Inside Biden’s protective White House

Attendees ask President Biden to take the shortest stairs to board Air Force One. When it comes to press conferences, they shout loudly (and quickly) to end questions, sometimes imitating a classic awards show tactic and putting loud music to signal the conclusion of the event. And forget about the usual interviews with major news publications, including a traditional presidential meeting on Super Bowl Sunday.

Over the years, some of Biden’s top aides have gone from letting “Joe be Joe” to wrapping him in a presidential cocoon intended to protect him from verbal slipups and physical stumbles.

All presidents are protected by the restrictions of the office, however, for Biden, who at 81 is the oldest person in history to hold the office, the decision is not just situational but strategic, according to several people familiar with the dynamics. . The cloistered nature of his White House reflects concerns among some of his top advisers that Biden, always gaffe-prone, is at risk of making a mistake.

Those risks were revealed in surprising ways during the events that unfolded this week.

After a special counsel’s report on Biden’s handling of classified documents was released Thursday, the president was furious at the way he was portrayed, calling the report a partisan and personal attack that included one of the most heartbreaking experiences of his life: the death of his son Beau.

His aides discussed options, including the possibility of waiting a day to respond. But in the end, the president decided to answer questions from journalists who gathered in a disorganized meeting, rather than a formal press conference.

The assistants tried to end the scrum several times. But Biden continued to speak and offered a spirited defense of his memory.

He also made mistakes. As he headed toward the door, the president turned to answer a question about the war in Gaza. He criticized Israel’s campaign against Hamas as an “exaggerated” operation that had caused human suffering in the besieged strip.

He described his work to urge other leaders in the region to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza. But then he confused Mexico and the Middle East by remembering the negotiations.

It wasn’t the only mistake.

At campaign events this week, he confused dead European leaders with their living counterparts, saying he had spoken with François Mitterrand, the former French president who died in 1996, and Helmut Kohl, the former German chancellor who died in 2017.

Amid criticism and concern about his words, some of those closest to Biden, including Jill Biden, the first lady, are worried that the presidency will affect him. A small number of advisers close to the first couple are scrupulously monitoring Biden’s agenda and analyzing the finer details, down to the details of the caravan route.

Biden has given fewer interviews and held fewer news conferences than any of his predecessors since President Ronald Reagan, prompting criticism that a president who promised “transparency and truth” at the start of his term has not done enough to explain his decisions to Americans, particularly in foreign policy.

Even the way Biden walks onto Air Force One is subject to careful management. The president began climbing a short flight of stairs directly into Air Force One, rather than a tall staircase with wheels to a higher point on the plane, after tripping and falling on a sandbag during a graduation ceremony on last summer. Now, there is a Secret Service agent positioned at the bottom of the stairs when he disembarks. (Biden’s immediate predecessor, Donald J. Trump, who is 77, often climbed the short stairs when the weather was bad.)

White House officials have not said when Biden will receive another physical. The last one was performed almost a year ago by Kevin C. O’Connor, the president’s longtime physician, who declared that his patient, then 80 years old, was “healthy” and “vigorous.”

Outside the White House, Biden’s allies worry about the optics of his physical appearance, which has become fodder for conservative attacks and online memes. And the issue is not just partisan; A recent survey conducted by NBC News shows that half of Democratic voters say they are concerned about Mr. Biden’s physical and mental health.

His gait is somewhat unsteady, a characteristic that several people close to the White House say is due in part to his refusal to wear an orthopedic boot. after suffering a small fracture on the foot before taking office.

Still, his advisers say Biden will continue to increase the number of appearances that allow him to interact directly with the public, including unscheduled visits to restaurants and stores.

The White House rejected concerns about the president’s mental acuity.

White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in an email that Biden “is traveling the country at an aggressive pace.” He added that Biden is using “innovative interviews, speeches and digital events” to deliver her message.

Democrats who have spent time with Biden in smaller settings, including fundraisers, private meetings and post-event roundtables, say he remains sharp, even pugilistic.

Jay Jacobs, chairman of the New York state Democratic Party, said Biden spoke without notes at a recent fundraiser, addressing a variety of topics, including foreign policy and what’s at stake in the election. After the event, the president asked Mr. Jacobs detailed questions about the special election for a House seat in New York’s Third Congressional District.

“The characterization I’m currently seeing is just unfair,” Jacobs said. “Yes, her voice can sound older. No doubt about that. But I will tell you from my personal conversations with him that this guy was on his game.”

Biden’s allies say there is no evidence he is unfit for office and that the coverage of his mistakes (and his age) doesn’t compare to the substance of the things he gets right.

“I care about action,” said Robert Wolf, a longtime Democratic donor who was at one of Biden’s fundraisers in Manhattan on Wednesday. “I care about legislation. I worry about the people around him. I don’t care if you make a mistake between the Middle East and someone’s name.”

Wolf said that at the end of a long day of headline campaign events in New York City, Biden grabbed a microphone and privately answered about a half-dozen questions from a group of donors Wednesday night, focusing primarily on foreign policy. .

Others point to the president’s accomplishments and say it’s time for Democrats to stop attacking him (or harboring quiet hopes that someone will replace him on the ticket) and unite behind his candidacy.

“I’m not going to tell voters not to take the president’s age into account. The age of an elected official and a candidate for office is a pertinent consideration,” said Rep. Jake Auchincloss, a Democrat who represents the Boston suburbs. “But I will encourage you to take into account his entire profile and his background, everything that he brings to the table.”

Biden’s allies also say that the president’s legislative achievements, from a bipartisan infrastructure bill to a measure aimed at increasing U.S. semiconductor production, are evidence not only of his mental acuity but of his ability to negotiate in fundamental (and spontaneous) issues. moments.

“Republicans would have loved to come out of these meetings and say, ‘We’d really like to do something, but unfortunately, the guy can’t remember anything,'” said Jesse Lee, who worked in communications at the White House National Economic Council until November. “It’s not like there’s some sacred cone of silence that, you know, is never broken except for this.”

David Mills contributed with reports.

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