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Age, Coronavirus Sharpen Focus on Biden’s Health

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 12/3/2021 Susan Milligan
US President Joe Biden speaks about the November Jobs Report from the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on December 3, 2021. - The US added just 210,000 jobs last month, the government reported on December 3, 2021, less than half the increase analysts were expecting, raising questions about the health of the economic recovery. The unemployment rate nonetheless declined more than expected, falling four-tenths to 4.2 percent, the Labor Department reported. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP) (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images) © (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/Getty Images) US President Joe Biden speaks about the November Jobs Report from the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on December 3, 2021. - The US added just 210,000 jobs last month, the government reported on December 3, 2021, less than half the increase analysts were expecting, raising questions about the health of the economic recovery. The unemployment rate nonetheless declined more than expected, falling four-tenths to 4.2 percent, the Labor Department reported. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP) (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Perhaps if President Joe Biden's voice had not been so obviously strained as he delivered a speech outlining the nation's winter pandemic strategy, the commander in chief's common seasonal symptoms might not have raised eyebrows. But with Biden more notably hoarse as he discussed the week's jobs and unemployment numbers Friday, his personal physician put out a formal statement.

The diagnosis? A "frog in one's throat," Kevin C. O’Connor, physician to the president, said in a memo to reporters, released with the permission of the First Patient.

"As is readily apparent, President Biden is experiencing some increased nasal congestion this week. This can be heard in his voice," thus producing the colloquially described frog effect, O'Connor said.

The disclosure of such a common and minor ailment was highly unusual, even as the media and voters have demanded greater transparency about the president's health over the years. But with the country in the midst of a pandemic, and with the new variant omicron added to the mix, even signs of a sore throat in the 79-year-old president have taken on elevated importance.

O'Connor said Biden had been subjected to a "comprehensive respiratory panel," including COVID-19, other coronaviruses, influenza, streptococcus and other ailments, and all came back negative. The president is tested for COVID-19 three times a week, he added.

Biden himself congenially blamed his young grandson for passing on his cold.

"I'm OK. I'm tested every day," Biden told reporters, exaggerating the thrice-weekly testing his doctor reported.

Nope, he doesn't have COVID-19. "What I have," Biden said, "is a 1-1/2-year-old grandson who has a cold, who likes to kiss his pop. It's just a cold."


Video: McEnany: No one has politicized the virus more than Biden (FOX News)

There has been an increasing demand for more details of the personal health of presidents and presidential candidates over the past decades. It’s all but unthinkable today that a wheelchair-bound Franklin Delano Roosevelt could have kept his paralysis largely out of the public eye though four terms as president. John F. Kennedy kept secret his health problems, which included a bad back and Addison's disease, a serious ailment of the adrenal glands.

Ronald Reagan, less than a month shy of 70 years at his first inauguration, deflected worries during his campaign that he was too old to take on such a demanding job. Five years after completing his second term, Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, although his son, Ron Reagan said he saw signs of the illness when the elder Reagan was still in office.

Candidates and presidents are under substantial pressure to prove they are physically up for the job.

Democratic presidential candidate Paul Tsongas made his doctor available for media interviews in 1992, when Tsongas – who beat non-Hodgkin lymphoma – was running for the Democratic nomination for president. (The illness later returned, and the former senator from Massachusetts died of it in 1997.)

In 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump released a statement from his doctor, Harold Bornstein, declaring that Trump would be the "healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency." Bornstein later told CNN Trump had dictated the letter to him and that it did not reflect his professional opinion.

While in office, Trump's doctors offered rosy reports of the president's overall health, with one doctor – Ronny Jackson, telling reporters that if Trump had had a better diet for the previous two decades, he might live to be 200 years old. Jackson is now a GOP member of Congress from Texas.

In 2020, Democratic presidential candidates, including Biden, released detailed health reports, including specific details of their blood pressure, weight and other vital signs. Last month, Biden underwent a colonoscopy at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in the morning, then appeared in the South Lawn of the White House in the afternoon for the annual turkey-pardoning.

A recent book by Trump's former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, reveals that Trump had tested positive for COVID-19 days before he disclosed it – and still showed up for a debate with Biden and other big-crowd events.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki deflected questions Friday about why Biden continued to participate in work events when he had symptoms that could be COVID-19, since the tests could have been false negatives.

"I can assure you that the president follows every protocol. He wants to keep everyone safe at the White House," Psaki said. Biden is taking over-the-counter cold medication and cough drops and is drinking hot tea, she said, "Otherwise, he is continuing with his schedule."

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