WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden had no choice but to “grab the bull by the horns” after a special counsel raised fresh concerns about his mental acuity this week, according to public affairs and political communications experts.
At a last-minute news conference on Thursday evening, Biden strongly disputed claims by Special Counsel Robert Hur, who had been investigating the president over his handling of classified documents. Hur said in a report on Thursday that he would not recommend charges against Biden, but he delivered a damaging portrayal of the president after saying any jury would view him as “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”
Media outlets ran rampant with the description, and Republican rivals seized the opportunity to jab at Biden’s mental capacity. A spokesperson for Make America Great Again, the super PAC behind former President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, said Biden was “too senile to be president.”
The White House had “no choice” but to aggressively and immediately respond to Hur’s comments about Biden’s memory, says Alex Conant, founding partner at Washington, DC-based public affairs firm Firehouse Strategies.
“They couldn’t let that accusation go unanswered, even for a night,” says Conant, who also served as communications director for Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) 2016 presidential campaign. “You have to control your image or it’s going to be defined by other people.”
Ian Sams, White House spokesman for oversight and investigations, used X to respond to Hur’s report immediately after it was released, but getting in front of reporters and the cameras helped Biden “break through” and seize control of the narrative, says Michael Czin, MD at SKDK.
“In this media environment, a lot of the tools you have to respond, like putting out a press release or engaging on social media, just have limited effect,” says Czin, who has also served as a senior adviser to the White House counsel’s office. “You have to take the bull by the horns and address something sooner to shape the conversation.”
Conant echoes Czin’s point: “Anything less than a full-throated response from the president would only have made things worse.”
Biden was fiery during the briefing, especially when responding to the special counsel’s claim that he couldn’t recall when his son Beau died. Beau Biden, the former attorney general of Delaware, died in 2015 after a battle with cancer.
“I don’t need anyone, anyone, to remind me when he passed away,” Biden said. “How the hell dare he raise that … Frankly, when I was asked the question, I thought to myself, was it any of their damn business?”
Biden’s response has also drawn criticism in the media, with some saying he appeared too angry during the press conference. Conant says that Biden’s tone was appropriate, especially considering that he needed to show the American public he’s still fit to serve as president.
“He needs to show that he’s got fire in his belly,” Conant says. “If somebody calls you senile, the right response is to be pissed.”
However, there were significant problems with Biden’s response. During the news conference, Biden mistakenly referred to the president of Egypt as the “president of Mexico,” which some publications highlighted in their headlines.
Giving his national address so quickly may have exacerbated concerns over Biden’s age and memory, says Brian Walsh, former communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
“The situation was arguably made worse by his verbal missteps. It was probably bad timing in terms of doing it at night after a long day,” says Walsh, who now serves as a partner at Arlington-based public affairs agency Plus Communications, an Omnicom Group firm. “[They could] have done it first thing [on Friday] morning when perhaps he was a little fresher.”
The special counsel’s report and press conference comes as Biden is set to be the Democratic nominee in what is likely to be a bruising reelection campaign against Trump, and several polls have shown Biden trailing his predecessor.
Walsh says that by doing so little press throughout his term, Biden has put a bigger target on his back whenever he does step up to the podium.
The Biden Administration is caught between a rock and hard place, Walsh adds, stuck between needing to dispel the notion that Biden isn’t too old to perform his duties and in danger of worsening that narrative with another verbal gaffe.
Conant says that he expects Biden to do more public interviews over the next few months in attempts to combat the accusations about his age.
“It comes with risks, but if they don’t do it, voters are going to think he’s too old to be president,” he says. “You’re not going to put those concerns to rest with one press conference.”