President Joe Biden advised his former boss to take a "victory lap" after then-President Barack Obama signed a 2009 law aimed at resuscitating the country's economy amid the Great Recession.
But Biden's own sales tour touting his $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure spending bill has been muted by his lackluster stage presence, the House approving the measure when the electorate is distracted by the holiday season, and his limited media interviews, particularly with local press.
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The White House had hyped Biden's sales pitch, in part to appease Democrats concerned about public perception of the president and the party before next year's midterm elections. The plan was to include public and private events around the country paired with an extensive media strategy, such as local press appearances.
The White House has insisted the emergence of the omicron COVID-19 variant will not derail Biden's travel itinerary yet. But while he has visited Maryland, Michigan, and New Hampshire since the Nov. 6 passage of the infrastructure deal, he has only spoken to a Cincinnati TV station in Ohio in addition to a delayed bill signing ceremony and sporadic answers to mostly shouted reporter questions. Former President Donald Trump won Ohio by 8 percentage points last year.
"I would very much like that to happen," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters this week. "We are always competing with time on the schedule — I'm going to be honest. His schedule has been quite packed. But he would like to do it. We're working to get it on the schedule."
Local media is another way the White House can connect with voters when Biden's job approval numbers are low and his aides repeatedly find themselves at odds with more critical national outlets.
"In case you're wondering where the WH press corps' priorities are, during today's briefing, there were... Seven questions about the president's congestion. Zero questions about today's jobs data, which showed the unemployment rate plummeting to 4.2%," White House spokesman Michael Gwin tweeted Friday after Psaki was needled with multiple inquiries regarding Biden's health.
In case you're wondering where the WH press corps' priorities are, during today's briefing, there were...— Mike Gwin (@MGwin46) December 3, 2021
Seven questions about the President's congestion
*Zero* questions about today's jobs data, which showed the unemployment rate plummeting to 4.2%
The White House has tried to incorporate out-of-state local media during Friday press briefings, but technical problems have prevented some reporters from being heard. The Boston Globe and Dallas Morning News have permanent seats in the room, while local journalists also have the option of sitting in a rotating spot in the fifth row.
Obama-era press secretary Eric Schultz defended the White House, contending the team is cognizant of "how important their communications imperatives are right now."
"It’s clear to anyone paying attention that they are leaving no stone unturned," he told the Washington Examiner.
But Schultz, who still works for Obama, argued Biden's time "is just one tool in the arsenal." For example, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, 2020 primary rivals and speculated 2024 or 2028 contenders, traveled to North Carolina this week to promote the infrastructure framework.
"They are rightly deploying everything they’ve got — including Cabinet members, local travel, TV bookings, digital content, and online influencers — to reach as wide an audience as possible," he said.
Dispatching a range of Biden surrogates to discuss infrastructure rather than the president simultaneously saves the White House from having to spin any verbal missteps or mistakes.
Local media is crucial to White House communications, despite the industry's decline, according to political commentator Bertram Johnson.
"One of the most commonly cited sources of news among Americans is the local TV news," he said.
And Biden has been hindered by the breadth of his agenda, juggling the pandemic with negotiations over his $2.4 trillion partisan social welfare and climate package, as well as efforts to avoid a government shutdown and the country defaulting on its loans, according to Johnson.
"But with the infrastructure bill, I think the important point to remember is that people notice a policy most when it is implemented, not when it is debated in Congress," the Middlebury College politics professor said. "So as the money starts to get spent, the administration has an opportunity to take credit for it bit by bit."
Biden alluded to the same issue Friday during a speech addressing last month's softer-than-expected jobs report.
"Families are anxious," he said. "I want you to know I hear you. It's not enough to know that we're making progress. You need to see it and feel it in your own lives, around the kitchen table, and in your checkbooks."
Presidential historian and Rutgers University history, journalism, and media studies professor David Greenberg similarly underscored that it is an error to believe "selling" infrastructure matters more than tangible results.
"If they see broadband coming into their communities, bridges being repaired, and so on, that is what will help him," he said of Biden. "Or [if] the spending [is] stimulating the economy, that will help."
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"I don't think you ever see a case of presidents raising their poll numbers by going out on tour. A presidential tour can help build support for a bill before it passes, and it can't hurt to talk up the big legislative victory, but that has never been what determines a president's popularity," Greenberg added. "Biden needs to tame inflation while keeping job growth up, and that is what will help him in 2024."