Joe Biden waited nearly four decades to become the most powerful man in the free world. Now that he is, he’s making himself scarce.
Biden is leaning on doctors and health experts to publicly detail his Covid policy. He’s relying on his Cabinet, economic advisers and other high-ranking administration officials to help sell his nearly $2 trillion rescue package. Biden’s press team, meanwhile, is standing in for their boss by blanketing TV programs with pledges to tell the truth even when it’s inconvenient. It’s one of the more arresting shifts after four years of a president who delighted in torturing the media with sudden pronouncements that often surprised and befuddled his own advisers.
“He trusts them, and Americans will trust experts,” John Anzalone, a top Biden adviser and campaign pollster, said of the president’s approach to his team. “Plus,” he added, “Biden is dealing with multiple crises and is a good delegator.”
White House aides describe the strategy not so much as delegation but as an concerted effort to restore confidence with a public battered by the contradictory messaging and scorched-earth politics of the Trump years. In just over a week, the White House has booked 80 TV and radio interviews with 20 senior administration officials, members of the Covid-19 response team and Cabinet secretary designates. They’ve had officials on each major network, booking them on every Sunday show in the first week. And they are working with CNN to have three of the doctors in charge of its Covid-19 response take questions from the public during a coronavirus town hall, said Mariel Sáez, the White House director of broadcast media.
Who’s not been booked for any sit-down interviews: Biden.
But the president hasn’t exactly been absent either. He appeared for brief ceremonies where he signed executive orders and delivered mostly scripted remarks. He’s taken a handful of questions from the news media. And he’s expected to give a major foreign policy address on Monday amid a planned trip to the State Department, his first visit to a Cabinet agency.
As main protagonists go, Biden’s role has been comparatively limited — a startling contrast to the omnipresent president who preceded him. Donald Trump didn’t so much love the spotlight as he sought to totally consume it. Whether he was sending Twitter screeds at all hours or shouting answers over the ear-splitting blades of his presidential aircraft, Trump craved media attention like no American leader before him.
Biden’s current approach is nearly the antithesis. It also stands in contrast to how he operated earlier in his career. As a senator, he was known for his loquaciousness. As vice president, there was an ever-simmering fear in the White House that he would trample on the message of the day with his proclivity to freelance (a fear that often did not become realized).
Biden’s own White House aides are now as ubiquitous as he is, some perhaps even more so. Already, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, domestic policy adviser Susan Rice, economic adviser Brian Deese and climate heads John Kerry and Gina McCarthy have cycled through the White House briefing room to answer questions. Press Secretary Jen Psaki was non-committal as to when Biden may be taking questions there, offering that they are always looking for opportunities to do so. Trump, during his early time in office, brought the cameras in for his sit down with automobile industry leaders as well as union leaders and workers. He did the same for speeches at the CIA and DHS, and traveled to Philadelphia for a televised address to the congressional GOP retreat. Whereas Biden has not done a television interview, Trump had conducted three by this point in his presidency.
“He’s secure. He’s not threatened by someone else being in the spotlight,” Paul Begala, the veteran Democratic strategist, said of Biden. “In fact, I think he likes that. He’s showing the country that he’s pulled together a really talented and diverse team.”
During the presidential campaign, Biden turned his pledge to hire and rely on the advice of experts into a weapon against Trump. And his advisers went into the transition acutely aware of the history of presidents who shouldered too much of the load. Jimmy Carter, the first president elected after Richard Nixon left office, was a poor delegator and quickly came to be seen as unable to meet the demands of the office.
“You can start with character, then you go to candor, compassion, all of the things that Trump lacked and Biden and his team are talking about,” Begala said. “But then you have to go to actually getting stuff done. They seem to be enormously aware of the fact that simply not being Trump is no longer enough.”
Among those taking to the airwaves is White House chief of staff Ron Klain, who is seen inside the administration as someone the public trusts on the pandemic. Klain has had a major public presence in messaging around Covid, with interviews and an active Twitter persona he developed since managing the Obama administration’s Ebola response.
During that crisis, Klain himself discovered the importance of capable deputies. On days when public anxiety about the virus was rising, he coined an acronym and emailed people “PTFOTV.” “Everyone in my office knew what PTFOTV stood for,” Klain told POLITICO last year. “It was ‘Put Tony Fauci On TV.’”
Fauci, who maintained high approval ratings during Trump’s final year, is now back in the role and being deputized by Klain all over again. And, in his media renaissance, he has gone to some length to tout his liberation from Trump. “The idea that you can get up and talk about what you know, what the evidence is, what the science is,” Fauci said, “it is somewhat of a liberating feeling.”
But with that freedom comes complications for an administration that is simultaneously putting many top officials out in public and hoping they all stay on the same message. In a Thursday event sponsored by the National Education Association, Fauci stressed Biden wants to keep to his goal of reopening most K-8 schools within his first 100 days. But Fauci added it “may not happen because there may be mitigating circumstances,” a hypothetical scenario the White House has avoided entertaining.
There’s little doubt that whomever replaced Trump in the White House would keep their public utterances more in line with historical standards. On Twitter alone, Biden has yet to announce anything approaching news, let alone reveal — as Trump often did — that he’d fired a top aide or scuttling his party’s congressional negotiations.
Silence can have its advantages. Former president Barack Obama went long stretches without popping up in public, particularly as Congress engaged over high-stakes negotiations. His aides were eager to deploy him when his input would have the most impact. And they were mindful, too, that Obama’s entry into a public debate could instantly polarize it — and give Republicans a handy political foil.
During his own campaign, Biden perfected the act of laying low, to such an extent that Democrats joked he was part of an Avengers-like ensemble rather than a solo act.
Some, including people close to Biden, say while it’s not a driving factor, there is a generational component to his decision not to scramble for attention. At 78, he is the oldest president in history. His tech savviness is not regularly touted. He has pledged to be a bridge to a future generation of Democrats — who welcome whatever bit of the attention he can give them.
One of those next-generation Democrats, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), recalled speaking privately with Biden after he dropped out of the presidential race. Biden, Swalwell told POLITICO, said “he would do all he could if elected to ‘pass the torch.’” The congressman said he believes Biden views the deployment of experts and surrogates as a nod to the public that the government is working on its behalf.
“These are the faces,” Swalwell said of Biden’s current approach. “It’s not a show.”
Some faces in the administration have been more prominent than others. Vice President Kamala Harris has been by Biden’s side at many meetings and appearances, as her press team has been careful to note. This week, she was deployed for interviews with TV stations and editorial boards in Arizona and West Virginia, states with Democratic senators the administration is courting to support its priorities.
Then there’s Pete Buttigieg, known for his non-stop media hits during his presidential bid and as one of the Biden campaign’s most effective surrogates.
Buttigieg has made a dizzying number of appearances in his new role as Transportation secretary designate, stopping off at “The View,” “Morning Joe” (twice) and another MSNBC show, CNN (twice), NPR, Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight show, local TV stations in Green Bay and Detroit, an interview with the Washington Post, and a sit-down with “Captain America” star Chris Evans’ media company — all since mid-December.
Presidential nominees traditionally hold to a strict code of omertà before the Senate waves them through. But a Buttigieg adviser said the issues he’s talking about — Covid relief, Biden’s “Buy American” executive order, and climate change — are all “important transportation priorities that Pete is eager to get to work on at DOT, if confirmed.”
Buttigieg’s actual role in the administration has sometimes taken a back seat to whatever news is dominating the day. In a recent CNN interview with Don Lemon, he was asked about the Senate impeachment hearings involving Trump, Biden’s devotion to unity, and the president’s reversal of the transgender military ban — a topic to which he has a personal connection as an openly gay veteran.
Rather than duck, Buttigieg followed the lead set by others in Biden’s orbit and engaged, calling Biden’s order an example of what it really means to “support our troops.”
Natasha Korecki contributed to this report.
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