May 19, 2024
President Joe Biden’s Wednesday slip asking for a deceased lawmaker during a White House event left reporters at the afternoon press briefing with a question of their own: How could the president, who turns 80 shortly after the midterm elections, have been confused about her whereabouts?

President Joe Biden’s Wednesday slip asking for a deceased lawmaker during a White House event left reporters at the afternoon press briefing with a question of their own: How could the president, who turns 80 shortly after the midterm elections, have been confused about her whereabouts?

“What happened in the hunger event today?” asked a reporter in the first exchange on the subject, noting Biden “seemed to indicate she might be in the room,” before asking again, “What happened there?”

Biden’s top spokeswoman confirmed that his “Where’s Jackie?” query was a reference to Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN), who was killed in a car crash last month.


“The president was naming the congressional champions on this issue and was acknowledging her incredible work. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters, adding he will soon see her family. “So, of course, she was on his mind.”

But the response raised as many questions as it answered. Jean-Pierre was hesitant to concede that Biden had misspoken in any way. “I don’t think it’s at all unusual,” she said. She later said reporters were “jumping to conclusions.”

The fact that Biden is set to soon meet with Walorski’s family when he signs a bill renaming an Indiana veterans clinic after her suggests her death should have been “top of mind.” He had issued a statement mourning her when she died.

Reporters were not convinced by the White House’s explanation.

“He said, ‘Jackie, are you here? Where’s Jackie? She must not be here,'” the first reporter followed up.

“If the late congresswoman was top of mind for the president and her family was expected to be here and that’s what he was thinking about, why was he looking for her?” another asked. “I don’t understand the connection between what you’re saying and what he said there.”

“I’m sorry to have to do this, but I’m compelled to ask you one more time back to the question about Congresswoman Walorski,” a third reporter began.

“I’m not sure why,” Jean-Pierre responded. “Why one more time?”

“Frankly, honestly, I think the memory of the congresswoman in history requires some clarity here,” the reporter said.

Jean-Pierre was asked whether the White House would release the text of Biden’s remarks as prepared for delivery in addition to the transcript of the speech as delivered. This would show much the president ad-libbed and whether the staff had prepared any kind of reference to Walorski in the original speech.

The press secretary replied that she wasn’t sure that was necessary.

“But I think the confusing part is why, if she and the family is top of mind, does the president think that she’s living and in the room?” a fourth reporter asked.

“I don’t find that confusing,” she replied. “I mean, I think many people can speak to sometimes when you have someone top of mind, they are top of mind. Exactly that.”

“Karine, I have John Lennon top of mind just about every day, but I’m not looking around for him anywhere,” the reporter said. Lennon was shot and killed in 1980.

“When you sign a bill for John Lennon as president, then we can have this conversation,” Jean-Pierre shot back, cutting off the line of inquiry amid shouts for her to clarify the “moments of confusion” that “are happening with increasing frequency” for “Americans [who] are watching this and are having concerns.”

Biden’s flub came in a speech at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health when he began to thank a group of lawmakers from both parties who had played a role in the event.

“I want to thank all of you here, including bipartisan elected officials like Rep. [Jim] McGovern , Sen. [Mike] Braun, Sen. [Cory] Booker, Rep. — Jackie, are you here?” the president said near the top of his remarks. “Where’s Jackie? I thought she was going to be here — to help make this a reality.”

In a statement issued by the White House when news of her death broke, Biden made specific mention of Walorski’s role in the conference.

“We may have represented different parties and disagreed on many issues, but she was respected by members of both parties for her work on the House Ways and Means Committee on which she served,” he said. “She also served as co-chair of the House Hunger Caucus, and my team and I appreciated her partnership as we plan for a historic White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health this fall that will be marked by her deep care for the needs of rural America.”

Much of the press has been hesitant to seize on viral moments of Biden faltering during public remarks. In the 2020 general election, concerns about Biden’s age and mental acuity were often treated as Trump campaign agitprop.

The New York Times broached the subject in July, as Biden prepared for a trip abroad. He was also near a low point in popularity. “If he mounts another campaign in 2024, Mr. Biden would be asking the country to elect a leader who would be 86 at the end of his tenure, testing the outer boundaries of age and the presidency,” the Times’ Peter Baker wrote of the president.

“It is, unsurprisingly, a sensitive topic in the West Wing,” the outlet reported. “In interviews, some sanctioned by the White House and some not, more than a dozen current and former senior officials and advisers uniformly reported that Mr. Biden remained intellectually engaged, asking smart questions at meetings, grilling aides on points of dispute, calling them late at night, picking out that weak point on Page 14 of a memo and rewriting speeches like his abortion remarks on Friday right up until the last minute.”

A “but” was coming.

“But they acknowledged Mr. Biden looks older than just a few years ago, a political liability that cannot be solved by traditional White House stratagems like staff shake-ups or new communications plans,” Baker continued. “His energy level, while impressive for a man of his age, is not what it was, and some aides quietly watch out for him. He often shuffles when he walks, and aides worry he will trip on a wire. He stumbles over words during public events, and they hold their breath to see if he makes it to the end without a gaffe.”

Making it to the end of a speech without a gaffe was a challenge for Biden as a younger man. Bizarre assertions about his background and academic credentials upended his first campaign for president 35 years ago. Hours into Biden’s vice presidency, then President Barack Obama was visibly displeased when his new number two went off-script to mock Chief Justice John Roberts mixing up the oath of office. Biden later apologized.

In June, a former top Obama adviser raised the age issue. “The presidency is a monstrously taxing job and the stark reality is the president would be closer to 90 than 80 at the end of a second term, and that would be a major issue,” David Axelrod said. “He looks his age and isn’t as agile in front of a camera as he once was,” though the “narrative about” Biden’s “competence” wasn’t “rooted in reality.”

The following month, a New York Times/Siena College poll found that 64% of Democrats wanted a different 2024 nominee. That number jumped to 94% among Democrats under 30. Age was a top reason for wanting a switch.

“I’m just going to come out and say it: I want younger blood,” a 38-year-old Michigan preschool teacher was quoted as saying. “I am so tired of all old people running our country. I don’t want someone knocking on death’s door.”

Biden’s approval ratings have ticked up since then and Democrats are more optimistic about the midterms. But a newer ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 56% of Democrats still prefer another 2024 nominee to 35% who want Biden again.

There has been equivocation about a reelection campaign from first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Democrats in competitive races, and most recently, Biden himself.

The president told 60 Minutes that it “remains to be seen” whether he runs again and he has made no “firm decision.” At a Democratic fundraiser in New York, Biden said he was “going to be around at least another two years,” leaving the door open to a single term, either because he doesn’t run or doesn’t win again.


When Ronald Reagan was the oldest person to serve as president, he was often able to defuse the age issue with a stronger subsequent performance and a timely joke.

This president might also be able to turn the page. But for a few hours Wednesday, “Where’s Jackie?” prompted uncomfortable questions about Biden.

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