Martin Schram: Rediscovering a president’s AWOL adviser
President Joe Biden launched a new offensive of message politics this past week, but appeared to be operating without the inner circle confidant he needs now more than ever.
With his polls still underwater and prices still soaring, Biden was clearly performing on our news screens and behind the scenes as his own master strategist, maestro and leading man. In White House news events and in appearances in the heartland, Biden seemed determined, indeed desperate, to reverse all negatives at once.
Yet as we watched, it seemed clear that Biden had been unable to channel his inner Scranton Joe.
Throughout his career, Biden has never been at his best when he was speaking and acting without the benefit of Scranton Joe’s Middle American instincts and restraining influences. He has always been at his best when he could hear and heed that inner voice, forged by the commonsense concerns of heartland families, as it demurred: “No, Joe! Don’t go there!” Surely there were times when it spoke to him just in time to avert the unwise blurt that had been known to become the gaffe that eclipsed the news he had intended to make.
Consider Tuesday. President Biden was going to hold one major news event to explain everything that his administration had done and will be doing to restrain and reduce inflation.
He would name each inflationary category: gasoline, groceries, prescription medicines, and so on, detail the inflationary cause of each, and detail his solutions. First the pandemic caused the inflation crisis. Then Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine made it way, way worse.
But there would be more: He also wanted to leave all middle-class Americans with a permanent positive impression that would remain with all who watched. Namely: That Joe Biden is as rock solid and working class as they are. He was raised in a family just like theirs. He shares their basic concerns and values — and especially their concerns about the need to control and reverse rampant inflation, the main concern that is discussed night after night at their kitchen tables; just the way it used to be discussed at the Biden family’s kitchen table.
But there would be still more: Biden was determined to bash and smash the pro-Trump wing that now dominates the Republican Party and attacks him regularly. He also would insist on coining and then repeating many times his favorite name-calling insult: “ultra-MAGA Republicans.”
TIME OUT: In decades of talking with voters and holding focus groups with TV news watchers, I learned long ago that if a leader starts political name-calling, it turns off viewers big time. If the leader repeats it, he or she becomes no longer a trusted leader but just another politician that they no longer like or trust.
Also, viewers cannot keep track of issue complexities without visual graphics we all need to help us learn. And if a person is just talking a substantive but detailed stream of numbers, we all get confused, many lose focus, and very few remain positively impressed.
FAST FORWARD: The result was a message politics disaster. Biden’s mash began with a monologue of 3,259 words, a stream of consciousness in which he self-destructed his own message strategy and goals.
There’s a lot that Scranton Joe could have suggested and cautioned, if only President Biden had thought to consult his inner voice of experience. After all, Scranton Joe knows well what those working-class families really wanted to hear their president tell them when they are faced with having to decide whether they can afford the groceries they need and the prescription drugs family members may require.
Indeed, Scranton Joe could have impressed upon POTUS the fact that he really had a compelling story to tell about what the administration has done in each case. Including examples of corporations unpatriotically price-gouging and tax-evading that the president has worked to halt – and should have been spotlighting for all Americans to see.
Biden’s White House advisers could indeed create a series of separate daily events. Imagine a week with one event each day in which the president meets with a family. They discuss the family’s most pressing inflation crisis – gas prices, insulin price-gouging, groceries, etc. Then Biden and the appropriate Cabinet secretary explain what they have done and will do to ease their crisis.
EPILOGUE: Two hours after Tuesday’s eye-glazing event, at the daily White House news briefing, reporters predictably asked about why Biden kept using the term “ultra-MAGA Republicans. “Who came up with this phrase ‘ultra-MAGA’?” a reporter asked. “Why the need to kick it up a notch? MAGA wasn’t enough?”
“I will tell you, it is the president’s phrase,” said press secretary Jen Psaki. She explained our wordsmithing president felt “adding a little ‘ultra’ to it” gave the phrase “a little extra pop.”