For Presidents, Unpopularity Is a Simple PR Problem. Biden Is No Exception
When the United States in 1982 was mired in the worst recession since the end of World War II, supporters of President Ronald Reagan were sure that they had the answer: just let Reagan be Reagan. Conservative friends of mine wore “Let Reagan Be Reagan” buttons to show that the problem at hand wasn’t the fact that the economy, fueled by massive inflation, was in the middle of a much-needed and inevitable correction. No, it was a PR problem.
President Reagan, you see, was being shackled by an image-conscious White House staff that was afraid to let Americans see the real Reagan, a take-charge man who had answers for the suffering economy but was being unnecessarily held back by spineless PR men. In the end, however, the “real Reagan” never was unleashed, but his presidency was saved by a recovery fueled in part by major deregulation initiatives that had come from Reagan’s predecessor, Jimmy Carter.
Indeed, Carter’s presidency had its own meltdown in 1979, which the president and his handlers insisted was due to an unwarranted “crisis of confidence” from Americans, who apparently could not comprehend the brilliance of the Carter White House. While no one implored the White House to “let Carter be Carter” (which, in hindsight, was a blessing), the theme was another verse in the same song that the political classes lay upon Americans: you just don’t know how great your president really is.
We fast-forward to the presidency of Joe Biden, which is mired in high inflation, a massive increase in oil and gas prices, and is consuming much of its political capital on insisting that Americans either embrace every new iteration of the Sexual Revolution or face serious occupational and personal consequences. But none of this is Biden’s fault, according to the White House inner circles. No, the fault is in those White House handlers who refuse to proclaim the Mighty Works of Joe Biden.
A recent Politico portrait of a frustrated Biden shows a president and his trusted advisors seething at poll numbers that show lower approval ratings than Donald Trump's, whose governing style would guarantee him low ratings no matter what he did:
In crisis after crisis, the White House has found itself either limited or helpless in its efforts to combat the forces pummeling them. Morale inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is plummeting amid growing fears that the parallels to Jimmy Carter, another first-term Democrat plagued by soaring prices and a foreign policy morass, will stick.
Far from being a “hit piece,” the Politico portrayal of the Biden West Wing is of a strong leader being held back by a recalcitrant staff afraid that when unleashed in public, the president will say something really stupid, committing one or two of those gaffes for which he is famous:
Far more prone to salty language behind the scenes than popularly known, Biden also recently erupted over being kept out of the loop about the direness of the baby formula shortage that has gripped parts of the country, according to a White House staffer and a Democrat with knowledge of the conversation. He voiced his frustration in a series of phone calls to allies, his complaints triggered by heart-wrenching cable news coverage of young mothers crying in fear that they could not feed their children.
Biden didn’t want to be painted as slow to act on a problem affecting the working-class people with whom he closely identifies. Therefore, when aides convened a meeting with formula company executives, the president—against the advice of staffers—publicly declared it took weeks before details of the shortage had reached him, even though the whistleblower complaint that led to the shutdown of a major production facility was issued months ago. Some aides feared the moment made Biden look out of touch, especially after the CEOs in the very same meeting made clear that warnings of the shortage were known for some time.
In other words, Biden the Compassionate One, the take-charge guy who airlifted tons of baby formula from Switzerland actually knew from day one of the crisis that his own government had shut down a major production facility because of what turned out to be baseless claims that capitalism was poisoning American babies. Nonetheless, the White House and the mainstream media actively pushed the take-charge Biden as the real Joe, the lunch-bucket guy who gets things done.
Indeed, for many years, the media—egged on by the Biden PR machine—has portrayed Biden as the “working-class” guy, the descendent of coal miners, a man who could identify with his own: American laborers. However, as Biden himself admitted (I suppose one would call it a gaffe), the image he presented is bogus:
My dad never worked in a Food Fair. My dad never wore a blue collar. Barack (Obama) makes me sound like I just climbed out of a mine in Scranton, Pennsylvania, carrying a lunch bucket. No one in my family worked in a factory.
Perhaps the most telling moment in this farce is Biden’s upcoming hat-in-hand meeting with the Saudi crown prince to beg his country to produce more crude oil, the same man Biden has publicly excoriated for his alleged role in the abduction and torture murder of a journalist. The irony could not be greater. From day one of his presidency, Biden has made it clear that he seeks to reduce the role of the oil and gas industry in this country and ultimately put these energy producers out of business. His public embrace of the Green New Deal, which is nothing more than a slogan-filled scheme to impose massive central planning on the US economy, has put him on track to impoverish millions of Americans, forcing up fuel prices and giving Americans nothing in return.
By putting the oil and gas industry on notice that its production days are numbered, Biden has reduced capital in those industries to near-zero in some instances. He has not pulled back on his antifuel rhetoric, and his policies of ending all drilling rights on federally owned land send a clear signal to the oil and gas companies: we want you out of business. Like it or not, there are consequences for such actions, and higher fuel prices are one of them. Elsewhere, he praised the high prices for gasoline, claiming they would help in the transition to an all-electric economy, despite the hard fact that the technical and economic reality contradicts his happy Green New Deal rhetoric. Thus, Biden will humble himself to beg the Saudi crown prince to do what he condemns in the USA: produce more oil.
None of that seems to matter to Biden’s inner circle, who think that all that is needed is for Biden to hit the campaign trail and claim that his policies have reduced the damage caused by Vladimir Putin and the Republicans and Democrat Joe Manchin, who refused to pass Biden's Build Back Better legislation:
Members of Biden’s inner circle, including first lady Jill Biden and the president’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens, have complained that West Wing staff has managed Biden with kid gloves, not putting him on the road more or allowing him to flash more of his genuine, relatable, albeit gaffe-prone self. One person close to the president pushed for more “let Biden be Biden” moments, with the president himself complaining he does not get to interact enough with voters. The White House has pointed to both security and Covid concerns in restricting the travel of the 79-year-old president.
No doubt despite the fact that the economy is sinking into a morass of inflation, high fuel prices, and major shortages, all that is needed is for the president to unleash campaign rhetoric and throw the blame to Putin, Donald Trump, Republicans, Manchin, Emmanuel Goldstein, and anyone else. That will solve everything. Just ask Biden.