Biden aides keep tight protective grip as allies say he still needs to prove his vigor

WASHINGTON — After his dismal debate performance, President Joe Biden set out to prove to voters and Democratic leaders alike that he’s not the befuddled politician they may have seen onstage that night.

He has given a few interviews, spoken at rallies and mixed with union members and Black churchgoers. On Thursday, he’ll hold a news conference, and Monday he is to be interviewed by NBC News’ Lester Holt.

Yet his grip on his party’s nomination remains precarious, even as the tide of lawmakers calling for him to step aside seems to have slackened for now. Many Democratic lawmakers, donors and strategists say he still hasn’t displayed the vigor Americans expect of a president. They’d like him to quit the race, an invitation Biden has refused.

“The campaign needs to accept that it [the debate] wasn’t just a blip, this is a real problem,” Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., said in an interview. “They also need to understand that we have to get him out and do more public-facing events that are unscripted. If he’s able to do that, that’s great, let him do it. If he’s not able to do that, then we really have to think about whether he’s the right person to move forward to keep Donald Trump out of the White House.”

Biden’s events in the two weeks since the debate underscore why doubts persist. Aides have drawn a cordon around him with the point of minimizing potential embarrassment. A controlling communications operation limits the more free-wheeling exchanges with the media that other presidents were more willing to accept.

At a surface level, Biden’s schedule seems to meet the test Democratic lawmakers have set for him.

“The president is out there,” Cedric Richmond, a co-chair of Biden’s campaign, said Tuesday in an interview with MSNBC. “He is addressing those concerns. He’s showing his vigor; he’s showing his determination. And we should support that and keep going forward.”

A closer look suggests that he’s still being protected in ways that could make his halting debate performance tougher to un-see. By trying to shield an aging president, his team may be reinforcing perceptions that he can’t function without intensive stage management.

Last week, Biden called in to two radio stations to take questions — the sort of step Democratic leaders thought would be important to show he can think on his feet.

Unbeknownst to listeners, Biden’s campaign had supplied the hosts with questions in advance.

“I’ve been doing this for decades, and I have never once fed a reporter questions to ask the principal,” said a veteran of Barack Obama’s administration.

Biden was at times incoherent, despite the built-in advantage of being able to anticipate the questions. Speaking to WURD radio in Philadelphia on July 3, he said: “By the way, I’m proud to be, as I said, the first vice president — first Black woman — to serve with a Black president …”

Amid the blowback over pre-approved questions, Biden’s campaign team said it won’t do that again.

Last Friday, Biden sat down for an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos. When it was over, Biden’s campaign team scrambled to render one answer at least somewhat more intelligible than it sounded at the time.

How, Stephanopoulos asked, would Biden feel if he were to lose to Trump? It sounded as though Biden said he wanted to do the “goodest” job he could. That non-word produced a torrent of social media mockery.

Initially, ABC News used the word “goodest” in the transcript it posted. The Biden campaign then contacted the network to object, saying Biden had actually said something else. ABC News excised the word and quoted Biden saying: “I’ll feel as long as I gave it my all and I did the good as job as I know I can do, that’s what this is about.”

Citing the updated transcript, Biden campaign aides contacted other news outlets, including NBC News, to ask that the word “goodest” be removed from coverage.

(A Biden campaign spokesperson said in response to a question about efforts to strike the word: “ABC made an error in their transcript and corrected it. We then flagged it for reporters.”)

A town hall-style event is another way presidents have typically sought to escape the insularity of the West Wing and hear from real voters, with the news media able to watch the exchanges. The last two Democratic presidents, Obama and Bill Clinton, held a slew of town hall events during their time in office.

After the debate, some lawmakers called upon Biden to hold a town hall so the nation could see him fielding unvetted questions in real time.

“He needs to do town halls and small roundtables with voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada, Arizona and Georgia and be as visible with voters as possible,” Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., told NBC News.

Since he squared off with Trump, Biden has yet to do a town hall event. The campaign spokesperson said: “Our events in Wisconsin and across Pennsylvania in the last week alone have allowed the president to speak directly, one on one, with dozens of voters.”

A town hall is a high-risk proposition, with the president unable to rely on a teleprompter or written notes.

Biden has availed himself of both those aids since the debate. He called into MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday and insisted he was in the race to stay. He didn’t appear on camera, so people couldn’t see him. But at one point, as he said he was “reading from a list of lies” from Trump, listeners could hear papers rustling in the background.

“They’re so afraid that his shortcomings will become manifest,” Mike McCurry, a White House press secretary under Bill Clinton, said of Biden’s team.

In their zeal to present Biden in the most favorable public light, his campaign has used aggressive measures that run counter to his avowed respect for the free press.

A New York Times reporter wrote on social media last month that, at a Las Vegas rally for Vice President Kamala Harris, a Biden campaign staffer interrupted interviews he was doing with voters once the comments turned critical of Biden.

Biden campaign staff members have at times insisted that at events, a staff member be present for reporter interviews with voters who are part of the crowd. Biden campaign staff members shadowed an NBC News reporter in Philadelphia in April as he interviewed volunteers attending the opening of a new office.

At a Biden campaign event this year in a battleground state, another NBC News reporter asked staff members whether the reporter could interview voters. The campaign offered up a Democratic consultant without disclosing that was the person’s role.

Asked about the incident, the Biden campaign said: “If that was someone’s experience it should not have been, and we’ve taken steps to ensure all staff understands our policy.”

McCurry said he doesn’t fault Biden’s advisers. With the caveat that he said he has no inside knowledge of what Biden aides have been telling the boss, McCurry added: “I feel so sorry for the folks around him, most of whom I know pretty well. I believe they have tried carefully to explain reality to him. … They’ve tried to present the truth to him, but in the end it’s up to Biden. He’s the guy who has to decide whether he’s up to this or not.”

Biden’s next big test comes Thursday, at the end of a three-day NATO summit meeting in Washington. He’ll take part in a news conference with reporters who’ve been probing whether he has a more serious physical condition than the White House has let on.

A news conference is even more of a high-wire act than a town hall, giving Biden a fresh chance to allay concerns about his sharpness. Some wonder whether it’s coming too late or whether impressions of Biden’s frailties have already hardened.

Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate and a delegate at the coming Democratic National Convention, said the White House has waited too long to counter the fallout from the debate. Biden has been too insulated from the public, she said, a dynamic that has worked to his disadvantage.

“They should have gotten on it right away, and they didn’t. I guess they thought it would go away and were surprised, I think, as I am, that it had legs,” she said of the debate.

“But it really did, and people are still talking about it two weeks later, and that’s unfortunate for a good president.”

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