In declining to participate in the nationally televised pre-Super Bowl interview, President Biden’s communications team revealed its three-point media strategy: Fewer, less and none.
A free hour of airtime on national network television on a Sunday afternoon before an audience of upwards of a million viewers in a re-election year. What’s not to like?
It was an opportunity as well to quell the criticism that the president had not gone directly to the American people to tout his record in office.
Instead, the campaign took a pass.
The rationale for turning down the request by CBS was arguably one of the most patently absurd utterances from a White House that has had more than its share.
The nation, according to the campaign team, is suffering from election fatigue and is concerned with adding to that burden. It is, they said, a part of a larger strategic plan to avoid piling on American voters further with election news while denying it was an effort to head off the possibility of a Biden-esque response and subsequent embarrassment.
Election fatigue? Really? It’s only February. Nine months of enormously increased campaign intensity await which, according to Team Biden’s explanation, will alienate and frustrate the electorate even further.
Nice try but it’s clear the decision has been reached that unscripted interviews, whether one on one or in a news conference format, are out, substituted by appearances before friendly audiences —organized labor groups are a particular favorite — fund raising gatherings or rallies to guarantee applause, wild cheering and sign waving.
Verbal stumbles, forgetfulness, embellished tales of accomplishments will be of no concern. Teleprompter will rule and the campaign brain trust will hold their collective breath, keep fingers crossed that the president will stay on track and avoid a post appearance clean up detail to correct or explain verbal miscues.
The routine will unfold something like this:
*Alight from car and wave to crowd.
*Mount stage, deliver remarks.
*Leave stage, wave to crowd, climb into car, drive off.
The traveling media will be roped off sufficiently at a distance where even shouted questions will be drowned out or unintelligible.
The campaign managers are terrified of freewheeling interactions with reporters or of being pulled into situations in which they are not firmly in control.
They are acutely aware the president is, at the moment, the weakest incumbent since Jimmy Carter with an approval rating under 40 percent and a nation which 70 percent of people believe is headed in the wrong direction.
He remains in the low to mid 30 percent range on issues of greatest concern — economic health, inflation, immigration, crime, foreign policy and the potential for supporting prolonged and costly wars in Ukraine and Israel. In addition, the latter conflict has created serious divisions in the president’s party.
There continues to be deep and persistent concern over his physical and cognitive strength and he trails his likely opponent, former president Donald Trump, by between two and five percent.
Polling reveals also a troublesome sign that Biden’s support among young voters, African Americans and Hispanics — normally reliable voting blocs — has eroded.
In light of the obstacles to overcome, why risk making the task any steeper by an offhand or careless remark in a chance encounter with the media.
They are willing to accept the trade off, subjected to criticism for sheltering the candidate from media scrutiny in return for minimizing the potential for a major and damaging misstep on a national scale, the kind of incident the media could feast on for days and overshadow the campaign messaging.
The media, of course, will grumble, grouse and formally protest closing off access and the refusal to conduct a formal news conference. It will all fall on deaf ears, though, and impose the responsibility for dealing with it to White House press secretary Karine Jean Piere who has demonstrated repeatedly she is ill equipped to deal with it effectively.
The campaign veterans must yearn secretly for a return to the 2020 campaign conducted largely from a television studio in the basement of the Biden home, an unprecedented national isolation caused by the COVID pandemic.
Taped speeches could be edited quickly, misstatements cleaned up, hesitations erased and the candidate presented as a smooth, decisive leader in charge.
The first rule for the staff in any political campaign is “protect the client,” do what is necessary to head off problems before they become crises and to minimize any damaging fallout from words or deeds.
It requires a great deal of discipline on the part of the candidate as well as the managers to steady the ship in a media storm.
The Biden team has chosen to achieve that stability by shielding the president from media interactions out of their control.
If the cost of that strategy is an angry and frustrated band of reporters, so be it. In their judgment, it is preferable to spending time dousing flames and preoccupied by the turmoil of damage control. The three-point strategy of fewer, less and none is in place.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.