On June 27, in front of an audience of more than 50 million Americans, President Joe Biden showed that not only can he not outperform his rival Donald Trump on the debate stage, he can no longer serve as president. 

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Biden’s debate performance — halting, incoherent answers, open-mouthed staring during Trump’s time, and lost looks of confusion — is exactly what we’ve been seeing from him for years and what reports from inside the White House have told us. 

But the debate did more than show Biden isn’t up to the task of running against Trump. The president is, to put it mildly, not all there. It’s more than likely he is suffering from some form of impaired cognition. He’s too old for the job. 

A president who can only be relied on to fully function six hours a day is not a president who can fulfill his duties.

Alex Thompson of Axios reported in the wake of the debate — not for the first time — that Biden is fully engaged only between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. “Outside of that time range or while traveling abroad, Biden is more likely to have verbal miscues and become fatigued,” Thompson wrote. 

A president who can only be relied on to fully function six hours a day is not a president who can fulfill his duties. If Biden can’t be depended on to make clear decisions after 4 p.m., he can’t be in charge of making split-second calls on disaster relief and management, much less the use of the country’s nuclear arsenal. He can’t be expected to deal with a Supreme Court that has gone fully rogue and is remaking vast swathes of U.S. law on the fly.  

If he won’t resign, he must be removed. There are mechanisms in place for such an unprecedented move, namely the 25th Amendment. Unfortunately, Biden’s Cabinet is unlikely to prioritize the public good over their careers.

This isn’t a new problem. During a Democratic primary debate in September 2019, Julián Castro asked then-candidate Biden, “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” Castro was torched for the line, which was unartfully delivered. But he was only expressing a sentiment held by a not insubstantial number of people — that Biden wasn’t all there. 

The “gaffes” — which is what the media chose to call them — continued throughout 2020. By August, a desperate Trump was slamming Biden’s mental state on the trail, “This guy doesn’t have a clue. He doesn’t know where the hell he is.” Biden, for his part, refused to even countenance taking a cognitive fitness test — “Why the hell would I take a test? Come on, man,” he snapped at CBS’s Errol Barnett — a month before a September poll showing that a majority of voters in six swing states didn’t think Biden or Trump were mentally fit for the job. Again, this poll was in September 2020. Despite those concerns, Covid put a dampener on campaigning, allowing Biden’s team to sidestep the central questions of fitness by keeping events to a minimum. 

The low-event, low-interaction trend has continued into Biden’s term. The president doesn’t do many public events and has done barely any media interviews, especially not with news organizations that might challenge him, such as The New York Times. That could mean the reason Biden hasn’t done an interview with the paper has nothing to do with some epic clapback, but reflects the likelihood the paper would accurately report on his mental decline. “For anyone who understands the role of the free press in a democracy, it should be troubling that President Biden has so actively and effectively avoided questions from independent journalists during his term,” the Times said in an unusually combative April statement

The president doesn’t do many public events and has done barely any media interviews, especially not with news organizations that might challenge him.

Strategically, Democrats have been circling the wagons. A report in February from former judge Robert Hur, on Biden’s alleged mishandling of official documents and noting that he didn’t seem to have a good grasp of memory-related issues, was savaged as a partisan document. 

Four months from November, the president barely has a campaign. The conversation rightfully turns on whether he can run again. Conventional wisdom in some Democratic circles is that Biden should be replaced, and more party leaders are opening the door to a possible Biden-less future. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California wondered to MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell if the president’s problems were a one-off or something deeper. Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina asserted his support for Vice President Kamala Harris “if [Biden] were to step aside.” Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas called for Biden to step down. A panicking White House announced Tuesday that the president will do a recorded interview Friday with friendly ABC host George Stephanopoulos to air Sunday. But with party discontent snowballing, that’s probably too little, too late.

If he does choose to step down, or is forcibly removed, Harris is the only realistic option to replace him, as she is his assigned successor. Barring some catastrophe, she is the presumptive heir. 

That isn’t to say Harris would defeat Trump. She is herself gaffe-prone and polls poorly. But she would be in a better position to push back on Trump and the GOP agenda because she can usually make two halves of a sentence match one another in interviews and in debate. Depending on her moves as chief executive, a Harris campaign might also be less burdened by Gaza, which I argued in April is a major issue for a campaign reliant on young volunteers to get out the vote. 

If Democrats choose an open convention in Chicago next month, the nomination could go to a number of better candidates, including Harris. The point is, there are options. The one that doesn’t work is keeping Biden, on the ballot or in office.

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