WASHINGTON — President Biden gave a speech on Bidenomics at a community college in a Washington suburb on Thursday.
He ended without taking questions. He said he wished he could, “but I’m going to get in real trouble if I do that.”
Dude, you’re the leader of the free world! Who sends the president to the principal’s office?
At least this time, his staff didn’t play him offstage with a musical interlude as though he were an Oscar winner droning on too long. That’s what happened last Sunday in Vietnam. His press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, gave him the hook, abruptly ending the press conference as he was talking about his conversation with a top Chinese official. Oh yeah, nothing important.
Seconds earlier, he had said “I’m going to go to bed.” Republicans, naturally, jumped on that as evidence of senility. But that was silly. The president had had an extremely long day, on a five-day trip to India and Vietnam. The press conference was after 9 p.m. local time. I’ve been on plenty of those trips with presidents, and they’re exhausting.
Since he became president, Biden has sharply curbed how much he talks to the press, rarely giving interviews. He limits his press conferences mostly to duets with foreign leaders, where he can put his foreign policy relationships and experience on display. Even then, White House officials preselect questioners and aggressively approach reporters to ferret out what topics they would focus on if they were picked. On Friday at the White House, after backing the autoworkers in their strike, he didn’t take questions.
There’s something poignant about watching a guy who used to delight in his Irish gift of gab be muzzled. In interviews when he was a senator and then vice president, Biden could easily give a 45-minute answer to the first question. Heaven help anyone who tried to nix the prolix pol back then.
But now, when I watch him cut himself short, or get cut short by his staff, I get an image of a yellow Lab gamboling smack into an electric fence. When the president stops himself and says, “Am I giving too long an answer?” or “Maybe I’ll stop there,” or “I’m going to get in real trouble,” he seems nervous that his handlers might yank his choke collar if he rattles on.
He no longer seems a Happy Warrior. The pol who has always relished talking to people, being around people, seems sort of lonely. When he campaigned in a limited, shielded way during Covid, he was dubbed “the Man in the Basement.” But now, even without the mask, it’s as though he’s still hidden away.
He knows his staff thinks he has a problem of popping off, and I think that has made him more timid and more cloistered. And when he’s more isolated, he seems sadder maybe because he’s not drawing energy from crowds and journalists the way he used to; perhaps his overprotective staff has gotten into his head. I know he gets frozen on Hunter questions, but he can’t hide from that forever, either.
Is his less-than-stellar inner circle undermining the boss and giving ammunition to the nasty conservative story line about how the 80-year-old president is losing it?
Biden’s more ginger gait makes Democrats flinch, but his staff reinforces the impression of a fragile chief executive by overmanaging him and white-knuckling all his appearances. By publicly treating him as though he’s not in control of his faculties, by cutting him off mid-thought as though he’s faltering and needs caretaking, they play into the hands of Trumpsters. His vulnerability becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I’ve covered Biden for 35 years. He has always been a babble merchant, prone to exaggeration and telling stories too good to be true, saying inexplicably wacky things. It was often cleanup on Aisle Biden. So when he acts like this now, it shouldn’t be attributed just to aging. Certainly, he has slowed down. But his staff has exacerbated the problem by trying too hard to keep him in check. Americans know who Uncle Joe is, quirks and all, slower and all. Let them decide.
The president’s feelings were no doubt hurt the other day by The Washington Post column by David Ignatius, a charter member of the capital’s liberal elite, saying that Biden should be proud of “the string of wins” from his first term but not run for re-election because he “risks undoing his greatest achievement — which was stopping Trump.”
I don’t disagree, but I doubt it will make a difference.
If Biden has a chip on his shoulder, it’s justified. Barack Obama blew off his vice president in 2016 in favor of Hillary Clinton, and a lot of Democrats wrote off Biden during the 2020 primaries after he lost Iowa and New Hampshire.
It was amazing, given his trajectory, that Biden fought his way to the presidency. And he thinks he has done a great job. Besides, being an underdog is his sweet spot. And he’s got a point that he is the only one who has beaten Trump.
But Biden needs to start looking like he’s in command. His staff is going to have to roll with him and take some risks and stop jerking the reins. Let Joe out of the virtual basement.
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