What Biden’s Stutter Doesn’t Explain

On Sunday morning, Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina tried to cover for President Joe Biden’s disastrous debate performance with an explanation that was an extreme reach. “All of us know how stutterers operate,” Clyburn said on CNN’s State of the Union. He was just the latest Biden supporter to use the president’s lifelong stutter as a shield against legitimate public concern, an excuse that many others used across social platforms.

One progressive writer complained on X that the reaction to Biden’s performance was “extreme ableism,” while an abortion-rights activist described the president as the “grandpa with the cough and stutter.”

Biden did indeed stutter at multiple points during last week’s debate, just as he has countless times throughout his life. But what millions of viewers saw that night, and what set the country aghast, was the president’s frailty, his repeated freeze-ups, his mouth hanging agape, his vacant stare into the middle distance, and, above all, his frequent inability to present a coherent thought. Those behaviors are not symptoms of stuttering.

Stuttering is an umbrella medical term used to describe a block, repetition, or prolongation in the course of saying a word. It is a neurological disorder with a strong genetic component; it affects 1 percent of the population, and is present across all languages and cultures.

Biden’s stutter most often manifests in simple repetitions or short blocks around R, S, I, and E sounds. During a section of the debate about the national debt, Biden struggled on the word strengthen as he tried to say the phrase: “Making sure that we continue to strengthen our health-care system.” When he reached that st sound in the middle of the phrase, he started rapidly blinking. Blinks have long been Biden’s biggest stuttering “tell.”

Biden used to be more adept at smothering his stutter. The increasing visibility of his present stuttering moments is likely a sign of aging—keeping a stutter at bay takes immense focus and energy. Eric S. Jackson, an associate professor of communicative sciences and disorders at NYU, researches the variability in stuttering. He told me he believes that, whereas in the past, Biden was light on his feet, he’s now, at the age of 81, unable to effectively deploy various stuttering-concealment techniques, such as intentional word switching. Consequently, Biden’s stutter has grown more pronounced and recognizable.

But the debate’s most fraught moments did not involve classic stuttering. As Biden continued responding to the question on the national debt, he wasn’t stumbling over the formation of certain words; he appeared lost in his answer entirely. He briefly brought up COVID, but then seemed to realize that was the wrong direction. He spent several seconds appearing to search for his actual target. He ended on the baffling phrase “If we finally beat Medicare” before one of the moderators, Jake Tapper, cut him off. Biden said that final phrase without a single repetition, prolongation, or block. Nor did he appear to be engaging in circumlocution—a technique in which stutterers swap in synonyms. He had simply trailed off and lost his point.

I’m very familiar with what it means to stutter, and with Biden’s relationship to the disorder. I live with a stutter, and, five years ago, I interviewed Biden for an article in this magazine about the way he talks. Over the course of our hour-long conversation, I repeatedly pressed Biden to acknowledge a difficult truth: That although he had learned how to manage his stutter as an adult, he had never fully beaten it. Biden disagreed with this proposition. He insisted that stuttering was merely a childhood problem. When I presented Biden with examples of times he’d stuttered, including from that very conversation, he dismissed them all.

When I sat down to write the story, I was careful to point out that not all of Biden’s verbal flubs could be attributed to stuttering: Sometimes, I wrote, “when Biden fudges a detail or loses his train of thought, it seems unrelated to stuttering, like he’s just making a mistake. The kind of mistake other candidates make too, though less frequently than he does.” Biden did not like my story. In the months and years that followed, however, certain Biden supporters began to use his stutter as a defense against criticism of the president’s communication struggles, even when those moments did not involve stuttering at all.

Not only is this dishonest; it also risks stigmatizing a widely misunderstood disability. Although stuttering can be a huge daily challenge, people are able to live meaningful lives with the disorder. (Many doctors, lawyers, teachers, and pro athletes stutter. Even some professional public speakers stutter.) Although Biden’s fellow stuttering Americans may trip over their words, they do not, on account of this disorder, exhibit the many other concerning symptoms that Biden displayed at last week’s debate.

Roisin McManus, a nurse, podcaster, and longtime leader in the stuttering community, told me: “The president has a responsibility to communicate effectively. It’s crucially important. People who stutter can communicate effectively. Joe Biden is proving himself increasingly unable to communicate effectively, and there is a lot on the line. I don’t think stuttering provides cover for that.”

The concern that many more Americans now have is that Biden has diminishing faculties that extend far beyond stumbling over words, and that he may be unfit to serve another term as president, or even to finish this one. With each passing day since the debate, Biden hasn’t done enough to assure voters otherwise.

Last Friday in North Carolina, Biden appeared more lucid and cogent than he seemed Thursday night. At this year’s State of the Union address, he sounded confident and booming. And on Monday night, in a brief address responding to the Supreme Court’s ruling about presidential immunity, Biden performed fine, if not memorably. The obvious difference between all of those examples and the debate is the presence of a teleprompter.

Recent reporting in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere suggests that Biden’s mid-sentence thought lapses, like the one he experienced with the Medicare answer at the debate, are more common than the White House wants voters to believe, and that his decline is accelerating—and according to these outlets, people who work closest with Biden are saying as much. Biden is unmistakably less loquacious and energetic than he used to be. According to Axios, the president is now most alert between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.; the Times reported that Biden’s debate-prep didn’t begin until 11 a.m. and featured afternoon naps. All of these behaviors are consistent with being 81. None of them is the result of stuttering.

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