A PRESIDENT WHO DOESN’T SEEM TO BE THERE, ACTUALLY IS
LISTEN, FOLKS, I think it’s safe to say that Joe Biden sometimes seems like our first invisible president.
It's possible that some voters wonder whether the president is alive, much less hard at work, reasoning that if either of those were true, you’d hear more about it.
It’s a complaint even by people who like the president. I’ve heard Democratic pundits complain that Joe just isn’t doing enough to grab the attention of voters, that he’s not “out there.”
So, what does President Joe do all day?
I figured I could get a hint by reading press releases the White House churns out every day. And by following the "pool" reports filed by White House correspondents who keep tabs on the president.
So, the other day, I signed up for the White House press office’s feed that emails reporters news releases, along with the correspondents' reports.
(WARNING: Anyone can sign up for this stuff at this link, but I don’t recommend it. Your email inbox will quickly be drowned in memorandums, reports, transcripts, schedules and promotional news releases, along with the the pool reports, which, not without reason, have a self-pitying tone.)
It's hardly a comprehensive look. The White House shows you want it wants, which isn't a lot.
But what the heck. I picked one day, Monday, Nov. 13, 2023, and printed out every email and correspondents' dispatches, more than 45 items, a half-inch high stack of paper.
The day’s schedule was outlined in a press office memo sent to reporters the previous evening; it started at Biden’s home in Delaware.
“The president receives the Presidential Daily Briefing,” the schedule said, meaning a review by intelligence officials of the major terrible things going on in the world, some of which we know about, like the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, and others we’ll never hear about. The press office notes that this is “Closed Press.”
The pool reports then pick up the “action.” A word about the "pools." Since there are too many reporters who'd like to be in the Oval Office on the occasions when the media is allowed in, or to follow the president outside the White House, a small number of correspondents are assigned to pools, and these "poolers" pass along to their colleagues what they see and hear – or, more often, what they don’t hear and see.
(The times below are when I received emails):
From Danny Kemp, a reporter for Agence France-Presse (AFP), representing the “out-of-town” pool: “Good morning from a bright and cold Wilmington. Motorcade is rolling from President Biden’s house. Pool as not yet laid eyes on POTUS (President of the United State).”
Kemp. “President Biden could be seen leaving a SUV and boarded M1 (the president’s Marine One helicopter) at 9.00. He was too far away for questions. Pool then loaded onto Osprey (another aircraft) and didn’t see M1 lift.”
Christian Datoc, of the Washington Examiner, for the “in-town pool” - “M1 touched down on the South Lawn at 9:58 am. At 10:00am POTUS, wearing a dark coat over a navy suit, hopped off the heli and walked toward the Oval Office. POTUS did not stop for shouted questions on the Middle East, vetoing the CR and potentially retooling his campaign.”
Peter Gold of Fuji TV, for the “foreign pool” – “Marine One touched down at 959am with the President alighting shortly thereafter at 1000. The First Lady followed behind him and they held hands as they descended the short stairway. They took a few steps away from the helicopter, kissed, and then separated, with the President walking towards the Oval Office and the First Lady walking towards the residence. The president entered the Oval Office at 1002 with the doors closing behind him. Question(s), which your pooler could not hear over the whirs ... of the rotors, were shouted but the President was too far away from the pool to hear them and did not even react, let alone respond.”
“SPECTRUM” - An announcement - certain to be the talk of kitchen tables and barrooms across the America – that the “Biden-Harris Administration” is moving to update the country’s “spectrum” policies.
“Spectrum?” It’s the availability of radio frequencies used in wireless technology, not just for cell phones, but for “precision agriculture,” unmanned aircraft, and missions to the moon.
Turns out there’s not enough spectrum, so the effort is to update policies rationing a scarce resource, including sharing existing frequencies, developing new technology, training a specialized workforce, and, of course, figuring out how to resolve turf wars between federal agencies.
CAMPAIGN TALK - The press office sends an 11-page transcript of a campaign talk by Biden four days earlier, on Nov. 9, at a campaign reception at Ignite Glass Studios in Chicago.
Speaking at 5:02 p.m. CST, Biden was taking victory laps following the Nov. 7 elections:
“Just a few days ago, despite all the predictions, except ours, Democrats had an incredible night once again....”
Rhode Island readers may be interested that Biden mentioned a race of local interest:
“A young man, Gabe Amo, who worked in my administration, became the first Black member of Congress from the state of Rhode Island (applause).”
And he slammed Donald Trump:
“Folks, the same man who said we should terminate the rules and regulations and articles of the Constitution – these are things he said – is now running on a plan to end democracy as we know it.”
VETERANS DAY SPEECH – A transcript of Biden’s Veterans Day speech two days earlier, Nov. 11, at Arlington National Cemetery.
THE VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS meet Biden. For the sports-impaired, which includes me, the Knights are a Las Vegas hockey team that won a championship called the Stanley Cup on June 13, defeating the Florida Panthers.
Presidents relish the reflected glory of winners, and a chance to show they're everyday folks, interested in more than politics. The in-town pool reports that “POTUS strode into the East Room at 11:23 a.m."
“Look, just six years ago, the idea of a championship team playing on ice, in the Vega desert – Vegas desert – I mean, think about this (laughter), who would’ve’ – who would’ve thunk of it, as they say?” Biden says.
Biden praises the team’s work with people who are homeless, at food drives and other charitable initiatives, and also for helping Las Vegas through the trauma of the 2017 mass shooting that killed.
Biden says team Captain Mark Stone is “my kind of guy.”
“Two back surgeries – two back surgeries in a year. Missing the second half of the season. Returns for game one of the playoffs and scores a hat trick in game five to win a Stanley Cup (applause).”
Stone says that appearing in the White House is an honor, and adds that “It’s a lot easier playing hockey in front of 20,000 than this.”
The in-town pool reports: “POTUS exited the East room at 11:36 a.m., without taking questions from the press.” The foreign pool reports: “No foreign news.”
KOREAN VETERANS – A White House press release says that Biden has signed the “Korean American Vietnam Allies Long Overdue for Relief Act,” also known as the “Korean American VALOR Act,” making some veterans’ benefits available. I can’t figure out more from the brief release.
BRIEFING ON “UPCOMING BILATERAL ENGAGEMENT." The press office sends out a transcript of a teleconference briefing for reporters that was held Nov. 9, embargoed until the next day, now emailed three days after that.
"Senior administration officials" provide background on the meeting between Biden and China’s president, Xi Jinping scheduled in two days, Nov. 15 in San Francisco, an event that will probably dwarf anything Biden does today.
WOMEN’S HEALTH RESEARCH. At a ceremony in the Oval Office, Biden signs a memorandum establishing “the first-ever” White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research.
“Women make up more than half the population,” Biden says. “But for too long, they’ve been underrepresented when it comes to health research and the money spent on that research. That’s going to change today.”
The initiative, led by Jill Biden, requires various federal agencies to report what they’ve been doing about research into women’s health, and suggest what they could do in the future.
Mrs. Biden credits Maria Shriver with championing the idea. Shriver, a former TV anchor and reporter, was once married to former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and founded the Women’s Alzheimer Movement.
As the is ending about 2:23, the poolers are in for a surprise: they ask questions - and Biden answers them.
Is he concerned about a possible government shutdown? He says House leaders are working on a solution, so he’ll wait to see what they do. Will he veto one of the funding approaches being discussed? He’ll decide when there’s an actual proposal.
Has the president expressed concerns to Israeli leaders about continued bombing affecting Gazan hospitals?
"Well, as we know, I have not been reluctant expressing my concerns with what's going on,” Biden says. “And it is my hope and expectation is that there will be less intrusive action relative to the hospital. We’re in contact, and we’re – with - with the Israelis. Also, there is an effort to get this pause to deal with the release of prisoners, and that's being negotiated as well- with the Qataris are engaged and – So, I remain somewhat hopeful. But the hospital must be protected."
MEETING WITH INDONESIAN PRESIDENT – This is supposed to be the day’s Big Moment, a well-orchestrated meeting between Biden and Joko Widodo, president of Indonesia.
I had to look up some of this on Wikipedia: Indonesia is BIG. It’s the world’s fourth most populous country, with 279-million people. It’s made up of 17,000 islands and is the world’s largest Muslim country.
Indonesia is the object of a tug-of-war between China and the U.S. over economic and military influence in its neck of the woods.
The motorcade with Widodo arrives at the White House at 4:18 p.m., according to the poolers, and Biden walks out to greet him, placing his hand on Widodo’s back as they go into the West Wing.
“Today, we’re talking about taking our relationship to launching the highest possible level of cooperation,” Biden says.
Widodo says: “The U.S. is one of the most important partners of Indonesia, and we agreed to elevate our partnership into (a) comprehensive strategic partnership.”
Widodo presses the United States to intervene in the Israeli-Hamas conflict: “I appeal to the U.S. to do more to stop the atrocities in Gaza and have a cease fire, for the sake of humanity.”
Biden jokes that he and Widodo had “an important discussion on climate” when they met outside the White House, saying that Widodo told him: “I’m cold.” Biden replied: “I can take care of that immediately,” by taking him inside.
The White House follows up with two releases, totaling 13 pages, summarizing agreements worked out prior to the event.
Folks, let me be honest: I do not have enough spectrum to digest all of that.
DRUG POLICY. In a news release, the White House says that a new National Survey on Drug Use and Health has found that 48 million people were affected last year. The release notes Biden has asked for $1.55 billion for treatment and recovery, plus $1.2 billion to combat drug trafficking.
BIDEN TO MEET ANOTHER FOREIGN LEADER. Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre announces that Biden will meet with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador “on the sidelines” of the Nov. 17 conference where Biden will confer with China’s president.
The in-town pool says its watch ended at 5:25 p.m.
The press office issues a schedule for the next day. It includes the morning intelligence briefing, an address by Biden at the White House about “the climate crisis,” his flight to San Francisco and a West Coast campaign reception that evening.
So, I didn't find out most of what Biden did Nov 13.
Even so, it seemed a lot.
He had his morning intelligence briefing – a terrible way to start any day. He flew in a helicopter; kissed his wife; walked in and out of the White House; snubbed the press; palled around with hockey stars; hosted, with his wife, an announcement about women’s health; made unscripted comments to White House reporters; met with a major world leader.
Meanwhile, his public relations machine churned out press releases some current, some not. But they made me realize that a president, at least one who takes his job seriously, operates not just in the moment, but is always looking back and ahead.
Listen, folks, I didn’t fall off the turnip truck. Much of what we “saw” was done by other people who really are invisible. Just like Biden doesn’t mow the White House lawn, or vacuum the Oval Office rugs, he doesn’t write position papers on spectrum rationing or remind people about what he’s asked Congress to spend on drug policy.
Let me be clear about this. Most of the things that we know he did Nov. 13, were not widely reported, at least as I looked through major on-line sites like the New York Times and the Washington Post.
The Times did publish a story the next day on his meeting with Joko Widodo - on Page 9. The Associated Press did stories on the other major events, but I couldn’t find them easily on its website. His Gaza comment was widely quoted.
I’m not arguing that news outlets should have done or promoted more of the stories that the press office was pushing – spectrum policy isn’t breathtaking news.
But heading into his 81st birthday on Nov. 20, Biden was anything but invisible.
To the contrary, he could be seen doing what we hired him to do and most of that was no fun.
Folks, somebody has to worry about whether there’s enough spectrum, and to be there to give Indonesia's president a pat on the back. He's there alright, and we're lucky that he is.
BRIAN C. JONES