The Super Bowl has come and gone, and it is now clear the Biden White House fumbled an opportunity when it declined the now traditional presidential interview — an interview that would have provided Biden a chance to put a bandage on the wounds suffered in a cringeworthy and harmful television appearance Thursday in which he tried to counter a damaging special counsel report.
The communication strategy at the White House has become haphazard at best, now bordering on inept. It is impossible to explain how President Biden’s handlers thought it was a good idea to wave off an interview before one of the most-watched TV events of the year, but then provide a green light to a hastily planned evening presidential statement and follow-up press conference.
The consequences for such blunders are substantial — not only for Biden’s campaign season, but for America’s broader standing. These are not the decisions of communication strategists who understand the rhetorical sphere.
Most people were surprised when the Super Bowl interview opportunity with CBS was declined. On one level, that could be explained away as not wanting to compete with Taylor Swift for attention or trying to upstage Patrick Mahomes. The White House’s rationale was that declining the interview would allow a politics-weary public a break from partisan noise. That was a flimsy excuse, but at least it could be made with a straight face as distantly plausible.
More cynical observers suggested ducking the Super Bowl interview was yet another step in what is now a long White House practice of keeping Biden under wraps as much as possible. The University of California–Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project confirms that Biden engages the press in formal news conferences and other exchanges with reporters on far fewer occasions than other recent presidents.
The president seldom gives sit-down interviews with real journalists. His last interview with a journalist was with CBS’ Scott Pelley in October. Since then, Biden has been pretty much out of the media limelight, except for a podcast interview with comedian Conan O’Brien in December. When the Biden re-election campaign was formally announced in early January, it was first lady Jill Biden who stepped forward to make the case on MSNBC.
White House messaging increasingly relies on the vacuous updates provided from the briefing room by press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who more and more sounds like Baghdad Bob. She twisted herself into a pretzel recently trying to explain Biden’s recent gaffes about talking with world leaders who are deceased. This “Where’s Waldo?” routine is hard to justify when there are so many national and world news developments that would seem to demand comment from the leader of the free world, not to mention a president who is also a candidate for re-election.
That’s why the Biden message handlers just have to do a better job of managing the president’s public presentations, both in quantity and setting. The Super Bowl gig would have been in a controlled environment and could have been prerecorded to ensure a time in which the president was at his cognitive best.
The spur-of-the-moment Thursday presser after the release of the special counsel report came off as a panicked reaction to bad news. The president was unnecessarily thrown in front of a noisy press corps that has been waiting weeks to lob questions. While the chaotic shouting of questions would have driven anybody to distraction, the result was that the poorly prepared president stated things that were unclear and inaccurate. He basically proved to the nation what the special counsel report said about his age and mental ability.
The special counsel’s blunt assessment put into writing what most Americans have suspected for a while, as evidenced by a recent Rasmussen Reports poll. ABC/Ipsos polling since the Thursday press conference disaster is even worse news for Biden. If, as the White House insists, the president is fully capable of doing his executive duties, it is time for the Biden strategists to prove it by trotting him out for news interviews, press conferences and unscripted public appearances. For its part, the media should now demand Biden be put to such tests.
The White House communications team now owes it to the American public to counter the special counsel’s assertions with evidence — not just words. The public can judge for itself what it thinks of Biden’s capabilities when they observe him in the journalistic spotlight. The White House’s long used strategy of trying to shroud Biden from public scrutiny is no longer viable. Continued use of that strategy will only be viewed as an intentional effort to snooker Americans.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.
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