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White House plays down worries about Biden health

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The White House on Thursday played down concerns about President Biden’s health hours after announcing that he had tested positive for COVID-19, saying he was capable of handling his job even as he isolates for several days. 

“He said he was feeling fine,” COVID-19 coordinator Ashish Jha told reporters, reiterating what other White House officials, including the first lady, said about Biden’s condition in the hours after he tested positive. 

Jha and press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre were peppered with questions during the briefing about whether any protocols at the White House would change given the 79-year-old’s positive test. They would not at the time answer questions about who was considered a close contact of the president or if any other West Wing staff had tested positive over the last few days. 

Shortly after the briefing ended, a White House official told The Hill that Vice President Harris was considered a close contact of Biden’s but that there would be no changes to her schedule.

Biden’s test comes as questions have increased about whether he will run for president again in 2024. Biden has insisted that is his intention, but his age and anemic approval ratings have led to doubts he will be the party’s nominee.  

The context raises the pressure on the White House to be transparent about his condition in battling COVID-19, even after his vaccination and booster shots.  

“Look, the narrative is out there that he’s old, Republicans have been making this a thing for months, so they have to get out in front of this and almost show that he’s handling this well,” said one Democratic strategist.  

“Anything short of that will be used against them and will be added to the fodder that’s already out there on him,” the strategist added.  

The strategist also noted that the White House has likely been preparing for Biden to test positive, and early indications on Thursday showed the administration had a gameplan ready. 

Just before the press briefing, the White House released a video of Biden saying that he was “doing well” and “getting a lot of work done.” 

“Keep the faith. It’s going to be OK,” he said.   

They also shared a photograph of the president a couple hours after announcing he had COVID-19, with the message: “Folks, I’m doing great.” 

Jean-Pierre told reporters that the photograph and video was released out of transparency, which she emphasized was a departure from the previous administration when former President Trump tested positive for COVID-19 — before the development of a vaccine. 

But she also faced several questions about whether the press would be able to ask questions of the president’s physician, Kevin O’Connor, which Jean-Pierre did not confirm but she said would provide daily statements to the public. 

Despite traveling with him on Air Force One the day before, Jean-Pierre said she was not considered a close contact because she had not been near the president for more than 15 minutes at a time, per CDC guidance. 

Adams Abrams, former communications strategist and spokesperson to former President Obama, said it was important to show that Biden is doing well, and to show that he is  having similar experiences with COVID that many other vaccinated Americans have had. 

“I think that they should and probably will put out photos, videos, written updates, as much as they can. But I don’t think they need to go beyond what they’ve started to do already. They’re on the right track,” Abrams said. 

“A lot of the concern about his age comes from the Republican campaign arm, they’re pushing it but… he exercises five times a week, he’s twice boosted, in good health, and he’s taking the appropriate course of treatment with Paxlovid,” he added. 

David Litt, who served as a speechwriter to Obama during his presidency, added that the White House “in addition to doing the right thing…shouldn’t be afraid to claim credit for doing the right thing.”  

“When President Trump tried to cover up the timeline of his COVID infection, and the severity of his symptoms, it was a betrayal of public trust – the kind of thing we expect from dictators in other countries, not by elected leaders in the United States,” Litt added.  

Trump, whose administration had steadfastly not been taking pandemic precautions like mask wearing and was not forthcoming with health information, spent three days being treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.  

“In being up front with the American people, President Biden is delivering on his promise to restore dignity and accountability to the office of the president,” Litt said.  

The White House just last month refused to reveal the last time Biden was tested for COVID-19, with Jean-Pierre only sharing that the president tests weekly for the virus.  

That marked an apparent reversal of previous protocol from when press secretary Jen Psaki would give the press regular updates with the date and result of the president’s last COVID-19 test, especially when a high-profile official or member of his Cabinet tested positive. 

Previous diagnoses among those close to Biden would raise questions about the president’s level of risk and if he had been tested.  Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, tested positive last month. In April, both Vice President Harris and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tested positive for COVID-19 after attending events with Biden. But the White House downplayed both those exposures, insisting they did not qualify as “close contacts.” 

The president returned from a trip to the Middle East on Saturday night, where the White House claimed he attempted to avoid any close contacts. Virus cases were spiking in Israel before they began to rise in the U.S., and White House officials told reporters before Biden landed in Tel Aviv that the president would be avoiding hand-shakes to try and limit his exposure.  

But that proved futile, as Biden spent the next three days shaking hands, doling out hugs and speaking in close proximity with Israeli officials without wearing a mask.  

Psaki, in her first appearance on MSNBC since leaving the administration, acknowledged that the White House has “been preparing for this for several months now given the percentage of people in the country who have tested positive.” 

“They were probably bracing for impact I bet before they made the statement this morning because they knew there would be a lot of reactions, obviously from media, but certainly maybe from the markets, from other leaders,” she said. 

Over the coming days, she added, the White House needs to “show him working and show him still active and serving as president and I’m certain they’ll likely do that.”  

Rita Kirk, an expert in political messaging at Southern Methodist University, argued the White House has to give regular, transparent updates on the president’s health condition. 

“It may be that the symptoms change so you don’t want to say, ‘oh this is nothing’ and he ends up being in Walter Reed. Just being open and effective and people will be watching. You do what you preach, the optics need to show that he’s doing what he tells everybody else to do,” Kirk said. 

Anand Parekh, chief medical advisor at the Bipartisan Policy Center, called transparent communication by the White House “critical.”  

“Daily updates on the health of the president would be helpful as well. The president doesn’t have to say something every single day but some footage of him… that would also I think go a long way and is important from a transparency perspective as well,” he said.  

The president’s COVID-19 case also hampers his plans for domestic travel. The White House announced all travel has been canceled for at least the next five days.  

Biden was slated on Thursday to go to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., for a speech on crime, policing and gun violence and then participate in a fundraising reception for the Democratic National Committee in Philadelphia. He was expected to visit the battleground state of Florida on Monday for a Black law enforcement event. 

While he’s stuck in Washington working in isolation, some Democrats say the public ultimately won’t be paying attention to the details of Biden’s illness.  

“I think it’s something that everyone in D.C. is going to get torqued up about that will be over in a week and no normal people will care about,” said Democratic strategist Eddie Vale. “Especially since they’re already being 100 percent more transparent than when Trump had to be hauled to the hospital.”  

Doug Jones, a former senator and Biden ally, voiced confidence the White House would be transparent about Biden’s health, pointing to forthcoming disclosures about cases among members of the Cabinet and high-level staff.  

“They have been forthcoming in that and I think they will continue that with the president,” Jones said. “This was likely inevitable for him as well as everybody.”  

Morgan Chalfant and Brett Samuels contributed to this report.

Source: The Hill

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