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From the Center

One of the first rules of campaign management is that you should never let your candidate hold a news conference when they’re mad.

Angry politicians may think they are looking forceful, but more often than not they are simply coming across as out-of-control, if not slightly unhinged. Rather than inspiring voters, the result is often to make their audience nervous. And nervous voters rarely place their faith in someone who unsettles them.

We received a stark reminder of the importance of this dictum on Thursday night, when the President of the United States let his fury fly on national television. Joe Biden can certainly be excused for being unhappy. When special counsel Robert Hur released his report earlier that day, exonerating Biden for his mishandling of classified government documents but indicting him for the far greater political crimes of being old and forgetful, he stuck the knife extra deep when suggesting the 81-year-old president could not recall the year in which his beloved son Beau had passed away. Small wonder that Biden felt the need both to prove to the American people that he was capable of leading the country, but also that he was sufficiently sentient to remember the details of a recent tragedy in his own life.

So Biden charged out before the cameras loaded for bear. He was loud, aggressive and confrontational, but his hopes that these characteristics would demonstrate energy and vigor badly backfired. The president came across as erratic and irrational, a perception reinforced by his confusing the presidents of Egypt and Mexico and breaking new political ground in his castigation of Israel for its aggression in Gaza. If there was any doubt that Biden’s performance left precisely the opposite impression than he had hoped, that uncertainly was erased over the next several hours when panicked Democrats across the country openly wondered whether he would—or should -- continue as their standard-bearer in the November election.

One of the most important responsibilities of any campaign staff is to protect the candidate from their own worst instincts. It’s not clear whether White House advisors thought an evening news conference at the end of an emotionally draining day was a good idea for the president, or whether they were simply unable to persuade Biden that it was the wrong thing to do. The belated spin from his team on this question was that the news conference had been planned far in advance, but the fact that reporters were notified of the event only twenty minutes before it began suggests a decision-making process that was much more rushed.

In either case, Biden fell far short of his goal of demonstrating his command and reassuring voters. He’s now facing an array of scathing criticism from his opponents, along with no shortage of well-meaning but condescending advice from his allies as to how to convince the American people that he’s still up to the job to which they elected him.

Biden’s defenders are correct when they argue that the special counsel’s report went far beyond the parameters of an appropriate investigation. Hur was asked to determine whether Biden had intentionally mishandled classified documents, not to offer a set of medical and psychological opinions that he is not qualified to assess. Whether Hur’s overly aggressive interpretation of his responsibilities was a result of partisanship (he was an appointee of the Trump Justice Department), out of pride (as compensation for not finding indictable offenses) or simply overzealous ambition, the special counsel opened a political hornet’s nest that is far beyond his specifically defined legal purview.

But judging Robert Hur’s motives is not relevant to the outcome of the 2024 presidential election. Assessing Joe Biden’s capabilities is. Last week’s NBC poll, which was taken before the report’s release, showed that almost three-quarters of the American people have concerns about the president’s age and abilities. Biden’s advisors have kept him out of the public eye to a much greater degree than any of his recent predecessors, even declining an interview at halftime of Sunday’s Super Bowl. The only way to dispel these concerns is to make him more available

The other possibility is that Biden’s team believes that their boss is no longer able to conduct himself in a manner that can reassure the public. If that’s the case, then they – and the country – have much bigger problems. And the clock is ticking before time runs out to address that daunting crisis.

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Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).

Photo Credit: Nathan Howard/Getty Images