WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden on Wednesday called out to a recently deceased congresswoman during a conference on combating hunger, attempting to acknowledge her from the stage and apparently forgetting that she had recently passed away.
“Jackie, are you here? Where’s Jackie?” Biden said, looking out into the crowd and expressing uncertainty over whether she planned to be in attendance. “I didn’t think she was - she wasn’t going to be here - to help make this a reality.”
He was referring to Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.), who died in a car crash in early August.
The White House did little to shed light on whether the mishap was a simple mistake, a problem with Biden’s prepared remarks or a momentary mental lapse, but rather simply explained that Walorski had been in his thoughts.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Walorski had been “top of mind” for the president because he was publicly praising members of Congress who, like her, were leaders of the fight against hunger. He plans to welcome the late congresswoman’s family to the White House on Friday, Jean-Pierre added, when he will sign a bill to rename a veterans clinic in her honor.
But she dismissed questions about how Biden’s belief that Walorski might be in the audience squared with those plans to honor her memory, suggesting such a slip-up could happen to anyone.
“I don’t find that confusing. I mean, I think many people can speak to - sometimes when you have someone top of mind, they are top of mind. Exactly that,” Jean-Pierre said. “Also, if you put it into the context - it’s not like it happened without - outside of context.”
“Again, he’s going to see her family in just two days,” she added.
Biden has a long history of gaffes and mistakes, a tendency he regularly makes light of himself. During a 2008 campaign event, he paused at an event and asked a man in a wheelchair to stand up and be recognized. He once said that the Obama administration was focused on a “three-letter word: jobs. J-O-B-S. Jobs.”
He has forgotten and bungled names - struggling last year to recall the name of the prime minister of Australia and referring to him as “that fellow down under” - or calling his vice president “President Harris.”
To his supporters, such verbal miscues are endearing and relatable, a sign of his authenticity and perhaps a reminder of his courageous struggle against stuttering as a child. But for the nation’s oldest president - one who has sought to dispel questions about his age by telling voters, “Just watch me” - the latest slip-up could also be cast in a harsher light.
And Republicans wasted little time in doing so. “Truly an awful and disgraceful blunder,” tweeted Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.). “Jackie was a selfless leader and a dear friend. Her family deserves better than this. Biden and the entire White House staff should apologize.”
Former president Donald Trump and some other Republicans have seized on Biden’s verbal stumbles to suggest that Biden, who is 79, is not up to the job of being president, and such attacks are likely to intensify if Biden announces he is seeking reelection as expected.
On Wednesday, however, some focused on Jean-Pierre’s attempts to smooth over the mistake. Doug Andres, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), tweeted, “Just admit he misspoke!! good grief.”
Walorski was one of four lawmakers who sponsored bipartisan legislation to hold Wednesday’s conference on hunger and nutrition, the first of its kind at the White House in more than 50 years. Before inquiring about Walorski, Biden had praised the other three: Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).
Last month, following Walorski’s death in a car crash along with two of her staffers, Biden and first lady Jill Biden issued a statement extending their condolences, saying they “appreciated her partnership” in arranging the conference on hunger.
“We send our deepest condolences to her husband, Dean, to the families of her staff members, Zachery Potts and Emma Thomson, who lost their lives in public service,” the statement read. The flags at the White House also flew at half-staff.
Another motorist also died in the accident in Indiana.
Wednesday’s event marked an effort by Biden to focus on the long-standing problem of hunger in the United States, and officials announced they had secured $8 billion in commitments from public and private entities toward helping provide more food and better nutrition in coming years.
“This goal is within our reach - just look at how far we’ve come on child poverty,” Biden told the assembled lawmakers, officials and advocates.
The event launched efforts to make healthy food more affordable and accessible, provide more options for physical activity, and bolster research on food and nutrition. Beyond the cruelty of hunger itself, the pervasiveness of diet-related diseases creates broader problems for the country, White House officials said, hampering military readiness, workforce productivity, academic achievement and mental health.
Still, the issue of hunger has not always been front and center in presidential administrations. President Richard Nixon convened a White House conference on hunger in 1969. Decades later, first lady Michelle Obama spearheaded the “Let’s Move” campaign focusing on childhood obesity.
But some of Wednesday’s discussion was overshadowed by Biden’s reference to Walorski.
As Biden was praising lawmakers who had been prominent in the fight against hunger in America, he looked out into the crowd and motioned to see if Walorski was in the room so she could be acknowledged. The moment attracted some notice, but it escalated during the White House daily briefing a few hours later when Jean-Pierre was asked to explain the incident.
“The president was naming the congressional champions on this issue and was acknowledging her incredible work,” Jean-Pierre said. “He had already planned to welcome the congresswoman’s family to the White House on Friday. . . . She was top of mind.”
That only led to more questions, and at one point James Rosen, the chief White House correspondent for Newsmax, shouted out, “I have John Lennon top of mind just about every day, but I am not looking around for him anywhere.” The late Beatles member was killed in 1980.
“When you sign a bill for John Lennon as president, then we can have this conversation,” Jean-Pierre shot back.
Later, Jean-Pierre would not explicitly say that Biden had made a mistake or had perhaps forgotten about Walorski’s death. She wouldn’t say whether it was a comment Biden might have handled differently, if he had another opportunity.
“I’ve answered it multiple times already in this room,” she said. “And my answer is certainly not going to change.”