Joe Biden on the brink: Will the disastrous White House comms bring us a second Trump term?

I've never seen a president this bad at communicating his agenda. If he loses to Trump, it'll be his own damn fault

By Brian Karem


Published May 25, 2023 9:48AM (EDT)

U.S. President Joe Biden clears his throat while delivering a brief update of the ongoing negotiations over the debt limit in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on May 17, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden clears his throat while delivering a brief update of the ongoing negotiations over the debt limit in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on May 17, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Longtime White House correspondent Brian Karem writes a weekly column for Salon.

There is nothing more frustrating in politics than watching someone fail in their attempt to communicate, unless it is watching someone who needs to communicate fail — by refusing to do so.

The ongoing debt-ceiling crisis has exposed both sides of that coin. The Republican Party, led by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, has used the sticks outside the West Wing, news shows, social media, the halls of Congress and probably the lemonade stand run by McCarthy's next-door neighbor's children to accuse the Democrats of the very demagoguery of which the Republicans are most guilty. Watching McCarthy's blundering efforts is both frustrating and comic.

Meanwhile, the president of the United States has the bully pulpit, and more importantly, the 49-seat James Brady Briefing Room a mere 60 feet away from him, which is hard-wired and ready to roll. From there the president can speak live to the world at a moment's notice. He hasn't visited it once during this supposed crisis to explain anything, communicate anything, deny anything or frame any argument. 

Indeed, Joe Biden has been curiously absent from the public eye even as he claims the debt ceiling crisis is a dire moment for our democracy. McCarthy, on the other hand, has been free to push a narrative many of us know is false — although the press has been slow to hold him accountable for his false claims and has also been totally ineffective at getting Biden to step up to the plate and take questions.

My dad used to have a saying: Finding a competent politician is like finding a virgin in a cathouse. There is only one universal experience with politicians: disappointment. 

That sentiment is felt far and wide as we begin the run-up to the 2024 presidential election, which now includes several Republican political dwarfs, one Republican has-been president and the sitting Democratic president.

Among the Republicans (at least those who support the aforementioned has-been president) there is a surging confidence that Trump may actually be able to win back the office he falsely claimed he lost by fraud in 2020, despite his ongoing monumental legal struggles. The GOP dwarfs, his rivals, are hedging their bets that he won't. There is a surging fear among the Democrats that indeed Trump could win — and a disbelief that he could do so amid all his legal problems. There is a surging inaction (how's that for a contradiction in terms?) among reporters who have to cover this miasma. We seem frozen. It's almost as if the press corps is collectively saying, "You've got to be kidding."  Republicans are happily cheering Trump's "revenge tour" while Democrats are saying, "What do we have to do to beat this guy again? Catch him robbing a bank?"

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What this situation requires is understanding. What it lacks is communication. That begins and ends in the White House and Biden's administration. From top to bottom, this administration cannot frame an argument, does not engage the press and, for reasons unknown, doesn't even appear to want to do either.

Some communication staffers say the White House is content to work with its "influencers" and push the presidential agenda via social media. That is laughably ignorant, if true. "Influencers" are not part of the donor class and regular voters are not always exposed to those influencers. But what's worse for the Biden administration is not its dubious choices about where to tell its story, but its inability to tell that story at all. On this, the president has failed miserably.

Communication staffers say the White House is content to work with "influencers" and push Biden's agenda via social media. That is laughably ignorant, if true.

Biden has a story worth listening to, but for damn sure the American public hasn't heard it. Whether the story is about infrastructure, the economy, the debt ceiling, Trump or anything else, the Biden administration cannot frame the narrative or push it out. Take, for example,  Vice President Harris' recent trip to Los Angeles. As John Bennett, former White House correspondent and current editor at large at CQ Roll Call, mentioned on my podcast "Just Ask the Question" this week, Harris has been criticized for staging events in L.A., in an apparent effort "to get her home for the weekend."

But the important thing was that while Biden was at the G7 summit, Harris took part in an L.A. event that could have been extremely important to voters in the five or six swing states likely to make a difference in the next election.

She showed up at a nonprofit business in Los Angeles that supplies diapers and other baby essentials to mothers in poverty who are struggling to provide basic care to their newborns.

This is a real "family values" issue. 

From top to bottom, the event was a bust. Visually, it was dull: Harris visited two or three locations in the warehouse, surrounded by large brown boxes. I was told there were grateful mothers with infants there to meet the vice president, but the public never saw Harris with them. The press never got to see the "politician kissing the baby" shot — you know, actual human interaction with the people who are benefiting from the program. 

In other words, the vice president of the United States conducted a tour that looked like it had been staged by a city councilman, not by the person a heartbeat away from the presidency. 

We did get a brief Q&A session with the VP at the end of the tour. But she was poorly lit, had no podium and no microphone and only took two questions. I was the pool reporter on hand. I asked the questions.

The first one was about the event itself. Communication had been minimal as to why we were even visiting there, but Harris explained that the federal government is partnering with Baby2Baby, the nonprofit that provides needed supplies to more than a million families across the country, in a pilot program targeting Arkansas, New Mexico and Louisiana. At first Harris said that one of the states involved was Oklahoma. A  staffer said later she had misspoken. It was Arkansas, not Oklahoma.

I actually laughed out loud when I learned that. I know who the governor of Arkansas is — former Trump White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders — and despite her constant rants against "socialism," the Razorback State constantly takes advantage of federal social programs.

So in that sense, the vice president buried the lede. Worse yet, she missed the point. I asked if there was a concerted effort to reach out to red states in particular. Harris said, "Well, no, but ... we recognize the high rates of need there."

I won't argue that. But If you're trying to swing voters and you don't mention how you're actually helping them, then you are screwing yourself. Imagine if the Republicans were helping out blue states in some way. We would never hear the end of it: The Biden administration had screwed up royally and now Republicans are here to lend a hand to average Americans.

Vice President Harris' recent trip to L.A. could have been extremely important to swing-state voters, and ended with a made-to-order TV spectacle. The White House fumbled it from beginning to end. 

This stuff is especially important because of the mechanics of the coming election. Donald Trump didn't win the popular vote in either 2016 or 2020, and most analysts agree he can't do it in 2024 either. He was impeached twice, he's under felony indictment in New York, under felony investigation in Georgia and he was found by a civil jury to have committed sexual assault, followed by defamation of the woman he assaulted. He's an "adjudicated liar," as Dahlia Lithwick put it on Mary Trump's podcast. And those are but a few of the reasons why so many people are fed up with the guy. 

But in case you haven't noticed, you don't win presidential elections by capturing the most popular votes. You win them by getting a majority of the electoral votes. So the same swing states that decided the 2020 election could determine the outcome all over again in 2024. Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia, Arizona and maybe Nevada are all worth watching. And in all those states, a few thousand votes could make the difference.

Joe Biden knows this, and it would behoove his administration to try and reach out to those states, along with a few others where MAGA voters are teetering, or at least could be.

My second question to Harris was about the debt ceiling negotiations. Three times during her trip I tried to ask about that issue and got cut off. That was important because the vice president had attended Oval Office talks earlier in the week. McCarthy had put them on "pause," saying he couldn't negotiate with Biden's "very capable" team — of which Harris was a member. He wanted to wait until Dad got home. Harris sidestepped that question, and allowed McCarthy's framing of the events — that the White House would be responsible for a default — to stand. There was little or no pushback. I tried to follow up, but she walked away.

Later Harris made a "surprise" stop at Arena (an unbelievably lousy name) for the Los Angeles Sparks' opening game of the WNBA season against the Phoenix Mercury. It was also the first time Mercury star Brittney Griner took the court since her return from a Russian prison on a trumped-up cannabis charge. The visual of Harris walking out onto the court to thunderous applause from thousands of fans looked great on ESPN, but the story was mishandled by the administration, in typical fashion, and few outlets picked it up. The story should have been that Joe Biden brought an American hero home. Here was the perfect ending and they simply fumbled it.

The funniest part of the whole vice-presidential trip involved a driver in the Harris motorcade who managed to wreck one of the staff vans by turning a corner too tightly, and then was involved in two or three other minor accidents during the course of the day. I watched that particular driver nearly back into the EMS van and the press van.

The VP's troubles didn't end there. According to the CQ Roll Call newsletter, a few days later Harris was on a Zoom briefing with reporters when technical difficulties kicked her out for several minutes.  

That's a microcosm of everything wrong with the Biden administration. They'll do things that will actually help people, but won't bother or can't manage to tell anyone that they are doing it. Worse, it turns into a fender-bender when they do. There is simply nothing this administration has done that hasn't come with a communication problem attached. As everyone in politics knows, for many voters, appearance is reality.

If you're a liberal voter and think this isn't true, you are delusional. If you're voting for Trump, you are delusional. So this coming election could boil down to a contest between competing delusions. 

But this epic failure of communication is honestly to be expected from an administration where the president has set the bar down on the floor when it comes to press interaction.

Evidently, every low-level press wrangler in the Biden administration has attended a class where they are taught to scream "Thank you, thank you," whenever a reporter asks a question, in an effort to drown us out. Then the president and vice president can turn and walk away, ignoring us with a regal continence which is supposed to represent their authority but actually denotes weakness. 

At some point you might think they'd catch on that their inability to take or answer questions is problematic, but apparently they cannot connect the dots. As president, Donald Trump hit you over the head daily with his misdeeds and "alternative facts." His people were on television, in the press room, on "Pebble Beach" (the TV news camp on the North Lawn of the White House), or anyplace else there was a camera. Because of that, millions of people to this day continue to support him and continue to believe he's right. More importantly, Trump and his mindless minions are still at it.

The Biden administration says little, tells us nearly nothing and then wonders why people don't believe them. I'd refer to a Rob Reiner movie written by Aaron Sorkin and remind them that some people drink sand because they don't know the difference between sand and water, but an infamous Republican has already tried to use that movie, so I can't be bothered.

The Trump administration hit you over the head daily with its misdeeds and "alternative facts." The Biden administration says little, tells us nearly nothing and then wonders why nobody believes them.

At the end of the day, the debt ceiling crisis is another indication of how fractured American politics has become. For millions of Americans, politics is a binary operation. Either you're for me or against me: What I say is right and what my opponent believes is vicious anti-American lies. Biden's godawful communication, coupled with the dangerous disinformation from his Republican opponents, has exacerbated the problem.

But there is more nuance in life than the binary choice we seem to face. Each candidate deserves criticism, but not the same criticism. Here are a few facts. If Donald Trump is the Republican nominee in 2024 — and that is not a foregone conclusion — then the Republicans will nominate a man who has all the black marks on his record I mentioned above and also quite likely faces multiple additional felony charges for a wide variety of purported crimes. While in office, he cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans while his party cried about the enormous deficit they created. He openly defies the Constitution, still won't admit he lost the last election, and lies so often and so flagrantly that many have grown numb to it. 

In the other corner is an octogenarian president. His administration has made some good decisions and some bad ones, but he has no idea how to frame an argument, cannot get out in front of any issue and has been one of the worst communicators ever to reside at the White House. The last time he appeared in the Rose Garden he even stacked the deck with a pre-authorized question from a reporter willing to play along. 

If Donald Trump is the Republican nominee and if he wins a second term in office — and those are both pretty big "ifs" — it will be no one's fault but Joe Biden's.

And the world will suffer as a result. 

By 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. His latest is "Free the Press."

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Commentary Debt Ceiling Donald Trump Elections Joe Biden Kevin Mccarthy Republicans