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President Biden’s decision to burst out of the gate in 2022 with something he spent most of 2021 running from — a press conference — suggests the White House is attempting to learn from the mistakes made in its first year with a shiny new approach to running the country.
Wednesday afternoon’s East Room press conference is emblematic of a White House attempting to reconstruct itself into a less-cloistered outfit that embraces the public.
And so, at the podium Wednesday, the press and the nation will behold Biden 2.0.
The need for a new edition of the president is unmistakable: Biden is strikingly unpopular. A Quinnipiac poll released last week shocked Democrats and Republicans alike with a finding that only 33% of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing, compared to 53% who do not. The poll is an outlier, but others aren’t too much better.
The president is often criticized as being out of touch and divorced from the problems of voters. For example, inflation, which according to a FOX Business poll conducted last month is easily the biggest economic problem voters say they face.
Until recently, the White House did not seem to be taking inflation very seriously. Just three months ago, Biden’s chief of staff retweeted a tweet calling inflation a “high class” problem. Meantime, the White House has sought to emphasize that the economy is growing and that various other economic data look great.
But Americans can’t see GDP growth. They can’t see an unemployment rate and might not be too worried about one unless they are out of a job. But as they stroll the supermarket aisles and cruise past the local Exxon, they can sure see the rising prices, and they feel them achingly when they run their credit cards.
Worse for Biden, 47% of voters think he is making inflation worse, along with 28% who say he’s not making a difference, according to the FOX Business poll. Only 22% thought Biden’s policies are helping with inflation.
Voters specifically believe Biden’s signature Build Back Better social spending plan, which flamed out in December, would make prices go up more. And while the spending plan is generally popular, it’s hardly the top thing on people’s presidential to-do list.
So Biden 2.0 is not talking much about reviving BBB. And last week, when inflation for December came in at 7%, the highest number in 40 years, Biden released a statement devoid of charges that evil corporate fat cats were jacking up prices, a line the White House has previously taken. Instead, Biden acknowledged the problem and said he was focused “every day” on creating sustainable growth while curbing inflation.
Now, the president is showing new attention to the daily needs of Americans frustrated that the CVS is out of COVID-19 tests and that the N95 masks that they hear are the best are expensive and hard to find. A website went up Tuesday promising four free tests per household. And as a bonus, Biden Wednesday will announce he’s handing out literally hundreds of millions of N95s.
And then there’s Wednesday’s trip to the bully pulpit.
Biden held but nine press conferences last year — three of which were with foreign leaders on hand — fewer than his recent predecessors. While the president takes questions on the fly, a press conference is a chance for Americans to get a good look at him, to experience his personality and perhaps gain a connection with him, and to hear him explain his policies in detail. It’s a chance for Americans and Biden to get reacquainted.
Meantime, down the West Wing hall in the vice president’s office, change is also afoot, with a brand-new communications team hired for Kamala Harris and a commitment to taking more questions from reporters. And amid mocking and criticism of her leadership role in combating illegal immigration, her office revealed Tuesday that she’d be jetting off to Honduras soon to rip out the “root causes” of illegal immigration.
But there’s a risk to sudden availability. There are reasons why Biden’s and Harris’ handlers limited their exposure. Harris can be hard to follow as her sentences zigzag down roads to nowhere. And Biden tends to introduce strange new words into the lexicon and freely commits gaffes. It could well be that for Biden and Harris, intimacy with America will only breed more contempt.
But with as few as a third of the country admiring the job the president is doing and Harris’ rating also in the dumps, it’s probably worth the risk.