never thought to telegraph that fact to viewers before the debate.

Fifth, the president’s performance was supposedly just one “bad night.” But Biden feels no compulsion to hold a White House press conference — or, better, a Fox News Sunday interview — where he can take adversarial questions and dispel concerns about his mental acuity. 

Sixth, and most recently, we were told that the jet lag made him do it. This despite Biden arriving back in Washington from abroad a full 11 days prior to the debate. 

For the last several years, Biden’s rejoinder to critics saying he’s too old to manage his job effectively has distilled down to two words: “Watch me.” The only problem is, voters are. 

Biden’s debate performance was cataclysmic. Even worse have been his efforts at damage control. Progressives are clamoring for his head. Allies are equivocating. 

More than 70 percent of Americans don’t believe Biden has the “mental or cognitive health to serve as president,” according to new polling from YouGov. 

For once, Biden has finally succeeded in uniting Republicans and Democrats. Trouble is, it’s over his incapacity to make it four more years in the Oval Office. 

If handling his fumbling debate performance is the biggest test of Biden’s decision-making ability, then by this measure he’s failed. For voters, that’s a legitimate factor to consider when judging his competency and, ultimately, his bid for a second term. 

Conservative commentator Sarah Isgur recently wrote that “after 20 yrs in and around these jobs [in Washington], the people in them come to genuinely believe they are indispensable. And the parade of horribles is reinforced by those around them who benefit from their positions. They construct a false universe that they all live in together.” 

That parallel universe may be Biden’s perception in 2024. But it’s not America’s reality. 

Thomas Gift is associate professor and founding director of the Centre on U.S. Politics at University College London. 

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