White House seeks to keep Biden gaffe-free

The White House is finding ways for President Biden to frequently speak to the public directly in his first week in office as it seeks to show the new president is taking charge of the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden’s remarks at two different events on Tuesday were the fifth and sixth time respectively Biden has spoken at a public event since his inauguration, with most of those appearances focusing primarily on the pandemic.

Biden has also taken questions from reporters at three events, a shift from the last months of the Trump administration when the former president largely cut himself off from the press and the public apart from a stream of tweets.

“They knew they had to come in and almost flood the zone,” said one longtime Biden ally. “That means having the president out there constantly talking to the American people. But it also means being extremely disciplined. And not going off script, even for a second.” 

Not going off script is the tougher part for Biden, who has been known to slip an aside or some commentary in photo ops and interviews.  

But allies also have noticed a marked change in his appearances: they’ve been gaffe-free and on message. On Monday, for example, when his dogs barked in the distance following his signing of an executive order, allies couldn’t help but notice that he 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,” said one Democrat close to the White House. “And in some ways, I want to see that. I miss that.” 

On Tuesday, Biden did make a crack when something in the White House State Dining Room appeared to come crashing down, interrupting his remarks on the pandemic in the White House State Dining Room. 

"I didn't do it. I promise," he said with a smile before returning to his teleprompter. 

Still, the Democrat also said Biden’s aides, as they did in the general election and during the transition, know there is a little room for error, and have kept him in very controlled settings for the most part. 

But the Democrat also said Biden’s aides, as they did in the general election and during the transition, know there is a little room for error, and have kept him in very controlled settings for the most part.

“I do think they’ll keep him tight until they all find their footing,” the Democrat said. 

Former White House aides say Biden’s strategy is on par traditionally with what presidents have done in the early days of their presidencies. 

Tony Fratto, who served as principal deputy press secretary in George W. Bush’s White House, said Biden and his advisers know they have a small window to set their agenda. 

“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,” Fratto said. “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. 

“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.”

Biden did show some frustration, growing irritated after a reporter questioned whether the administration's 100 million vaccine doses in 100 days goal was too small. 

“When I announced it, you all said it was not possible,” Biden snapped at the reporter. C’mon, gimme a break man.”

“It’s a good start, 100 million,” he said, before walking away from reporters. 

Biden held his first extended Q&A with reporters since taking office on Monday, but the setting was still fairly controlled. 

After delivering scripted remarks on a “Buy American” executive order, an aide in the room called out reporters by name to come to the microphone to ask the president their question. Biden took five questions on a range of topics, including the poisoning of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, the coronavirus pandemic and his interpretation of “unity.”

As aides attempted to cut off questions, Biden called on Fox News correspondent Peter Doocy, quipping that “he always asks me tough questions, and he always has an edge to them.” 

Doocey seized on remarks last week in which Biden said “there's nothing we can do to change the pandemic” in the coming months, pointing to his pledge on the campaign trail to crush the virus. 

Biden stood by his promise, but acknowledged it wouldn't happen in two months. With that, he walked off the stage as other reporters in the room continued shouting questions.

Biden’s first organized press conference did force his aides to do some cleanup, particularly after he expressed optimism that any American who wants a vaccination could get one by spring and that he hoped to see the country vaccinating 1.5 million people per day in the coming weeks.

“The president didn't actually say ‘the new goal is,’ the president said ‘I hope we can do even more than that.’ And that is certainly of course his hope,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Tuesday who pressed her on the administration's timetable.

On Tuesday, Biden again exchanged pleasantries with Doocy, in what is becoming a regular fixture of his interactions with the press.

“What did you talk to Vladimir Putin about?” the Fox News reporter asked after Biden signed executive actions aimed at addressing racial equity.

“You,” Biden jokingly replied. “He sent his best.”

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