A forceful Biden hits the road as Republicans keep focus on his age and memory

A version of this story appeared in CNN’s What Matters newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.

Which Joe Biden will Americans see for the next eight months?

Is it the vigorous, smiling president who tangled with Republicans in real time during the high-wire act of a nationally televised address Thursday?

Or is it the “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” who a special counsel determined would be too sympathetic to prosecute for mishandling classified data and will be described in testimony this week?

A Biden split screen

The thundering grandfather is hitting the road, taking his State of the Union persona to a monthlong tour of swing states in the hopes of inspiring Democrats to get involved in the election. First up, campaign rallies in the Philadelphia area on Friday and the Atlanta area on Saturday – urban centers in states Biden narrowly won in 2020. His campaign is also launching ad campaigns to target Black and Hispanic audiences as well as March Madness viewers.

Meanwhile, Robert Hur, the special counsel, will be testifying on Capitol Hill about his impression of Biden’s memory lapses during the investigation into classified material (mostly in handwritten notebooks) found in Biden’s Delaware garage and elsewhere.

The other recent example of a forceful Biden moment came after Hur released his report in February absolving the president of criminal wrongdoing but also revealing that investigators found his “memory was significantly limited” during interviews, with the report noting that Biden could not remember when his son died. Biden delivered a harsh rebuke at a hastily called White House news conference.

It’s hard to square the wildly different impressions being pushed at voters:

► If State of the Union Biden is the real deal, why have his advisers not done more to stop the doddering old man perception from festering?

► If he can respond to hecklers in real time during the State of the Union address, why does he not do more interviews? He skipped the opportunity to do a nationally televised interview before the Super Bowl, for instance, and instead released a produced video about the cost of chips and ice cream on social media.

► If he can gladhand on the House floor long after his speech ends, why hasn’t he been more visibly present on the campaign trail? Candidate Biden did recently discuss the possibility of a ceasefire in Gaza on the sidelines of a trip to get ice cream with the late night host Seth Meyers in New York City.

► If he can deliver effective warnings about former President Donald Trump in the House chamber, why does he more frequently say these things off-camera at high dollar fundraisers?

Will he debate Trump?

Vice President Kamala Harris would not commit Friday that Biden would take part in debates with former President Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee. The administration will “get to that,” she told ABC News, pointing instead to the policy ideas Biden put forward in his Thursday speech – protecting democracy, lowering prescription drug costs, raising the minimum wage and guaranteeing paid family leave.

“At this moment in time when we’re looking at the split screen and the fact that Donald Trump is on the other side, I think that’s an important point for the American people,” she said.

Biden said his goal in the speech was to “wake up Congress.” The more important achievement may be demonstrating to the country that he is indeed awake and capable.

Biden’s use of the derogatory term ‘illegal’

The surprise effect of his energetic State of the Union performance has also allowed some interesting comments that might otherwise have gained more attention to slide past.

Biden used the derogatory and dehumanizing term “illegal” to refer to the man accused of killing Laken Riley, the nursing student in Georgia who was found dead last month and whose case has been seized on by conservatives, many of whom wore pins bearing her name during the speech.

“(Laken) Riley, an innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal,” Biden said, as he called on Republicans to pass a bipartisan border deal. Note: Jose Ibarra, a Venezuelan who police say crossed the border illegally, has been accused of the crime but not convicted.

His attempt to triangulate toward Republicans on their signature border issue is turning off some Democrats.

“The rhetoric President Biden used tonight was dangerously close to language from Donald Trump that puts a target on the backs of Latinos everywhere,” the Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro from Texas said on X.

Biden’s own administration made a show of officially ending use of the term “illegal alien” in US immigration enforcement agencies’ official communications.

What to make of a hot-mic moment

After the speech, on the House floor, when Biden though he could not be heard by microphones, he was approached by Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who asked him to keep pressing Israel on allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Biden said he would have a “come to Jesus meeting” with Bibi, the nickname for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an incredible way to phrase any kind of meeting with the leader of the Jewish state. Plus, while that kind of candor might be exactly the sentiment a lot of Democrats concerned about Palestinians want to hear about Israel, it’s much further than Biden is willing to go in public.

Speaking to reporters at Joint Base Andrews, Biden declined to elaborate on the hot-mic moment.

“I didn’t say that in the speech,” he said, adding: “You guys (are) eavesdropping on things.”

Biden’s desire to maintain some discipline around a public message is a contrast with Trump, who thrives on saying shocking things in public, be it at a campaign rally or from outside a courtroom.

The puzzle Biden and his campaign must solve is how to maintain momentum from a speech that will mostly be forgotten in the coming weeks.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com