Biden's press conference will be a key test for him. But he's no master of the big rhetorical moment

WASHINGTON — (AP) — President Joe Biden has a fresh opportunity Thursday to try to prove to the American public that he's capable of serving another four years after his shocking debate flop threw the future of his presidency into doubt. But Biden is not known as a master of the big rhetorical moment and his recent cleanup efforts have proved inadequate.

Biden, 81, will close out the NATO summit in Washington — an event meant to showcase his leadership on the world stage — with a rare solo press conference. His stamina and effectiveness are under the microscope like never before and he's struggling to quell the Democratic Party's panic about his chances this November.

By many metrics, from job growth and major legislation to the expanded transatlantic alliance, Biden can point to successes during his tenure in office. But where he has sometimes failed — spectacularly, in the case of the debate — is at a defining part of the role that isn’t in the official job description: delivering inspiring oratory that commands the attention and respect of the nation.

Biden has tried to step up his performance since the debate but his follow-up interview on ABC last week was disappointing. Nothing he's tried seems to be stopping the bleeding, with more lawmakers calling for him to bow out in the face of concerns that he could hand the White House back to Republican former President Donald Trump.

Americans tend to regard their leaders less for what they do than how they make them feel, and Biden's debate disaster has shaken his party to its core.

“The debate was a reminder that you can have as many policies as you want, but what the public sees and hears might matter more,” said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton presidential historian.

Rhetoric is intertwined with the modern presidency, from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” to Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

It can inspire in the wake of tragedy, like George W. Bush’s bullhorn speech on the smoky rubble at ground zero after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and help a war- and recession-weary country recover its sense of self, like Barack Obama’s “Yes we can!” Even Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” cry echoed the temperament of the agitated nation.

“People saw Trump as a reflection of a more turbulent, chaotic and angry country,” Zelizer said. “Voters may see Biden’s frailty as a symbol of weakness or its own kind of instability.”

Biden can give a good speech — his State of the Union address earlier this year helped quiet doubters about his viability as a candidate. But his strength as a president and politician has been how his humanity in intimate settings resonated with voters, and the power of his personal narrative and down-to-earth roots.

Yet those moments, in private or before small crowds, even if amplified on social media as Biden's team hopes, are certain to reach fewer people than the tens of millions who watched his bout with Trump.

Despite a drumbeat of calls from some in his party to step aside, Biden has dug in, insisting he's the best Democrat to defeat Trump, whose candidacy he's called an existential threat to democracy.

His press conference will be closely watched for his ability to think on his feet, to demonstrate dynamism and to articulate both that he is still capable of doing the job and of winning it once more. To date, Biden has held the fewest news conferences, 37, since Ronald Reagan, who had held 25 at the same point in his presidency, according to research by Martha Kumar, a Towson University presidential scholar.

Even before the debate, Biden's victories as president have often come despite his inability to sell them to a skeptical public. Heading into his face-off with Trump he has historically low job approval ratings for an American leader. And he's been unable to overcome voters’ pessimism over the direction of the country and a majority of voters in his own party had already believed him too old to effectively lead.

The debate, rather than helping Biden reset the race against Trump, confirmed voters' preestablished fears about him, said Allison Prasch, a professor of rhetoric who researches presidential communications at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

“The president is a symbol,” she said, adding that Americans often look to the president as a mirror to reflect on their hopes and their fears.

“You could argue that when you see a president that appears infirm, has difficulty doing some basic tasks of the presidency, you have questions about the state of the nation,” she said.

She contrasted his recent halting public comments with his message from the campaign four years ago.

“In 2020 he was promising to demonstrate confidence in the face of chaos. He was saying, ‘I’m this steady force,’” Prasch said. “If that’s how you branded yourself and you do the opposite thing in this debate, that’s exactly why this was so jarring for the public.”

Biden aides and allies responded to the debate with a series of public pronouncements defending Biden’s mental state and fitness for the job, notably focused on the big decisions of the Oval Office, rather than his ability to articulate them to the masses.

“I have not seen any reason whatsoever to question or doubt his lucidity, his grasp of context, his probing nature, and the degree to which he is completely in charge of facts and figures,” White House National Security spokesman John Kirby said Monday.

Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa and a veteran of four administrations, said he has never been concerned about Biden’s decision-making.

Speaking of Biden, he told The Associated Press: “I have never seen a president who is not prepared, who is not deliberate, who is not asking rigorous questions of those in the room or of a foreign leader,” adding that Biden “makes decisions sometimes which are often difficult decisions, and then actually follows up.”

While Biden and his team have made a concerted effort since the debate to increase his public visibility — which had been limited by aides worried about Biden's penchant for gaffes or missteps — he has proven to be uneven and at times underwhelming.

Campaigning in Pennsylvania on Sunday, Biden delivered remarks for less than 10 minutes at a Philadelphia church and a Harrisburg rally, but spent three times as long taking selfies and hugging kids — the sort of feel-good content that has always bolstered his political fortunes.

A call-in interview with MSNBC's "Morning Joe" showcased Biden's defiance and distaste of party "elites" as he pledged to stay in the race. In his opening remarks at the NATO summit, Biden was forceful in defense of the alliance.

“The more he gets out there to campaign with voters, the starker the contrast and easier the choice will be for these voters: between Joe Biden, a decent man fighting for the middle class and an unhinged billionaire like Trump who wants to terminate the ACA and turn our country into a dictatorship,” said campaign spokesman Kevin Munoz, referring in part to the Affordable Care Act.

But asked in the ABC News interview about how he would feel if his candidacy handed the White House back to Trump, he offered a mangled and less-than-inspiring response: “I’ll feel as long as I gave it my all and I did the good as job as I know I can do, that’s what this is about.”


Associated Press writer Colleen Long contributed to this report.

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