Unscripted remarks start to haunt President Biden
President Biden has been more freewheeling with his remarks in the last few weeks, leading to slip-ups the White House has had to clean up.
The most recent example came Friday, when Biden accused Facebook of “killing people” because of the misinformation spread on the social media network about coronavirus vaccines.
It was a striking statement that triggered a furious response from Facebook. And on Monday, it became clear Biden had gone further and been more biting than he intended.
Less than three days after his initial remarks, the president reversed course, saying Facebook “isn’t killing people.”
“My hope is that Facebook, instead of taking it personally — that somehow I’m saying Facebook is killing people — that they would do something about the misinformation, the outrageous information about the vaccine. That’s what I meant.”
Biden’s walk-back of his original comments was the second time in recent weeks he’s been forced to backtrack from public comments that have caused a stir.
It’s caused some consternation among people close to the White House and raised memories of past Biden gaffes.
“A little bit cringeworthy, not going to lie,” said one major Democratic donor, who referenced former President Trump to underline the discomfort. “I think these sorts of things can be said more artfully and less Trumpy.”
In the early months of the administration, Biden was scripted in his remarks, rarely straying from prepared comments and talking points. But the president has made a habit of indulging reporters’ questions after events at the White House, leading to more unscripted, unguarded moments in exchanges with the press.
Those back-and-forths have led to the unforced errors that required clarifications from Biden or White House officials.
During an overseas trip in early June, Biden held a press conference at NATO headquarters where he called on a predetermined list of reporters. When he took a question from an additional journalist in the room, he joked that he was “going to get in trouble with my staff.”
Days later in Switzerland, Biden again went beyond the initial list of reporters and took a question from CNN’s Kaitlan Collins. The exchange over why Biden was confident Russian President Vladimir Putin would change his behavior grew so testy that the president later apologized for “being such a wiseguy.”
In mid-June, Biden created a headache for the White House after he told reporters he wouldn’t sign a bipartisan infrastructure deal unless a reconciliation bill filled with Democratic priorities was passed too. The off-script comments threw a bipartisan deal into question hours after it had been clinched, and Biden and White House officials spent the following days denying the president was making a veto threat.
On Friday, as he walked to Marine One for a weekend at Camp David, Biden made the “killing people” remarks about Facebook.
Political observers say it’s clear the White House knew Biden’s comments on Facebook were over the top.
“It was a bridge too far,” said Tobe Berkovitz, an associate professor of advertising and communication emeritus at Boston University and a former media consultant. “Sometimes you say something that is so silly, inaccurate, and ill-conceived that you have to walk it back. I’m sure the White House thought ‘Let’s take our lumps on this one and move on.’ ”
Berkovitz called the Facebook flub “pure Uncle Joe,” adding, “You can only keep the leash so tight.”
“He’s always ad-libbed. He’s never been particularly good at it,” he said. “Now as president, it’s just higher stakes.”
“If it was up to the White House, less is more,” he added.
Still, there are those who think the straight talk from Biden also has its positives.
One Democratic strategist acknowledged that while the remarks could have been put more delicately — or more on message — voters like the real talk coming from Biden.
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing,” the strategist said. “It’s what distinguishes him from the others. This is who Joe Biden is.”
But the strategist said the off-the-cuff remarks by Biden demonstrated a loosening of the guard.
“This has been the most disciplined White House operation I’ve seen in a long time, and I think that’s starting to break a bit. This is what happens when the defense shield drops.”
Since taking office, Biden has only held one formal solo press conference at the White House, but he held two while in Europe and has held three others during visits from foreign leaders.
White House officials frequently point to Biden’s willingness to take questions after scripted events — sometimes against their wishes — as evidence of his transparency and communication with the public.
“A lot of times we say, ‘Don’t take questions,’ ” Psaki told David Axelrod, who served as a strategist to former President Obama, on his podcast in May. “He’s going to do what he wants to do, because he’s the president of the United States.”
Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.