The first time former Vice President Joe Biden spoke to national media reporters in nearly a week of campaigning was to address a political minicrisis of his own making.
On Wednesday evening, hours after Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) had admonished him for fondly recalling the collegiality of segregationist senators of the ’70s, the former vice president was asked if he would apologize.
“Apologize for what? Cory should apologize, he knows better,” Biden responded, standing outside an SUV on his way into a fundraiser. “There’s not a racist bone in my body, I’ve been involved with civil rights my whole career. Period. Period. Period.”
The moment marked a new level of aggression in a still-nascent Democratic primary. It also put the spotlight on what Democratic officials say is a risky and often confusing campaign blueprint being deployed by the party’s presidential frontrunner. Increasingly, Biden seems to speak publicly or talk with reporters only when he is under duress.
“It is not a tenable strategy,” said David Axelrod, who worked with Biden as the top communications adviser on the 2008 campaign, and in the Obama White House. “His message is that he’s the guy who can beat Donald Trump and he is viewed as the least risky choice. Over time, if the only interactions he has is around these screwups and gaffes, then he is going to start losing that message.”
Over the past few weeks, Biden has been forced to grapple with a number of minicontroversies and self-inflicted wounds. His nostalgia for former Sens. James O. Eastland (D-MS) and Herman E. Talmadge (D-GA) was preceded by a 24-hour flip-flop on a law banning federal funds from funding abortion (Biden went from supporting the Hyde amendment to opposing it). Those two instances came after Biden was criticized for not offering a full apology to Anita Hill and for humorously dismissing accusations that he made women uncomfortable by invading their space.
Virtually every candidate running for president has to clean up the messes he or she makes. That’s especially true for the frontrunners and those who, like Biden, have a proclivity for speaking with limited filters. But what makes Biden’s current approach so confusing for other Democrats is that much of his public-facing campaigning has involved doing only that.
Elsewhere, the former vice president has kept a notably low profile, taking little opportunity to push his larger campaign message or make proactive defenses of his political baggage.
Biden hasn’t appeared on national television since the day after he officially declared his run for president. Since then, the campaign has repeatedly declined invitations from television and cable news outlets. One network source told The Daily Beast that over the past several months, Biden has been offered a number of appearances on MSNBC, including telephone interviews. And a CNN insider said the network reached out to the former vice president in the months before he even launched his campaign, inquiring whether he would be interested in participating in upcoming town hall events.
In addition to missing many of the forums packed with 2020 Democratic prospects, Biden was the only 2020 Democratic presidential candidate to decline an interview by The New York Times as part of its package this week comparing the various candidates (and wouldn’t respond to questions when asked why he didn’t participate).
“I think that it is never a good idea to sit on a lead. That rarely works out well, and that's what they’re doing,” said Axelrod.
While in South Carolina this weekend, Biden worked the rope line well into the evening, mingling with press and voters, but his campaign has previously restricted press access, running the vice president’s press availabilities in a vastly different manner from the rest of the candidates. Biden’s campaign has at points sealed off the press at events, only allowing a single reporter to represent the campaign press pool at Biden fundraising events.
Occasionally, the Biden campaign has even seemed to forget or reverse course on planned media appearances. Earlier this month, the former vice president’s staff told campaign reporters that he was going to be holding a press gaggle following an event in New Hampshire. But reporters were left hanging when Biden left the event and got into a waiting SUV without taking questions.
For communications specialists, the reticence seems not just at odds with the realities of modern media, but also unwise, leaving the impression that Biden—who has a reputation for joviality—is almost afraid of the scrutiny.
“If you are only interacting with the press when there is an issue of concern, you reinforce that perception that there are only problems,” said longtime Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis, who runs Park Street Strategies. “You're in a turtle mode instead of being proactive about what you’re pushing out.”
Biden’s defenders argue that the reason that he appears to interact with the press during times of duress is largely because those episodes are over-emphasized by the media itself. They point to polling data showing his consistent lead in the primary as evidence that the national press corps has fundamentally different priorities than the Democratic electorate.
The campaign has created its media strategy around that theory as well. Instead of doing national interviews, they have focused the vast majority of their attention on smaller local news outlets in the early primary states. Since jumping into the race in April, Biden has sat down for at least a dozen interviews with local TV and radio stations in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Biden hasn’t been entirely closed off from national outlets. His campaign is the only one in the primary that allows a print pooler into his fundraising events. And on Thursday, senior Biden adviser Symone Sanders told CNN that the former VP would be sitting down for an interview this weekend. Sources told The Daily Beast that Biden would likely be one of several candidates sitting down with host Al Sharpton at an event for 2020 presidential contenders in South Carolina that MSNBC has exclusive rights to broadcast.
Nevertheless, Biden’s caution when dealing with the press has stood out in a field of candidates where many others seem willing to accept any media request or live-streaming opportunity. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) has been comfortable enough with campaign reporters to invite them on jogging outings, while South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is so willing to sit for interviews he took questions while drinking brown-bagged beer in a park in New York City.
Campaign veterans say it would be unwise for Biden to go to those extremes, and not just because of his history of saying things that cause him political headaches. According to their logic, the former VP is already well known to the public and instead of re-introducing himself to voters, he can afford to spend that time on other campaign functions.
The question now being asked of the Biden campaign is not just whether they took that theory too far but whether he could actually maneuver through the current media landscape if he tried.
“You are not in the Hyde amendment era in the Democratic Party, and you are not in the James O. Eastland era of the party,” said James Carville, a longtime Democratic operative. “How can you have the give and take [with the press] when your instinct is to get on the wrong side of two great issues of the modern Democratic Party, and that’s abortion and racial relations? The world has changed.”