The White House has been plagued in recent weeks with negative reports about President Biden’s press office coinciding with a series of messaging gaffes, and mainstream news organizations typically friendly to Biden have taken notice.
“It has been most interesting to see the establishment media try to adjust its coverage of the Biden administration. Mainstream media helped run cover for Biden in the 2020 campaign and for the early months of his administration,” DePauw University journalism professor Jeffrey McCall told Fox News Digital.
“But the media narrative that Biden was a unifier and that any national problems were just Trump leftovers just had to disintegrate in the face of cold reality,” McCall said. “Even the left-of-center media have had to grudgingly acknowledge that the Biden administration is struggling.”
McCall believes media credibility is “already quite dismal” and continued promotion of Biden has become unworkable when public opinion polling indicates that Americans see the administration’s problems.
“In a sense, the mainstream media is just now figuring out what the public has known for months,” he said.
New White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has frequently stumbled since taking over the podium last month when Jen Psaki left the administration. When grilled about a questionable claim made by the president during a speech to graduating Navy midshipmen last month, Jean-Pierre claimed she “did not hear” the part of the speech and declined to defend Biden’s claim that he was appointed to the academy in 1965, the same year he graduated from the University of Delaware.
“I can’t speak to it right now,” Jean-Pierre said.
Jean-Pierre has also developed a reputation for reading scripted answers from her notebook that conflict with Biden’s statements. Many reporters have already grown frustrated with Jean-Pierre, and NBC News reporter Kelly O’Donnell essentially told the press secretary how to do her job during a heated exchange last week on who briefed Biden on the baby formula crisis.
“To say there is no specific person is not a satisfactory answer. When you have senior assistants to the president, there’s a paper trail, I’m sure, about briefings to the president. There is a domestic policy council. There’s a chief of staff. At some point we need to know who would have been the most likely person to talk to him,” O’Donnell said.
Jean-Pierre continued to dodge the question and the NBC News reporter fired back, “It just looks like it’s evasive” to not have senior White House aides come forward and admit they briefed the president on the baby formula shortage.
“We’re also trying to understand the information flow in this White House, and it’s important for us to get that answer, which is where we’re going to keep asking it until we get that answer,” O’Donnell said.
Jean-Pierre declined to identify anyone who discussed the issue with Biden despite the plea from O’Donnell. But O’Donnell isn’t the only reporter to appear annoyed by the new press secretary in her short time on the job, as Washington Post reporter Tyler Pager and CBS News’ Ed O’Keefe have had similar exchanges with Jean-Pierre in recent memory.
Others who feel Jean-Pierre is off to a rocky start have pointed to an exchange she had last month with Fox News’ Peter Doocy about a tweet Biden made suggesting higher taxes on wealthy corporations is the answer to combat inflation.
McCall admits “trying to put a happy face on so many administration problems” is a difficult task for Jean-Pierre, but she’s “coming off as overmatched while trying to rationalize policy failures.”
“Saying ‘I did not see that part of the speech’ or ‘I can’t speak to that’ just won’t cut it in front of a press corps that might finally be awakening to its responsibility to thoroughly scrutinize the Biden White House,” McCall said.
The Biden administration is beginning to brace for a potentially brutal midterm election cycle as Republicans are expected to retake the House and potentially the Senate, but messaging from the White House has been widely criticized in recent weeks. Biden’s staffers have attempted to blame soaring inflation and gas prices on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, pushing a “Putin’s Price Hike” narrative despite how both were becoming issues for the Biden administration months before the global conflict.
Biden also recently unveiled a new insult for Republicans, referring to them as “ultra-MAGA,” an alteration to former President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. The slogan wasn’t particularly popular among Democrats, and some Republicans have embraced the moniker – particularly when Biden referred to Trump as “The Great MAGA King.”
“The Five” co-hosts Greg Gutfeld and Jesse Watters took turns roasting Biden for the botched messaging.
“You can’t burn someone with ‘king’ in the nickname,” Watters said. “It’s like calling me King Fox. OK, I’ll take it.”
“Biden has such difficulty communicating that even his nicknames, his smears, are ineffective,” co-host Geraldo Rivera added.
Meanwhile, the White House initially claimed the new moniker was created by the president, but the Washington Post since revealed it was the result of a six-month liberal-funded focus group project.
Biden was hit with a plethora of damning reports last week alone that shed light on turmoil erupting in the White House, followed by a Politico piece Sunday night about White House fears that Jimmy Carter comparisons to Biden will “stick.”
McCall finds it “interesting” that some recent media reports regarding the problems in the Biden administration focus on Biden’s concern for messaging, “as though poor policy decisions can be covered up with rhetorical misdirection and sleight of hand.”
“Some of the media apologists also try to point out that Biden’s problems are because of factors beyond the president’s control. That, of course, is true to some extent, but the president is not just a victim of circumstances and shouldn’t be portrayed as a helpless figurehead. It would seem that such a portrayal as Biden as a victim of circumstance would weaken him even more in the public sphere,” McCall said.
NBC News kicked off the negative stories early Tuesday morning following the long Memorial Day weekend with a report headlined, “Inside a Biden White House adrift,” telling readers, “Amid a rolling series of calamities and sinking approval ratings, the president’s feeling lately is that he just can’t catch a break — and that angst is rippling through his party.”
NBC News began its report by noting that Biden has pressed aides to do a better job with messaging.
“Faced with a worsening political predicament, President Joe Biden is pressing aides for a more compelling message and a sharper strategy while bristling at how they’ve tried to stifle the plain-speaking persona that has long been one of his most potent assets,” NBC News wrote. “Biden is rattled by his sinking approval ratings and is looking to regain voters’ confidence that he can provide the sure-handed leadership he promised during the campaign, people close to the president say.”
The report lists the crises that have “piled up” to make “the Biden White House look flat-footed” from soaring inflation, high gas prices, a spike in COVID cases, to the mass shootings that have taken place in recent weeks, writing how “Democratic leaders are at a loss about how he can revive his prospects by November” as Republicans are expected to ride a red wave in the midterm elections. NBC News even suggested a potential White House shakeup may occur as rumors of Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain may leave the administration after the midterms and Biden adviser Anita Dunn may rise as his successor.
CNN’s Jake Tapper also used the “flat-footed” term on Sunday while questioning Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo about looking caught off-guard by the inflation and formula crises.
“We’re talking about two critical issues here that directly affect the American people where they live. Where the Biden administration looks like it was caught flat-footed – inflation and baby formula, not to mention the record gas prices, which were hurt by the war in Ukraine, no doubt, but that’s not the only reason why they’re so high,” Tapper said on “State of the Union.”
The Politico piece on Sunday also painted Biden as frustrated and the West Wing as beset by internal finger-pointing over his poor polling numbers.
Hours after NBC News’ report was published, the Washington Post published a piece headlined, “White House scrambles on inflation after Biden complains to aides,” that claimed Biden “fumes privately that [the] administration isn’t doing enough to show concern on high prices.”
“The White House launched a new push Tuesday to contain the political damage caused by inflation after President Biden complained for weeks to aides that his administration was not doing enough to publicly explain the fastest price increases in roughly four decades,” the Post framed its report that appeared to largely give Biden a pass on inflation but admitted the president is “struggling to show that at least he understands that Americans are suffering and is doing what he can.”
Then on Thursday, CNN’s Edward-Isaac Dovere followed suit with a piece on “deeper dysfunction among White House aides.” The CNN report began by noting White House staffers monitor which media outlets cover the president, particularly which TV networks carry his speeches live, “realizing a number of times that the answer was none.” One anonymous aide told CNN, “You are thinking… why are we doing this?”
The report also pointed to a “dysfunction calcified among aides who largely started working together only through Zoom screens and still struggle to get in rhythm” at the White House.
“They’re still finding it hard to grasp how much their political standing has changed over the last year, and there’s a divide between most of the White House staff and the inner circle who have been around Biden for longer than most of the rest of that staff has been alive,” Dovere reported.
CNN alleged Biden is “still trying to calibrate himself to the office” despite being president for over 16 months as he “can’t see a way to address” crises “while also being the looser, happier, more sympathetic, lovingly Onion-parody inspiring, aviator-wearing, vanilla chip cone-licking guy — an image that was the core of why he got elected in the first place.”
One aide told CNN’s reporter, “[Biden] has to speak to very serious things… and you can’t do that getting ice cream.”
Dovere then swiped at Biden and his team by writing, “The President is a 79-year-old man who still thinks in terms of newspaper front pages and primetime TV programs, surrounded by not-quite-as-senior aides in senior positions with the same late 1990s media diet. Lifelong habits don’t tend to fade when people get to their desks in the West Wing.”
CNN’s Brian Stelter led his newsletter on Thursday with a breakdown of Dovere’s piece. Stelter also noted that Puck’s Tara Palmeri wrote “the knives are out for Chief of Staff Ron Klain,” prompting one long-time media industry watchdog to remark to Fox News Digital that “the anti-Klain attacks have gotten blatant.”
The problems coming out of the White House come as Pentagon spokesman John Kirby is set to join Biden’s communications team in a senior role as the National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications.
Fox News’ Joseph A. Wulfsohn and David Rutz contributed to this report.