Over the past week, Joe Biden conducted a retaliatory strike against Iranian militants, stomped his way to a victory in the South Carolina Democratic primary, and saw a massive beat of expectations on a monthly jobs report.
It was a consequential several days, made all the more striking by the fact that Biden wasn’t physically around for much of it.
The president has kept a distance from the action, not addressing the nation on the strikes, not staying in South Carolina for his win and declining to participate in the semi-traditional Super Bowl interview this coming Sunday.
The low key approach is one the White House has adopted before, at times worrying some in his party who say it’s critical that he seize any opportunity to counter criticism that he’s too old or disengaged for the job.
“He’s got to make his case,” said Will Marshall, president of the Democratic think tank Progressive Policy Institute. “There are opportunities to take the offensive on the economy and even now on immigration.”
But the administration insists it is by design and that the concerns miss not just how much he interacts with the public but the nuances of the job. That’s especially true, they note, with respect to the airstrikes launched in response to the deaths of three American soldiers.
Since those strikes began four days ago, Biden has declined to directly address the nation about his administration’s offensive in the Middle East. He’s been driven by concerns that delivering a major speech could escalate tensions with Iran and spark a larger regional conflict, according to three senior administration officials granted anonymity to speak publicly about internal deliberations.
Senior officials worried an Oval Office-style speech would signal the U.S. is at war, said one of the three senior administration officials. And as Biden grapples with a range of foreign policy challenges, the White House has been eager to emphasize that there’s no appetite for confrontation with Tehran.
Instead, Biden issued a written statement, in which he warned of further action. There is currently no intention for him to address the nation even as the strikes continue.
The perception of the modern presidency is one in which the man behind the resolute desk actively seeks to use the bully pulpit to shape the public’s opinion. Biden has used his office for that purpose, but hardly to the same degree as his predecessors. His team often works around mainstream news outlets and has limited the press conferences Biden holds, preferring shorter and more informal press gaggles. The president himself keeps a relatively light public schedule and he has often preferred private deliberations compared to outside pressure when it comes to negotiations over legislation.
“Different presidents handle it differently. Part of this remains the ongoing reaction to former President Trump, who was out front all the time — Biden is trying to do the opposite and focus on governing quietly,” said Julian Zelizer, presidential historian at Princeton University.
“The danger is the perception is less ‘here is the person who is governing and being cautious,’ but rather ‘here is a person who is not in control,’” said Zelizer.
Biden’s political opponents have seized on his silence. Former President Donald Trump, Biden’s likely general election foe, suggested in a radio interview Monday that the incumbent’s decision to skip the Super Bowl interview was because he couldn’t answer basic questions.
But Biden officials have dismissed any second-guessing about their communications strategy, arguing they’re focused on efforts that most efficiently reach voters — even if it doesn’t fit the mold of past presidential campaigns. Biden spent much of the last week on the road campaigning in key states, including Michigan and Nevada. Aides note he’s spent more outside Washington over the last year than each of the two prior presidents.
“President Biden is crisscrossing the country at a rate that often exceeds his predecessors’ travel schedules, talking to the American people about their lives and the issues that matter most to them,” deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said, calling the approach an “aggressive, modern, all-of-the-above communities and digital strategy.”
Biden made several appearances in South Carolina in the lead-up to its primary Saturday, including delivering remarks two weeks ago at a historic Black church. Rather than plan a campaign swing for the weekend, Biden’s aides lined up a series of radio interviews on stations with large Black audiences in the state ahead of the vote.
When Biden won the primary, after having pushed to make South Carolina the first state on the calendar, he wasn’t there to celebrate. Instead, he called his ally, Rep. James Clyburn, who put him on speakerphone for the victory party attendees to hear.
As for the Super Bowl interview, officials and allies said the opportunity simply doesn’t carry the same cachet it once did. Viewers don’t want politicians interrupting their game day, aides argued, and what was once a light-hearted opportunity to humanize the president is now indistinguishable from most other network sitdowns. CBS had offered a 15-minute interview, with plans to air three to four minutes of their choosing during the Super Bowl coverage, an official said.
“When there was more unity in the country and things were less divided, it could be a fun casual moment,” said Jennifer Palmieri, the Obama White House’s former communications director. “That ended with Bill O’Reilly and Barack Obama, and that was more than 10 years ago.”
For a president who is struggling in the polls, this may seem like a missed opportunity. But Biden’s aides say their focus is generating the kind of local media coverage, in-person encounters and viral moments that play to Biden’s strengths without turning off voters soon to be exhausted by months of exposure to the presidential race.
That means that, for now, less is more — even outside of the campaign.
While Senate lawmakers wrangled Monday over the fate of a high-stakes border deal, Biden offered little personal insight into how he planned to help pass a bill that the White House said in a statement was critical.
The extent of his public push for the legislation— upon which he has placed the fate of funding for Ukraine and Israel — came in a series of stops in Nevada on Monday, one of which was a store selling bubble tea. Biden spent the last two days in Las Vegas, where he held a campaign rally and met with local union workers.
Biden expressed confidence in a brief exchange with reporters that it would eventually pass the Senate. But with Republicans consumed by infighting over the merits of the bipartisan deal, the president appeared content to once again steer clear of the fray.
“The shit has splattered,” said one Democratic close to the immigration talks. “But he hasn’t gotten a lot on him.”
Alex Ward contributed to this report.
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