COMMENTARY

Joe Biden's Christmas reboot: A tightly wound presidency badly needs some holiday cheer

Here's my Christmas gift, Mr. President: Open the White House doors and talk to the media — or at least to me

By Brian Karem

Published December 2, 2021 9:58AM (EST)

U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden listen as U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris delivers remarks before a menorah lighting ceremony in celebration of Hanukkah in the East Room of the White House on December 01, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden listen as U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris delivers remarks before a menorah lighting ceremony in celebration of Hanukkah in the East Room of the White House on December 01, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Stay on point.
Keep POTUS moving in quick, short bursts.
Limit press access.
Don't engage the crazies.

I would not be surprised to see those statements, or something similar, written on White House chief of staff Ron Klain's desk.

Each day in the Biden White House is a march down the same road with those guardrails. Each day the administration tries to choreograph a perfect day using them.

And whatever you may wish to think, the Biden administration has had considerable success controlling the press. The AP begins each news briefing with press secretary Jen Psaki, the front two rows in the Brady Briefing Room get to ask whatever they want — which usually amounts to a variant of the same question being asked by whoever needs the soundbite. A few hands will be called on in the back, but usually only those known and accepted by the administration as "mainstream" media. After 45 minutes, a press briefing ends, usually generating little interest and very little news.

The daily briefing remains the fundamental way the administration interacts with the public. Outside of the briefing, the president's interaction with the press is equally calculated, controlled and limited. Wednesday he spent a great deal of time in front of the public speaking — but very little time answering questions.

That is exactly how the administration wants it. Biden's communication staff plays a strange game of cat-and-mouse with the large media companies that constitute the "press pool." Access. Attraction. Seduction. The relationship between the two is so incestuous, it is often just two steps away from a certified Greek tragedy — or a family reunion straight out of "Deliverance."

Meanwhile, continuing problems with the pandemic and inflation have prompted the White House to change its game as polling numbers have fallen. It is, as one senior staffer explained, "all about getting the president in front of as many eyes as possible."

Some in the White House still think Biden should be seen less rather than more. But either way, most of the Biden staff agree that limiting access — while providing video proof of Biden doing "something" — is a key strategy to prop up the sagging numbers. 

RELATED: Joe Biden still believes — but in the face of deepening cynicism, is that enough?

As evidence of this, Biden was set to speak in public every day this week — and three times on Wednesday. He spoke just after the noon hour about the nation's supply chain problems and lowering costs for families. He took about three minutes of questions at that meeting. Later in the afternoon he showed up in the East Room to commemorate World AIDS Day. He took no questions there. Early in the evening he was scheduled to celebrate Hanukkah with his wife, Vice President Harris and her husband.

We got to see a lot of the president on videotape. Very few reporters got to see him in person and less than a handful got to ask him anything about his administration. Oddly enough, voters on the right and the left have similar thoughts about the lack of quality of the questions asked by reporters.

The administration relies heavily on a press strategy that boils down to this argument: "We're the good guys compared to Trump." But does it work? The president of the United States is defending himself against sagging popularity in the polls, inflation and the continued effects of the pandemic, while trying to promote an infrastructure bill, lower unemployment and medical science. That's just an average Monday. 

Biden hopes to deal with this by heading into the Christmas holidays in campaign mode. He's on the road. He's in the East Room. He's in the South Court Auditorium and he's talking to us.

He sticks to the script. He sticks to it so much he has even been heard complaining about supposed restrictions imposed upon him in public appearances. That causes more than a few heads to wag because as president, Biden always has the option to do whatever he wants. Truth is, he does stick to the script. He's highly disciplined in that respect. 

Donald Trump, of course, could never show such self-discipline and as a consequence constantly said the most insane things imaginable. How long until we live down his statement about shooting up Clorox to cure the pandemic — or calling the pandemic a hoax? Or claiming it was a hoax, while also claiming he pioneered the vaccine? Of course Trump was further hampered by his administration, which was an undisciplined mess of unprofessional liars, grifters and louts. Biden has a different problem. His staff is more disciplined and smarter, but often condescending toward a press corps that finds itself fighting for access and getting less than they got from the guy who called them "enemies of the people." Still, the current White House wants to make sure we know they're "the good guys."

Biden continues to have trouble with some reporters and members of the public who do not buy what he's selling. It's surprising to find a president so personally unpopular while his policies remain overwhelmingly so.


Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.


So Biden cruises into his first Christmas as president with a country still unsure about him, but also, for the most part, thankful that the Trumps and their perpetually inchoate staff are no longer decorating the White House for Christmas like Dr. Seuss on ecstasy and Peruvian marching powder. Dr. Jill Biden has proven to be a far more subdued Christmas decorator, and a majority of Americans welcome any return to Christmas traditions — but that still doesn't help her husband's popularity.

One would think that a Supreme Court hearing arguments about taking away a woman's right to choose and a member of Congress baselessly accusing another of being a terrorist would make clear that Biden's administration is the best thing going in D.C. this holiday season.

Hell, Trump's former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, revealed this week that Trump tested positive for COVID three days — three damn days! — before debating Biden last fall, and then Trump went and exposed himself (er, I mean the virus) to Gold Star families. Yet Trump remains as popular as he ever was with his core supporters.

Biden finds himself struggling and he has actually accomplished something Trump never could: He got an infrastructure bill passed and signed. 

Still, all it took was the price of gas going up and Biden is now in campaign mode.

In fact, his falling poll numbers probably have more to do with the continuing COVID pandemic. The Omicron variant of the virus is the latest rage, scaring millions of people, but many of them still won't get vaccinated. At this point it is inconceivable that we will vaccinate anywhere near a large enough portion of the world's population to conquer this virus — at least if the enlightened denizens of dystopian America are any gauge. Vaccine unbelievers are as prevalent as Lauren Boebert fans at a Klan rally.

Predictions?

I won't make any. The only one I've made in the last few years wasn't about politics. One day after a Washington Football Team game, I found myself talking to "Captain Kirk" Cousins, then the team's quarterback, in the locker room. He was an unassuming young man with a good team attitude and great decision making. "You're going to be the NFL MVP one day," I told him. He has moved on to the Minnesota Vikings, but if all continues as is, that may well be this year. 

That's it: Kirk Cousins will one day be the NFL's Most Valuable Player.That's all I can predict. 

Politics? I would never have bet that Trump would be elected in the first place, and I was concerned he would actually win re-election and finish the job of killing off our democracy that he began when he took office.

But now we have Biden, and we still have COVID. If I were going to predict anything political, it would have something to do with what Dr. Anthony Fauci told me during Wednesday's press briefing.

I asked him how he saw the pandemic ending. The flu pandemic of 1918 didn't end until that especially virulent strain of the flu virus evolved into a less lethal form. Is that how we will end the current pandemic? Or did Fauci see vaccination as the answer?

Fauci urged everyone, worldwide, to get vaccinated and said the U.S. should continue to spearhead the effort.

"Eventually this will end," Fauci said. 

Sure. Everything ends eventually.

Giving the facts to the American public, free of spin, is one thing that ended decades ago.

We are left with a cacophony of mediocre voices in Congress, at the White House and the Supreme Court, feeding us words that few will hear and fewer will believe.

Our media companies are overrun with questionable characters engaged in a wide variety of unacceptable behaviors. 

A president who actually got bipartisan support to pass a historic infrastructure bill finds himself squeezed between incompetence in government and incompetence in the press.

Is it any wonder he has adopted a "Stick and move" policy in dealing with the public? Struggling to get his word across without having his words twisted beyond recognition, Biden is nonetheless playing into the hands of those who will use anything he does and everything he says against him. For those people, reality is never an issue.

I would love to hear real answers on real issues. But Biden doesn't speak much to anyone but the press pool, and his answers are short and incomplete. So I'm offering him an invitation:

Sit down. Let's talk.

You don't have to play stick and move.

I won't play gotcha.

A good question-and-answer discussion will only benefit us all.

I am vaxxed and boostered.

The ball's in your court, Mr. President.

More from Brian Karem on the Biden White House:

 


Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East, and is the author of seven books, including "Free the Press," due out this fall.

MORE FROM Brian Karem


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Donald Trump Infrastructure Bill Joe Biden Media