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President Biden Has a Cold

Medicalization comes for electoral politics.

Joe Biden with Doctor Jill at first debate
Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

By my count, at least four major excuses have been offered for President Joe Biden’s astonishingly awful debate performance against the former President Donald Trump. 

It has been asserted that the 46th president and (at press time) presumptive Democratic nominee was suffering from some form of rebound jet lag resulting from prior international travel; has not been receiving sufficient sleep during the 18 hours that fall outside of his usual 10 a.m.–4 p.m. workday; was driven to exhaustion by debate prep; and was contending with a case of the common cold.


Among these alleged mitigating circumstances, the last claim is being pushed most consistently and aggressively by Team Biden. During her Wednesday briefing, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre talked about Biden like he was a preschooler at home with a runny nose.

“You heard from him during the debate—he had a hoarse voice,” Jean-Pierre said of the president. “Many of you reached out to me and my team and some other members of the White House, asking what was going on, and we confirmed that he had a cold.”

Oh, and there was more:

“Have you had a cold before?” Jean-Pierre asked a Fox News reporter.

“Yes, his schedule did have something to do with it—it was the schedule and the cold,” she said.


“It’s a cold, guys,” she said. 

“He still has a lingering cold,” she said.

Stealthily, Jean-Pierre linked Biden’s cold diagnosis merely with his vocal hoarseness—a conceivable symptom of having a cold—but the cold story is obviously meant to cover a multitude of debate sins. Of course, none of this special pleading was trotted out to defend then-President Donald Trump’s poor showing in the first 2020 presidential debate—even though Trump tested positive for Covid-19 just a few days after the debate and his emergent unwellness might have plausibly explained his unsually combative, truculent mood that evening. 

In the case of Biden, however, the White House wants the public to believe that the common cold can result in an incredible assortment of “symptoms,” including the propensity to ramble, the tendency to stare with one’s mouth ajar, the temporary belief in the existence of trillionaires, and the possibility of confusing tax policy (or something) with Covid policy (or something). Colds apparently also now cause their victims to not just appear mildly ill but to take on the appearance of the host of Tales from the Crypt. (While watching the debate, my head was ringing with the immortal words of Jamie Lee Curtis in the movie Freaky Friday: “I’m like the Crypt Keeper!”) 

Strangely, none of the above-named “symptoms” are identified on the Mayo Clinic’s list of actual common-cold symptoms, which include the more predictable and well-known sore throat, cough, sneezing, and so on. Left unanswered, too, is just how long Biden has had this cold, since his particular suite of “symptoms”—the rambling and the staring and all that—have been apparent for months and even years. We’ve all heard of the mysterious “long Covid,” but what about “long common cold”?

Why, then, is the Biden campaign banking its political fortunes on the president’s cold? 

In fact, the reason has a certain logic—even a certain devious brilliance—to it. Like everyone else, Team Biden has observed just how neurotic, germophobic, and willing to accept medical explanations for everything many Americans have become in the 21st century. Coming down with a cold is the preferred excuse for skipping school, missing work, fobbing off chores on a spouse, child, or neighbor, not being up to par during a meeting, and watching Netflix all day long. I do not exempt myself from using colds as catch-all excuses for not doing something or going somewhere. 

Similarly, the fear of coming down with a cold inspires its own sort of madness, including offering fist-bumps rather than handshakes, compulsively using hand sanitizer, and dodging coughers or sneezers in grocery store aisles. 

Since it governs a country mired in such behavior, the White House can hardly be faulted for assuming that Biden’s cold narrative will carry weight with some portion of the public.

Team Biden also remembers Covid, when nearly everything that had gone wrong in American life was attributed to “the pandemic.” A store is out of stock of something? It’s the pandemic. An escalator is broken and won’t get fixed for months? It’s the pandemic. A contractor estimates that it will take something like nine years to complete a home-renovation project? It’s the pandemic. And a president can’t put two thoughts together? He has a cold, guys!

On the heels of the debate, Biden relayed to Democratic governors that he had gotten a check-up, according to POLITICO. But the check-up was supposedly for the cold itself—as though the president’s problem was nasal congestion rather than cognitive decline! “The exam . . . was brief and did not include any major tests,” the website reported, citing a source familiar with Biden’s schedule. Indeed, presumably the tests administered were along the lines of Say aah.

In many ways, this pathetic explanation for Biden’s ongoing mental meltdown is what we deserve. We have come to live our lives in thrall to the power of illnesses, however fleeting and benign. We over-worry about getting sick, and we over-medicate when we do fall ill. We all display a conspicuous lack of hardiness. Is it so surprising, then, that the minders of the leader of the free world would attempt to excuse his incoherence by saying he had the sniffles?