The events underscore the unenviable challenge facing Biden’s aides
Biden’s Gaffe-Heavy Week Shows Dilemma Over 2024 Media Strategy
In a single، brutal week، the fundamental communications paradox of President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign was laid bare: whether it’s better to confront or ignore the news media as concerns about his age and acuity dominate headlines.
Biden’s team managed to find the worst of both worlds، fanning worries about how their campaign will manage the 81-year-old president over the next nine months.
Skipping Super Bowl interview
First، they withheld Biden from the press، announcing he would skip a traditional Super Bowl interview and opt against a press conference alongside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. But then a series of missteps in which Biden confused long-dead European leaders with their living counterparts amplified questions about whether his aides were keeping the president bubble-wrapped.
Next، after the release of a scathing Justice Department report that cited Biden’s “diminished faculties and faulty memory” — even as it concluded criminal charges weren’t warranted — the president hastily arranged a White House press conference.
But another gaffe، identifying Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as Mexico’s leader، only fueled the very concerns that prompted the press conference in the first place.
The events underscore the unenviable challenge facing Biden’s aides، who know every verbal slip can exacerbate the biggest liability the president faces — voters worrying he’s not up to the task.
Making Biden more accessible
There’s a natural tension between what one person familiar with the team’s thinking described as a “run-out-the-clock strategy” — attempting to make it to November free of major gaffes while delaying controversial decisions — with trying to show concerns are overblown by making Biden more accessible.
Some 76% of voters، including half of Democrats، said they had concerns about Biden’s mental and physical health in an NBC News poll released this week.
The changing media landscape، with more voters consuming news through curated social media feeds، further complicates efforts to develop and execute a communications strategy.
Democratic strategist Anita Dunn، a major influence on Biden’s political and communications approach، has directed staff to pivot toward more digital media interaction. White House aides say it’s part of an effort to emphasize nontraditional voter outreach، while still using press corps interactions to drive messaging.
The proof، they say، is in the pudding: Biden defeated the eminently press-accessible Donald Trump in 2020، Democrats outperformed expectations in the 2022 midterms، and the president racked up significant legislative victories.
But consumers’ pivot to short-form video also provides Biden’s opponents the perfect format to turn his misstatements and mistakes into footage served up to younger viewers.
In the short-term، Biden’s team is embracing a multi-pronged defense.
The White House and its allies have ramped up attacks on Robert Hur، the special counsel who questioned Biden’s acuity، noting he’s a Trump appointee. Aides argue Hur is unqualified to assess the president’s mental faculties and violated Justice Department standards in doing so.
Biden himself said it was indecent of Hur to insinuate he did not remember when his son Beau died، and made that argument directly، and profanely، to House Democrats he met with after the report was released.
Propensity for gaffes
Allies have also noted Trump’s own propensity for gaffes، including mixing up Republican primary rival Nikki Haley for former Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And they’ve argued the media is applying a double standard، chronicling Biden’s every misstep while marveling that Trump، the GOP frontrunner، remains popular with his base despite outrageous or inaccurate remarks.
The White House on Friday highlighted reporting suggesting Republicans privately acknowledge Biden’s acuity and negotiating prowess even as they publicly ridicule his age. But officials concede that to some extent the issue – and Biden missteps – are inescapable.
“Now is not the time to panic،” said Jim Messina، former President Barack Obama’s campaign manager. “Everyone needs to take a breath and soldier on.”
Officials say long-term they’re looking to widen their focus away from the Washington media bubble، particularly by reaching out to younger voters who are most likely to consume information on platforms like Snapchat and TikTok.
White House and campaign staff have altered Biden’s events to make them more packageable for digital audiences. Biden has forgone traditional rallies for more intimate settings where he’s interacting one-on-one with union workers or business owners.
“President Biden is traveling the country at an aggressive rate that often exceeds his predecessors’ schedules، talking directly to the American people through an all-of-the-above communications strategy about how he’s fighting to grow the middle class and protect our freedoms،” said Andrew Bates، a White House spokesman.
The administration has invited local content creators، hoping they’ll get selfies with the president and post informal videos to social media. The White House’s office of digital strategy has begun engaging influencers by previewing news، offering officials for interviews and inviting creators to parties.
Campaign aides say that emphasis will extend to financial decisions. Rather than focusing on traditional television advertising and door-knock canvassing، Biden’s team plans to spend across a more diverse set of outreach opportunities.
“We have to open up the aperture of how the president is spending his time، and how we’re using our time،” said Rob Flaherty، Biden’s deputy campaign manager.
Aides note some of the president’s recent podcast appearances، including a sit-down with comedian Conan O’Brien and a discussion of grief with CNN anchor Anderson Cooper، accomplish goals that might not be achievable via traditional interviews.
Such soft-focus conversation could help Biden subtly counter the narrative that his acuity is lacking by showing him engaged in substantive، longform conversations.
At the same time، Biden’s aides say they want to be judicious about putting the president in non-political settings. Aides said the decision to skip the Super Bowl interview was not over concerns Biden would stumble but because they did not see an opportunity to win over voters more focused on the game.
A Democratic strategist، though، called skipping the interview a missed opportunity، pointing out that millions saw Trump in that setting.
Biden risks forfeiting prime opportunities to reassure voters before November.
“To win، the president must repeatedly demonstrate that Hur is wrong and that he is up to the job،” former Obama senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer wrote in his newsletter، adding that “means doing more interviews and more press conferences.”