Inside Biden’s Protective White House

Aides 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 shut down questions, sometimes stealing a classic awards show tactic and playing loud music to signal the conclusion of the event. And forget the regular interviews with major news publications, including the traditional presidential session on Super Bowl Sunday.

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

All presidents are protected by restrictions on power, but for Mr. Biden, who at 81 is the oldest person in history to hold the office, the decision is not just situational but strategic, several people say familiar with the dynamics. . The cloistered nature of his White House reflects the fear among some of his top aides that Mr. Biden, who has always been prone to gaffes, is in danger of making a mistake.

These risks were starkly revealed during the events of this week.

After the release Thursday of a special counsel report on Mr. Biden's handling of classified materials, the president was furious at how he was portrayed, viewing the report as a partisan and personal attack that included one of the most devastating experiences of her life – the death of her son Beau.

His aides discussed options, including whether to wait a day to respond. But in the end, the president decided to answer questions from randomly assembled reporters, rather than at a formal news conference.

Assistants attempted to break up the melee several times. But Mr. Biden continued to speak, offering a vigorous defense of his memory.

He also made mistakes. As he headed out the door, the president turned to answer a question about the war in Gaza. He criticized the Israeli campaign against Hamas, calling it an “over-the-top” operation that led to human suffering in the besieged strip.

He described his work to urge other regional leaders to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza. But then he mixed Mexico and the Middle East when talking about negotiations.

That wasn't the only problem.

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

Amid criticism and concern over his comments, some of Mr. Biden's closest people — including Jill Biden, the first lady — fear the presidency will weigh on him. A small number of close collaborators of the first couple scrupulously monitor Mr. Biden's program and refine the smallest details, down to the details of the procession route.

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

Even the way Mr. Biden walks to the presidential plane is subject to careful management. The president began taking a small staircase directly into the belly of Air Force One, rather than a large staircase leading to a higher point of the plane, after tripping and falling on a sandbag during an opening ceremony last summer. Now there is a Secret Service agent positioned at the bottom of the stairs when he disembarks. (Mr. Biden's immediate predecessor, Donald J. Trump, 77, often took the short stairs in bad weather.)

White House officials did not say when Mr. Biden would undergo another physical exam. The last one was conducted nearly a year ago by Kevin C. O'Connor, the president's longtime physician, who declared his patient, then 80, “healthy” and “vigorous.”

Outside the White House, Mr. Biden's allies are concerned about Mr. Biden's physical appearance, which has become fodder for conservative attacks and memes online. And the issue isn't just partisan; a recent survey carried out by NBC News shows that half of Democratic voters say they are concerned about Mr. Biden's mental and physical health.

His gait is somewhat hesitant, a characteristic that many close to the White House explain in part by his refusal to wear orthopedic boots. after suffering a hairline fracture in his foot before taking office.

Still, aides say Mr. 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 has dismissed concerns about the president's mental acuity.

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

Democrats who have spent time with Mr. Biden in smaller settings, including at fundraisers, private meetings and roundtable discussions after events, say he remains sharp, even pugilistic.

Jay Jacobs, chairman of the New York State Democratic Party, said Mr. Biden spoke without notes at a recent fundraiser, addressing a range of issues, including foreign policy and security issues. 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 seeing now is just unfair,” Mr. Jacobs said. “Yes, his voice may sound older. there is no doubt. But I can tell you from my personal conversations with him that this guy was on his game.”

Mr. Biden's allies say there is no evidence he is unfit for office and that the media coverage of his mistakes — and his age — do not compare to the substance of what he is saying. he corrects.

“I care about action,” said Robert Wolf, a longtime Democratic donor who was attending one of Mr. Biden’s fundraisers in Manhattan on Wednesday. “I care about the legislation. I care about the people he has around him. I don’t care if he gets the Middle East mixed up with someone’s name.”

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

Others point to the president's accomplishments, saying it's time for Democrats to stop attacking him — or harboring quiet hopes that someone will replace him on the ticket — and rally behind his candidacy .

“I'm not going to tell voters to ignore the president's age. The age of an elected official and a candidate for office is a relevant consideration,” said Rep. Jake Auchincloss, a Democrat who represents suburban Boston. “But I’m going to encourage them to consider his full profile and his background, everything he brings to the table.”

Mr. Biden's allies also say that the president's legislative achievements, from a bipartisan infrastructure bill to a measure intended to increase semiconductor production in the United States, are proof not only of his mental acuity, but also his ability to negotiate in crucial – and unforeseen – areas. moments.

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

Doug Mills reports contributed.

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