Why Joe Biden’s stutter is a big deal

Democratic presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the 2020 Gun Safety Forum. (Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Though former vice president and now Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has consistently been portrayed as gaffe-prone, many moments where he appears to struggle are due to his stutter, Eric S. Jackson says.

Pundits and journalists describe Biden’s speeches as filled with moments of “bumbling” and “stumbling,” triggering questions about the candidate’s mental fitness and hinting at possible age-related cognitive decline. The media regularly use these theories as an opportunity to explore the issue of age as it relates to the candidate, and to question whether Biden is up to the exhaustive challenge of running for the nation’s highest office.

“The fact that Biden still stutters and might be president is powerful for young children who speak like him…”

While some of Biden’s comments are indeed mistakes, his stutter is also a lifelong challenge that he has openly discussed during interviews,

As a scientist who studies stuttering in children and adults, and as a person who stutters himself, Jackson, a professor of communicative sciences and disorders at the Steinhardt school at New York University, has been frustrated by the national discussion around Biden’s speech.

Here, Jackson explains Biden’s stuttering and the significance of having a major presidential candidate who stutters:


Tell us about the science of stuttering.


Stuttering can be thought of as a neurobiological “glitch”—broadly speaking, the neural processes that are involved in speech, at times, don’t function like those in non-stuttering speakers. The glitches manifest themselves as intermittent and somewhat unpredictable interruptions in speech, typically repetitions of syllables or audible/inaudible prolongations of sounds. The speaker knows precisely what he or she wants to say, but in that moment, their body temporarily prevents them from producing speech.


Why might someone not notice Biden’s stutter?


A common misconception is that stuttering is obvious when it occurs. However, many instances of stuttering go unnoticed: Speech interruptions can be subtle and imperceptible to listeners, and may not look like “obvious” stuttering, especially to non-expert observers. Speakers who stutter may also try to minimize or avoid overt stuttering moments, due to a history of negative reactions from their listeners. Many people who stutter experience a lifetime of being laughed at, mimicked, and bullied.

In an attempt to head off these negative reactions, speakers may stop speaking before stuttering becomes noticeable, or they may change words or say “uh” or “um” if they know they are about to overtly stutter. All of these attempts to avoid or conceal stuttering—which can become an integral part of the moment of stuttering itself—come at a cost.

For example, during a recent Town Hall, Biden avoided saying President Obama’s name to prevent his stuttering from coming to the surface (i.e., he stuttered on “Obama,” stopped himself before it became noticeable, and says, “My boss” instead). What many perceived as Biden “forgetting” Obama’s name was actually Biden’s attempt to get through stuttering as quickly and comfortably as he could in that moment. Biden was subsequently mocked and ridiculed in the media.


What’s the significance of having a candidate who stutters?


Stuttering is recognized as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. To mock or criticize Biden about his stuttering borders on discrimination, and reflects more a lack of understanding on the part of the listener rather than any fault of the speaker. There are things to criticize Biden about, for sure, but stuttering should not be one of them.

There is also an important opportunity here. Many children who stutter believe that because of their stuttering, they cannot participate in activities that require leadership and public speaking. The fact that Biden still stutters and might be president is powerful for young children who speak like him (e.g., “You can stutter and be president”). The added fact that people can openly discuss his stuttering without passing judgment can convey an even more powerful message: It is okay to stutter.