Biden’s ABC Interview Was a Necessary Appointment With the Public — and a Botched One (2024)

President Joe Biden still has an easy and telegenic smile. And, for a flickering moment in his interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos — aired as a 30-minute special Friday night after having been taped earlier that day — that covered for a lot.

The commander-in-chief is in the midst of an unremittingly brutal press cycle following his performance in the June 27 CNN debate against presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump. That TV appearance was an opportunity he never should have taken. The format did him no favors in the first place, and Biden’s mien made clear that even the moderators fact-checking in real time (as CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash did not do) would not have saved him. This second press appearance, a 22-minute interview that ABC aired without edits or interruption, was less an opportunity to clear the air than a necessary appointment — and a deferred one, at that, coming eight days after his soft-spoken, diffident, and confusing responses to an eminently fact-checkable Trump, dissembling and outright lying without a proper response, plunged his campaign into chaos.

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So as Stephanopoulos opened by bringing up the debate — as of course he would — Biden broke into that classic, practiced politician’s smile, a warm sign that he understood there were issues to unpack. Then, as Stephanopoulos quoted Nancy Pelosi as saying Biden had a “bad night,” Biden spoke, saying “Sure did” in a voice nearly as raspy and hard to make out as the one from the debate — again, eight nights prior.

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Within 30 seconds, Stephanopoulos was asking a follow-up question: Biden said he was exhausted, and while Stephanopoulos allowed that the President had undergone a month of busy travel, he’d been back on east coast time for several days before the debate. Listening to this set of facts, Biden allowed his face to go into an expression familiar from the debate he was trying to erase from public memory. His eyes, on camera, looked into a distance unfamiliar; his mouth hung slackly open.

Anyone who has been lucky enough to have relatives live into old age recognizes this expression, and recalls it with no small amount of pain, too.

Biden snapped back in to respond to Stephanopoulos that he had undergone medical tests for “some infection — a virus” after his debate, but that he had just suffered “a really bad cold.” Asked if he watched the debate back, Biden said “I don’t think I did, no.” The qualifier said it all: He didn’t, in saying that he hadn’t watched it since experiencing it, seem certain.

And the President seemed in moments combative, telling Stephanopoulos that “you’ve had some bad interviews” matching Biden’s own “bad night.” If this was intended as a joke, it didn’t land. And he, given a quiet space (an interview in what appeared to be a school library in Madison, Wisc., where Biden had been campaigning, as opposed to a debate stage on which he was being bayed at by Trump), was able to list off some of his accomplishments and some goals for his second term. Unfortunately, this was within the context of damage control. And it was carried across with the same unsteady tone that is newly familiar to viewers. When, describing the stresses he is under, Biden said, “Not only am I campaigning, but I’m running the world,” viewers’ hearts may have stopped for a moment; Biden went on to clarify his statement, but a certain facility with words is simply gone.

Elsewhere, Biden seemed to live in a bubble. And it was within this bubble that he spoke most plainly, most clearly. He simply refused to acknowledge his position in the polls, saying that his internal polls showed different results. He refused to consider the idea that other party leaders would ask him to leave the ticket. And he said that, if he lost the election, he would feel sanguine: “As long as I gave it my all, and did the best job I know I can do — that’s what this is about.” For the donors who are refusing to give to the party until Biden leaves the ticket, this race is about more than whether Biden meets a personal benchmark.

Biden took eight days of preparation to give ABC News 22 minutes of screen time. It wasn’t enough. How much more preparation would have been? Or how much shorter should they have whittled down the interview? Part of the job of a party’s nominee, and of a President, is to put forward the case in all kinds of settings, to reach all kinds of people, both voters and stakeholders from lawmakers to other world leaders. Biden’s debate performance has certainly traveled widely, and he deserved the chance to clear the air. But, in giving him 22 minutes in which he spoke in an occluded and often resentful and sarcastic manner, it seemed apparent that Biden is unwilling, and — crucially — unable to make a case for himself.

Seen through the prism of television, Biden is unfortunately not merely losing the war against his opponent, but in a seemingly unwinnable position. He waited eight days to give a scant amount of time to a relatively sympathetic interviewer — and this was the result. It would not be an unreasonable expectation that the campaign-saving interview might have run, say, an hour. But if this was what resulted from a half-hour, what else might have been unearthed had the clock been allowed to run on? Or if the interview had happened closer to the debate?

Elections have been won and lost on television since the Nixon-Kennedy debate in 1960. And it may not be a fair expectation that a President be able to make the case on TV — but it is the expectation. And it is one that Biden seems not to realize that, no matter how much rest he gets or how rigidly his campaign controls the timeline, he cannot meet.

Biden’s ABC Interview Was a Necessary Appointment With the Public — and a Botched One (2024)
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