SPECIAL REPORT | Joe Biden administration's biggest challenge will be keeping the White House gaffe-free
On the campaign trail in 2020 and even long before that, Joe Biden has been known and targeted for his public blunders to the extent that he dubbed himself a "gaffe-machine". An opinion piece in The Washington Post in 2019 corrected this, saying, "Joe Biden isn’t a gaffe machine. He’s the Lamborghini of gaffes". But it is the same Biden who said that "words matter". Ever since he was sworn in as President there seems to be a sudden shortage of the quintessential Bidenesque gaffes. The reason: the White House is making sure that Biden's speeches are "extremely disciplined and not going off script, even for a second", a longtime Biden ally told The Hill.
However, sticking to the script is not easy for Biden, who is prone to attempt a joke or remark during his public addresses and media interactions, often at his own expense. Despite genuine effort from his officials, the President on Monday, February 8, had a 'creepy' moment with an Arizona healthcare worker during a video conference event after he complimented her youthful appearance, saying she looks "like a freshman".
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When Biden assumed office on January 20, 2021, his team wanted to make a marked difference from the previous administration -- to hold regular interactions with the public and take questions from the Press unlike his predecessor Donald Trump who mostly stayed away from the media during the transition period. This was important, especially in the first few weeks of the Biden presidency as the administration sought to send a strong message regarding Covid-19 response. Taking charge of the pandemic meant Biden would be under constant media scrutiny, especially after major US networks started losing on their ratings in the absence of a mercurial President like Trump and his alienating rhetoric.
However, it should be noted that Biden's gaffe record regarding Covid-19 is not that great. The President once called the disease "Covid-9" and even referred to the coronavirus as "Luhan virus", besides getting the Covid-19 death toll wrong at least three times last year. There are even concerns if the President's slip-ups could jeopardize US foreign policy, especially after Biden mistook Iran for Iraq and confused Theresa May with Margaret Thatcher.
But people close to Biden have pointed out that the President's speeches are "gaffe-free and on message" ever since he took office, reports The Hill. On January 27, when Biden's dogs barked in the distance as he inked an executive order, he reportedly "ignored the commotion instead of offering up a thought or two". "The old Biden would have said something about his dogs or would have made a joke about it. And in some ways, I want to see that. I miss that," said a Biden ally.
Room for Bidenisms?
While the President may not be allowed to go off-script, he is not just parroting what's written on paper or the teleprompter. The Delaware politician still retains his unique style of speaking, which is conspicuous through his favorite phrases, popularly known as "Bidenisms", explains NYT's Katie Glueck. Well, what's an authentic Biden speech without a pinch of Bidenism. Most popular Bidenisms include "anyway", “not a joke”, “literally”, “I’m serious” and “that’s not hyperbole”.
On February 5, Biden cautioned about the appalling growth rate of jobs in America and to underscore the importance of his statement he ended it with one of his most used Bidenisms: "We’re going to be talking about the recovery package, but we saw the jobs report that only 6,000 private-sector jobs have been created. And at that rate, it’s going to take 10 years before we get to full employment. That’s not — that’s not hyperbole; that’s a fact," said the President.
On January 26, speaking about the fight to contain the Covid-19, Biden used the same phrase, once again to emphasize the importance of the situation. "I think it’s four hundred eleven or twelve [thousand] have died in one year of this pandemic — more than all the people who died in all of — Americans who died in World War Two. This is a wartime undertaking; it’s not hyperbole."
When he needs to connect with the crowd, Biden uses phrases like "folks" and "here's the deal", which Glueck says can be traced back to his days as Delaware senator. On January 26, after signing of the Executive Order on Racial Equity, the President said, "Because here’s the deal, and I’ll close with this: I ran for President because I believe we’re in a battle for the soul of this nation."
Jens Psaki and a transparent briefing room
The President's gaffes aside, it would be equally important for the administration to keep top Biden officials from courting controversies, especially in the initial months of the administration, where they have a small window to set their agenda, reports The Hill. The Biden administration has promised to bring “trust and transparency back to the briefing room” by reverting to Bush and Obama-era norms.
According to The Guardian, Biden's White House is a set where everyone sticks to the script, which is "disorientingly civil, fact-based and unnewsy" as opposed to Trump’s "theatre of anarchic improvisation" and "tirade against fake news media". Biden's press secretary Jen Psaki is seeking to embrace normalcy, but like Biden, she is under close scrutiny from White House correspondents who are looking for weaknesses.
But Psaki has her tactics to deal with loud reporters and avoid headline-generating gaffes. “I have a little secret thing I do – maybe not secret because I’m telling all of you. But when reporters are getting really loud, or they’re starting to ask crazy questions, I just slow down my pace, and I talk very quietly, and I treat them like I’m an orderly sometimes in an insane asylum,” she told NPR's humorous 'Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!' program in January.
Fox News' Peter Doocy and his awkward questions
While Biden and his team struggle to stick to the script, Fox News' White House correspondent Peter Doocy makes sure that he annoys top officials by veering them off course with his awkward questions. Towards the end of a press briefing on January 25, when the White House tried to end the press meet, Biden opted to take one last question from Doocy. “He always asks the tough questions. I know he has an edge to him,” the President reportedly said.
The next day, the President had another exchange with Doocy which did not turn out as expected. Doocy asked Biden, "Mr President, what did you talk to Vladimir Putin about?" and the US President jokingly responded, “You. He sends his best.” Though off-script, Biden's hilarious reply left the room full of journalists in splits and later went viral on the internet as the video clip surfaced.
Doocy didn't spare Psaki either. He asked the press secretary why the Biden family went maskless at inauguration festivities, despite the President advocating the importance of masks and an executive order requiring masks on federal property. However, Psaki dodged the question, saying “I think we have bigger issues to worry about at this moment in time."
Making a first impression
According to Tony Fratto, who served as principal deputy press secretary in George W Bush’s administration, Team Biden's stick-to-the-script strategy is something that most presidents have done in the early days of their presidencies. "I think they’ve got a whole range of things they’re trying to do at once and they’re being disciplined on their messaging. This is the only time in the presidency that you can run your playbook because after a while outside events are going to start to infringe on your plans," The Hill quoted Fratto as saying.
"It’s like a football team coming out for their first series: They’ve got their first 15 plays that they’re going to run. After that, we’re going to have to see how they perform on the fly,” he added.