From the very first question, it was clear Wednesday that President Biden was facing a different White House press corps:
“Did you overpromise the American public what you could accomplish in your first year in office?”
Biden, of course, said no, if anything he had outperformed. He had tried to preempt the critical questions in his opening remarks, boasting of 210 million people vaccinated, more than 6 million new jobs and 3.9% unemployment. He acknowledged the frustrations of COVID, and flatly admitted he should have ordered home tests earlier but said they’re doing more now.
Biden went nearly two hours, as if to stage a marathon to neutralize criticism that he avoids dealing with the press. He was unusually crisp, for him, though he rambled at times, and was largely in command of the facts, as if to defy detractors who portray him as muddled and confused.
Strangely, Biden made yet another pitch for his $2 trillion spending bill, which is at best on life support.
The press wasn’t buying. ABC reporter Mary Bruce asked, “Do you need to be more realistic and scale down these priorities?” And she followed up by telling Biden his strategy wasn’t working.
The Democratic president tried to shift the blame to the GOP, saying he “did not anticipate” that Republicans would make a “stalwart effort … to make sure President Biden didn’t get anything done.” If that’s the case, he was badly out of touch with today’s partisan realities and was failing to listen to Mitch McConnell. At another point, he said of McConnell: “What’s he for?”
CBS’s Nancy Cordes pressed him: “Now that your legislation appears to be hopelessly stalled, can you lay out your strategy to protect voting rights?”
Biden challenged the premise of one reporter’s question about school closings, saying at least 95% of schools remained open.
Many asked more routine issue questions: “Hasn’t the U.S. and West lost all of its leverage over Vladimir Putin?” “Aren’t you simply limited to what you can do with inflation?”
And some questions were clearly soft-pedaled. CNN’s Jeff Zeleny asked whether Biden believed he’d done enough to restore public faith in the competence of government – but not questioning the administration’s competence.
NBC’s Kristen Welker was one of the most aggressive, saying among other things: “I spoke to a number of Black voters who fought to get your elected, and they feel you’re not fighting hard enough for them.”
Once Biden decided to keep on going, he recognized Peter Doocy. The Fox reporter asked: “Why are you trying so hard in your first year to pull the country so far to the left?” Biden said he was no Bernie, just a mainstream Democrat.
The president dismissed a question from Newsmax’s James Rosen, about why a Politico poll shows significant numbers of voters questioning Biden’s mental fitness, with this: “I have no idea.”
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Meanwhile, as the White House touts a planned “reset,” everyone and his brother is weighing in with analysis and advice for what Biden needs to do to right the ship.
This is not a moment in time when the press can be accused of going easy on the president. While some journalists are focusing on the administration’s earlier accomplishments, nearly everyone acknowledges that Biden is in serious political trouble.
Fire the manager?
As with a losing baseball team, there are always calls to fire the manager.
New York Times columnist Bret Stephens says that based on “political incompetence,” it’s clear that “the president needs a new team, starting with a new chief of staff.”
He argues that “Ron Klain is a loyal assistant. But the president needs a chief of staff who’s a peer — what James Baker was to George H.W. Bush or Howard Baker to Ronald Reagan. What’s Tom Daschle up to these days?”
But the Twitter-wise Klain may be the most politically savvy official in the White House, given his experience on the Hill and Justice Department and his work for two vice presidents, Biden and Al Gore. I don’t know that some former senator-turned-lobbyist would be more attuned to the warfare of 2022. While Klain has to share responsibility for the missteps, his removal is extremely unlikely.
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Klain is out there doing some interviews. Asked by the Wall Street Journal about discussions to salvage smaller pieces of the Build Back Better behemoth, he said: “One lesson we learned in the first year is, I think, the less we talk about our negotiations with specific senators and congressmen, the better we are, so I’m going to say our talks with Sen. Manchin will proceed directly and privately.
Politico says the endless Hill meetings “left Biden appearing, at times, as president of the Senate rather than the nation as a whole, as his administration became bogged down in the legislative morass. Republicans, with few exceptions, were eager to play obstructionists and polling suggested a nation nervous about inflation also wanted Biden to scale back.”
Every president has an inside and outside game. Biden, the classic Washington creature, allowed himself to be drawn into endless talks with the Manchin/Sinema tag team, got whipsawed by House progressives, and came up empty after months of wrangling. Instead of declaring victories for what he pushed through earlier, he and his team ratcheted up expectations way too high.
But his outside game has consisted of mainly mundane daytime speeches and pretty dogged avoidance of the media. The lack of interviews and the paucity of pressers means the president has essentially turned off the megaphone that only he possesses.
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It’s fine for the White House “reset” spinners to say Biden will connect more with ordinary Americans. But he also needs to pound home a convincing message for the midterms, and that means using that megaphone rather than waiting nearly three months to hold his next news conference. And maybe the next one can go long as well.