Carl P. Leubsdorf: Biden's health checks out, with a few caveats
Though Biden shows no tangible signs of any serious physical or mental illness, the White House appears to regulate his public schedule. That was also the case more than three decades ago with Ronald Reagan.
At long last, President Joe Biden has undergone a thorough physical exam, and the detailed White House report ought to end the frequent insinuations from some critics that the nation’s oldest president is not up to the job.
But it probably won’t, given that he does show some signs of his age.
“President Biden remains a healthy, vigorous 78-year-old male, who is fit to successfully execute the duties of the presidency, to include those as chief executive, head of state and commander in chief,” concluded Kevin O’Connor, who has been his primary care physician for 13 years.
His six-page letter, issued after the Walter Reed National Medical Center exam on the day before Biden’s 79th birthday, contained detailed findings including test results from the president’s first complete physical in two years. It included an array of normal test results, listed five well-known prescription or over-the-counter medications, and showed no serious underlying conditions.
The letter also acknowledged – and explained -- two obvious signs of aging Biden has displayed in his public appearances: frequent “throat clearing” and coughing during public remarks and a stiffness of gait while walking.
“President Biden experiences occasional symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux, primarily having to clear his throat more often,” it said, noting these instances “have seemingly been more frequent and more pronounced.”
Detailed exams confirmed that conclusion, O’Connor added, reporting no signs of “ulcers, cancer or any other serious condition.” He saw no reason to change treating him with Pepcid, the over-the-counter acid blocker.
The report attributed Biden’s stiffened gait to “severe degenerative osteoarthritic change,” essentially, spinal arthritis. But it reported no signs of more serious causes, like “stroke, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s or ascending lateral sclerosis.”
Biden has “a mild peripheral neuropathy” in his feet, meaning weakness stemming from nerve damage. But the report saw no sign of diabetes, a common cause, and no reason to change his current combination of physical therapy and exercise.
The report didn’t deal directly with Biden’s tendency to stumble sometimes over words in his public statements, which some political critics have alleged show declining mental faculties. Biden last year told Axios on HBO he generally made “mistakes” while “searching for a second" to find the words, attributing it to “being tired,” not his boyhood stuttering.
A recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll showed increased voter concern about Biden’s physical and mental health. By a 10-point margin, those sampled disagreed with a statement he is “in good health,” and they divided evenly on whether he is mentally fit.
The report reviewed some conditions for which Biden had prior treatment, like seasonal allergies and sinus congestion, non-melanoma skin cancers, an irregular heartbeat, and small, non-cancerous pouches in his colon. He underwent a colonoscopy this month, during which the doctors removed a small, “benign-appearing polyp.” They noted he has never had colon cancer.
Though Biden shows no tangible signs of any serious physical or mental illness, the White House appears to regulate his public schedule. That was also the case more than three decades ago with Ronald Reagan, the country’s first president in his 70s, especially after an over-scheduled foreign trip on which he nodded off while meeting with the pope.
Unless world events or official activities require his participation, Biden spends most weekends at his Wilmington, Del., home or the presidential Camp David retreat in Thurmont, Md., both about an hour from Washington.
On most days, officials call the “lid” signifying the end of public activities by late afternoon. They carefully limit his interactions with the press, including relatively few full-scale interviews, limited questioning after making some statements and few full-length news conferences, mostly on international trips.
Recently, in a change from recent custom, Biden did not hold a news conference after his White House meeting with Mexico’s president and Canada’s prime minister.
During the 2020 campaign, the COVID-19 pandemic limited most traditional campaign barnstorming. Though President Donald Trump, his Republican opponent, held many of his signature campaign rallies, concern over the virus meant Biden spent much of the campaign communicating with the media and the public from a studio in the basement of his Wilmington home.
That spared him some of the most arduous aspects of presidential campaigning but also kept him healthy. Trump contracted COVID and was briefly hospitalized at Walter Reed.
Now, with Biden’s job approval declining and polls showing him running no better than 50-50 in a rematch against Trump, many Democrats consider it unlikely he will seek a second term in 2024, when he will be nearing his 82nd birthday. However, press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Air Force One Monday night Biden plans to run for re-election. "That's his intention," she said.
Biden has often said he would not have sought the White House again in 2020 were it not for the threat he believed Trump’s presidency posed to the country’s well-being. He said his purpose was to restore “the soul of America.”
Probably no other Democrat could have defeated Trump in 2020. But the political climate will be very different by 2024, and the reasons that prompted him to run may be less relevant.
Whatever happens then, however, his medical review seems to provide welcome reassurance that Biden has no health problems that keep him from doing his job. At least for now.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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