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Biden's frustration with the media boils over

Months out from November’s high-stakes election, the White House and the Biden campaign are going public with growing frustration about how the president is being portrayed in the media. 

Biden’s camp is taking swings at press coverage of the incumbent as his reelection bid fends off persistent concerns about whether the 81-year-old is fit for another four years in the Oval Office. 

Democrats have been sensitive to media coverage of former President Trump compared with that of their own candidates dating back to the 2016 campaign, when critics argued the press overhyped the controversy around then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s private email server while giving Trump significant, unfiltered airtime.

Now, some Biden allies see a similar pattern playing out in which reporters fixate on the president’s periodic verbal slips and questions about his age while his likely November opponent faces dozens of felonies and suggests he would undermine international alliances and crackdown on immigrants and abortion access.

The president’s personal attorney this week penned an op-ed criticizing coverage of a special counsel report that commented on Biden’s recall, and The New York Times’s publisher said in a recent interview that the White House is “extremely upset” about reporting on Biden’s age.

“The more this campaign and the more this White House takes the gloves off and gets aggressive, the better off they are,” said Democratic strategist Jon Reinish. 

“There have been many instances on many tough issues where they’ve been behind the ball and have not been nearly as sharp, nearly as persuasive or nearly as aggressive as they could have been.” 

In the face of poor approval numbers and worries about whether Biden could serve another term, more direct pushback from the president’s camp against coverage and critiques could help build up a sense of Biden’s strength, Reinish said, adding that he hopes “it’s not too late” to make the moves. 

Special counsel Robert Hur released a lengthy report earlier this month that concluded Biden would not face any charges for his handling of classified documents from his time as vice president and senator. The report also made clear the distinctions between Biden’s case and that of Trump, who is facing charges in Florida for his retention of and refusal to return classified materials upon leaving the White House in 2021.

But, much to the White House’s chagrin, a significant amount of coverage was devoted to passages that called into question Biden’s ability to remember when his son died or when he served as vice president. Several media outlets also directly quoted Hur’s executive summary, which said Biden “willfully retained” classified documents — a point the White House took issue with, as Hur also determined there wasn’t enough evidence to bring any charges against the president. 

Ian Sams, spokesperson for the White House counsel’s office, wrote to the president of the White House Correspondents Association — which has no control over outlets’ coverage — criticizing reporting on the special counsel’s findings. 

“Your jobs are not easy. But they are important,” Sams wrote in a Feb. 13 letter. “When significant errors occur in coverage, such as essentially misstating the findings and conclusions of a federal investigation of the sitting President, it is critical that they be addressed.”

Kelly O’Donnell, president of the White House Correspondents Association and a correspondent at NBC News, called Sams’s letter “misdirected” and labeled the use of internal channels to disseminate the letter “inappropriate.” 

In a Feb. 12 statement, TJ Ducklo, a senior adviser for the Biden campaign, knocked the media for “gratuitous and sensationalist attacks on the President’s age” after Trump suggested he’d let Russia invade NATO allies who hadn’t contributed enough to defense spending. Americans deserve “a press corps who cover his candidacy, his comments, and his policy positions with the seriousness and ferocity this moment requires,” Ducklo said. 

The gripes with the press have continued beyond the Hur report, though. 

The campaign sent out a press release criticizing The New York Times for “quibbling over” Biden’s statements about the economy, and several Democrats rolled their eyes at a Times headline on Biden’s efforts to forgive student loan debt that described the president as “beleaguered,” only for it to be changed hours later.

“Beleaguered Biden wins second term, luckily saved by greatest job market in history and the happenstance of the strongest economic legislative record in 70 years, which by the way was in no way related to that job market. But how long can the lucky streak last?” Jesse Lee, a former Biden White House adviser, wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

After the Hur report’s scathing assessment that the incumbent was a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory,” Biden went before reporters in a fiery press conference to defend his age and recall.

“I’m well-meaning, and I’m an elderly man, and I know what the hell I’m doing,” Biden said.

But Biden during the press conference also mistakenly referred to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as the “president of Mexico,” a slip-up that drew scrutiny as he sharply criticized the report. 

“I think the president overestimates his ability to handle the press at times,” said Todd Belt, director of George Washington University’s graduate political management program.

Biden has appeared before the press less frequently than his predecessor, according to research from the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Biden has averaged 11 news conferences per year, while Trump averaged 22. Before him, President Obama averaged 20 per year. 

But Biden’s administration has worked to build a press relationship in stark contrast to Trump’s, which was characterized by confrontation and attacks against the “fake news” media, Belt said — and the incumbent’s camp has likely shied away from aggressive criticism of White House coverage for that reason, hoping to avoid comparisons.

“They want to be able to say: Biden is normal government, Trump is chaos,” Belt said.  

But the president and his allies may now be seeing the stakes as too high to sit back, with Trump on track to score the Republican nomination and set the 2024 race up for a Trump-Biden rematch.

“No president likes to be criticized or reported on or have any negatives written about them,” said Leonard Steinhorn, a professor of public communication at American University. 

Steinhorn noted that Trump and his camp were trying to paint Biden as too old back in 2020 — but that Trump, who at 77 is his rival’s junior by just a few years, is now as old as Biden was during the last cycle. Trump has faced scrutiny for some of his own recent gaffes, including when he mixed up former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and his GOP primary rival, Nikki Haley.

Biden has also been open about his speech impediment and has long made gaffes that may be more a product of his stutter than of his age. Trump’s speech, by comparison, may appear more “fluid,” Steinhorn said, disadvantaging Biden in an arena where “optics tell a story, regardless of any words we communicate or what the White House wants us to believe.” 

“Every president has to deal with it, but that doesn’t mean that the president should be silent and suck it up if they feel that they have been unfairly maligned or criticized.” 

Source: The Hill

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