AMAC Exclusive – By Andrew Abbott
More than two years into his term, Joe Biden’s staff has gone to extreme lengths to keep him away from TV cameras and reporters’ questions. But as the 80-year-old president appears more and more primed to announce a re-election bid, he won’t be able to escape the media spotlight forever – particularly when it comes to any primary and general election debates.
Even before entering the White House, it was clear that Biden’s staff was acutely aware of his propensity for embarrassing gaffes when in the spotlight. Citing “COVID-19 concerns,” his campaign team kept him locked away in his Delaware basement for most of 2020. When Biden did venture out, it resulted in confusing, often bizarre encounters that left even liberal pundits scratching their heads.
Once installed as president, Biden’s team continued with the COVID excuses, restricting reporters’ access to an unprecedented degree. Over the first two years of his presidency, Biden hosted only 22 press conferences. By that point, Trump had hosted 42, Barack Obama 46, and George W. Bush 40.
According to the American Presidency Project, Biden also waited longer to host his first press conference after taking office than any president in more than 100 years. When Biden did finally take the podium, it was with instructions from his staff on who to call on, and reporters seemed to have pre-approved softball questions for Biden to answer.
Even after the White House dropped COVID protocols and Biden began attending large events, the press pool was still limited and hand-picked by the Biden team. The obfuscation infuriated the press so much that 73 prominent reporters signed an open letter demanding the White House either relax the standards or permit greater transparency and input. Several months later, the Biden team grudgingly relented.
Yet despite spending a historically scant amount of time in front of media cameras, Biden has nonetheless managed to commit an equally historical – and consequential – number of gaffes.
There are the more innocuous (yet still troubling) gaffes, like Biden forgetting how many states there are, repeatedly calling Kamala Harris “President Harris” or just completely forgetting what he’s talking about.
But there are also the more potentially damaging ones, like saying “Iranian people” when he meant “Ukrainian people,” demanding that “Putin cannot remain in power,” and asserting that America will defend Taiwan if China invades – a major red line for the Chinese Communist Party that American leaders have carefully avoided crossing for decades. In all of these cases, the White House was sent scrambling to backtrack and clarify Biden’s statements before they led to an international incident.
The clear fact that Democrats refuse to recognize is that Biden is in a state of accelerated cognitive and physical decline that leaves him increasingly unable to effectively communicate even simple ideas. In this context, Biden’s refusal to address the press makes political sense even if it sows confusion and distrust.
Thus far, Biden and his team have been able to by and large get away with this strategy thanks to a friendly media establishment. However, if Biden insists on running for re-election, they won’t be able to insulate him forever.
Without the pandemic as an excuse, to have any chance of winning Biden will be forced to endure the grueling schedule of a normal presidential campaign. During the 2020 election, a Boston Globe reporter documented how intensive that process is:
“In one 24-hour period in July, Sanders, 78, walked in five parades covering almost seven miles. In January, Elizabeth Warren, 70 — who walks over six miles a day — smiled for her 100,000th photo with a supporter; and Amy Klobuchar, 59 — briefly freed from Trump’s impeachment trial — flew to Iowa and packed six campaign events into 36 hours, flew back, attended the trial again, and then called into a town hall meeting.”
Biden never came anywhere close to that schedule during 2020, and has an apparently easy schedule as president. Last month, former Biden press secretary Jen Psaki noted that it was surprising the president was giving a speech at 9 a.m. since “President Biden does nothing at 9 a.m.”
The greatest challenge for Biden in a potential re-election bid will likely be the debates. Any seasoned politician could humiliate the president should his verbal gaffes hobble him on the debate stage.
Briefing room press conferences can be incredibly valuable in rhetorically toughening a president’s responses and honing his message discipline. Should Biden mistake Ukrainians for Iranians again or radically revise war aims on the debate stage, his Republican challenger – particularly if it is Donald Trump – would have ample opportunity to make Biden look foolish and incompetent.
There is also the outside chance Biden could face a primary challenge from another Democrat and add to an already arduous debate schedule.
In the last few weeks, Biden has broken several major campaign promises. He signed a bill repealing Washington, D.C.’s BLM-inspired radical rewriting of the Criminal Code, announced plans to work with Canada to curb illegal immigration and reject asylum seekers aggressively, and also recently approved a massive drilling operation on federal lands.
Each of these decisions irked the Democrat Party faithful and would be difficult for any Democrat to defend in a primary debate – much less one who can barely answer pre-scripted questions from friendly reporters.
Between now and debate time, Biden’s team will undoubtedly continue doing everything they can to shield the president from the public view. But at some point, they won’t be able to keep up the charade.
Andrew Abbott is the pen name of a writer and public affairs consultant with over a decade of experience in DC at the intersection of politics and culture.