A recent interview with 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley serves as a masterclass in how not to communicate. Many of the questions were overwhelmingly obvious, but still the President was unclear, unfocused, and rambling, insulting the American people by denying what is happening before their very eyes. Even when he speaks with clarity and conviction, his administration quickly walks it back.
Presidents are frequently remembered for their words, whether planned speeches, off the cuff remarks, or interviews. Some of these words ring out through history, as loudly today as they were when first spoken because they combine a clarity of purpose and clearly communicate a position. Abraham Lincoln’s “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “All we have to fear is fear itself.” John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Bill Clinton’s “The era of big government is over.” George W. Bush’s “I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” Barack Obama’s “We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it.” Even Donald Trump’s “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” All were very different men in very different eras with very different communication styles and methods, but they were united in their ability to connect with their constituents and the broader American people, communicating matters of the utmost importance, sometimes in just a short phrase or at most a few sentences. The Gettysburg Address, for example, is one of the most famous speeches in US history and yet the entire thing runs a mere 272 words.
Almost two years into Joe Biden’s Presidency, I think it’s fair to say he’s never going to make this list. It’s no secret that President Biden is the oldest occupant of the Oval Office in American history and can often seem confused and out of place, but the problems with his communication skills run far deeper than their delivery. A halting manner or a mixed-up word might well limit the impact of a well-crafted speech or comment. It would not demolish the meaning entirely, turning a golden turn of phrase into a giant turd. An actor stumbling through Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” is still delivering the most famous soliloquy in the English language. President Biden, on the other hand, regularly delivers a masterclass in what not to say, inverting any political communications principles that might exist in the known universe, and serving only to illustrate what a better speaker would do, perhaps better than a gifted communicator themselves. Call it another manifestation of the George Costanza Principle, everything Biden does is wrong, the opposite of what should be done. The President’s interview with 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley on Sunday is a case study in and of itself, beginning with his response to the very first question about inflation. Mr. Pelley asked President Biden what any politician should know was coming a mile away, like delivering a slow pitch to a major league slugger: Mr. President, as you know, last Tuesday the annual inflation rate came in at 8.3%. The stock market nosedived. People are shocked by their grocery bills. What can you do better and faster?
The “right” answer, such that there is in a political world built on spin, is as obvious as the question itself, something like: “I understand that high inflation is taking a bite out of American wallets and people are making tough choices as a result of increased prices. I wish there was an easy fix, but this is a global problem for every industrialized country as the economy recovers from a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. The situation is unique in our history, and I want the American people to know that we have moved faster and taken more concrete steps than many of our counterparts around the world. My administration recently passed the Inflation Reduction Act which will decrease energy, prescription drugs, and other prices over time. We’ve also released additional energy supplies from the strategic reserve. We’re fast tracking green energy programs to alleviate prices across the board, and we’ve taken steps on the supply chain. We’ve even eased and forgiven student loan payments for the middle class. The federal reserve has also put in place a plan to reduce inflation. I know it’s not happening fast enough, but we’ve already seen some success. Gas prices are down about a dollar a gallon since the start of the summer, and the inflation rate seems to have peaked. I believe we are taking the right actions and we will soon get where we need to be. I just need to ask the American people for a little patience for our plans to work while we deal with this global crisis.” An answer like this is Politics 101. Accept that there is a problem, but claim it is unanticipated, not your fault, nobody could’ve seen it coming, and it affects far more than America in particular. Detail how you have responded to the problem forcefully and faster than anyone else. Provide some nugget of hope that your plans have eased at least some of the challenge, and then ask for patience for the rest of it to play out. For the record, I believe almost none of what I wrote in this hypothetical response, but the response is so obvious the words came naturally.
How did President Biden respond in real life? Incredibly, he began by trying to insist that there has been no inflation over the past few months, a technique he has been mocked for previously. “Well, first of all, let’s put this in perspective. Inflation rate month to month was just– just an inch, hardly at all,” which was enough to prompt a surprised interruption from Mr. Pelley. “You’re not arguing that 8.3% is good news.” The President bizarrely continued to push his position against all evidence and common sense. “No, I’m not saying it is good news. But it was 8.2% or– 8.2% before. I mean, it’s not– you’re ac– we act– make it sound like all of a sudden, ‘My god, it went to 8.2%.’ It’s been–” Mr. Pelley felt the need to interrupt again, stating the obvious, “It’s the highest inflation rate, Mr. President, in 40 years.” President Biden concluded his response by restating his position that inflation hardly exists anymore, only with a lot of unrelated blather that has nothing to do with prices at the grocery store or anywhere else. “I got that. But guess what we are. We’re in a position where, for the last several months, it hasn’t spiked. It has just barely– it’s been basically even. And in the meantime, we created all these jobs and– and prices– have– have gone up, but they’ve come down for energy. The fact is that we’ve created 10 million new jobs. We’re in– since we came to office. We’re in a situation where the– the unemployment rate is about 3.7%. one of the lowest in history. We’re in a situation where manufacturing is coming back to the United States in a big way. And look down the road, we have mas– massive investments being made in computer chips and– and employment. So, I– look, this is a process. This is a process.”
One might allegorize his response this way: Look, I know you’re buried alive up to your neck, but don’t worry, it hasn’t reached your chin yet and you’re still breathing. Besides, someone, somewhere got a job. They’re buried as well, but at least they’re working now. Oh, and we made some investments that have nothing to do with the price of beans. Even worse, the subtext to the response is that people are too stupid to understand how inflation works or remember what they’ve been told about it by the President’s own administration for the past year, an insult if ever there was one. It doesn’t take a degree in economics to figure out that the continuation of an 8-plus percent inflation rate means that prices will be that much higher in the future. The “just an inch, hardly at all” dodge suggests that Biden believes people are incapable of understanding both the nature of inflation itself and or remembering how it spiked over the past year. Somehow, he seems to think everyone has forgotten all of the protestations that inflation was “transitory” or that the Federal Reserve’s target for inflation was 2% when he got into office. It also serves to downplay and minimize people’s legitimate concerns, something no skilled politician ever wants to do. President Biden incredibly and amazingly does it all in the response to a single, obvious question, one he certainly should’ve had a knock-it-out-of-the-park canned answer for. The at-odds-with reality approach continued through the next series of questions, when the President said he wasn’t telling the American people to expect inflation to continue to decline and then insisted the economy is growing when it is in fact shrinking. Mr. Pelley asked another simple question with an obvious answer, “would you tell the American people that inflation is going to continue to incline?” The President responded with a statement that made little sense in context or otherwise, “No, I’m telling the American people that we’re gonna get control of inflation.” Wouldn’t getting control over inflation mean it was declining? How else does one control something that is high when we want it to be low? Not content with merely nonsensical responses, the President proceeded to outright lies when asked “what can you do to prevent a recession?” Here, he claimed, “Continue to grow the economy. And we’re growing the economy. It’s growing in– in a way that it hasn’t in years and years,” when the economy has, in fact, been shrinking for two consecutive quarters and if a Republic was in office the media would be shouting “recession” at anyone who’d listen.
Mr. Pelley himself seemed somewhat confused when he asked, “How so?” The President’s answer is worth quoting in full for the almost random combination of non sequiturs and completely unrelated information. “We’re growing entire new industries. Six hundred and ninety-five, I think it is, or eighty-five thousand new manufacturing jobs just since I’ve become president in United States. Continue to grow the economy and continue to give hard-working people a break in terms of we pay the highest drug prices in the world of any industrialized nation. Making sure that Medicare can negotiate down those prices by the way, we’ve also reduced the debt and reduced the deficit by $350 billion my first year. This year, it’s gonna be over $1.5 trillion reduced the debt. So, to continue to put people in a position to be able to make a decent living and grow, and grow, and increase their capacity to grow.” It’s difficult to say where to begin with what amounts to a spray and pray word salad. Again, he denies what Americans are seeing with their very eyes, that is a shrinking economy and stock market, plus an increasing debt (he meant the deficit, I think). He bumbles a figure which might or might not have relevance, but which isn’t all that impressive anyway given 85,000 manufacturing jobs over 20 months is a rounding error. From there, he launches into drug prices and Medicare, which might be important to someone, but are irrelevant to the discussion and create the impression he has no economic track record to speak of. He then launches into a brief aside about the deficit though he refers to it as the “debt,” which also might be important, but is just as irrelevant, before ending with the repeated insistence that we’re growing, when we’re actually shrinking. The result is a bizarre combination of being all over the place and continuing to insult the intelligence of the American public, who are likely to conclude that the President is mentioning all of these unrelated things solely because he doesn’t have a real answer to the question.
Confidence inspiring this is not, and these quotes were only taken from the first segment of the interview. The President may have been more precise and concise from there, but somehow even when he manages to achieve an acceptable level of clarity, he still fails to achieve his basic communication goals. The two most newsworthy segments of the interview, first when the President declared the pandemic over and then when he insisted we would go to war with China over Taiwan, were promptly clarified if not reversed entirely by his staff and attacked in some quarters of the mainstream media as well. Mr. Pelley asked if the pandemic was over, prompting a reasonably unqualified answer from the President. “The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lotta work on it. It’s– but the pandemic is over. if you notice, no one’s wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think it’s changing. And I think this is a perfect example of it” referring to the Detroit Auto Show. The New York Times shot back by pointing out that “at least 400 people are dying daily.” CNN reported on how the comment widened the “public health split.” Politico claimed he surprised his own advisors because the administration is actively seeking more funding to combat the pandemic. The Star Tribune simply said it was an error. The pressure overall was enough that President Biden himself felt the need to clarify his comments, telling guests at a fundraiser that he meant “But it basically is not where it was.” A similar controversy ensued over his comments on China and Taiwan. First, the President insisted that our position on the dispute over whether Taiwan remains a part of China hasn’t changed. “We agree with what we signed onto a long time ago. And that there’s one China policy, and Taiwan makes their own judgments about their independence. We are not moving– we’re not encouraging their being independent. We’re not– that– that’s their decision.” In response to the very next question, however, he upends the very policy he claimed to support. Mr. Pelley asked, “But would U.S. Forces defend the island?” The President responded concisely, “Yes, if in fact there was an unprecedented attack.” He repeated this again when Mr. Pelley asked him to clarify, “So unlike Ukraine, to be clear, sir, U.S. Forces, U.S. men and women would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion?” President Joe Biden: “Yes.” This prompted National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to clarify the remark almost immediately, oddly claiming President Biden was “answering a hypothetical,” whatever that means.
Clearly, few things make a President look weaker than being overturned by his own staff, prompting questions about who’s really in charge. I would argue that it’s even worse than that: President Biden is the head of the executive branch and the Commander in Chief. He has sole authority to set policies for both the pandemic and international relations. If he believes the pandemic is over, it is over from a federal perspective. Rather than clarifying or walking it back, he should enact the policy he prefers. The same thing is true with Taiwan. I believe we are better off maintaining more ambiguity in the face of a world-changing situation such as an invasion, but there is also some reason to believe showing strength could deter China. Regardless, it is the President’s prerogative. Mr. Sullivan serves at his pleasure. He is not the final arbiter. The result is a communication and political debacle that need never have occurred. CNN was still writing about it and attempting to defend President Biden as of Wednesday. Stephen Collinson tried to explain to the world “Why people keep correcting the President.” “Often, this comes across as disrespectful to the President. It makes it look like he doesn’t know his own mind, or has strayed from a script that subordinates set for him. It offers an opening for Republicans who cast doubt on his cognitive capacity and his fitness for prime time. But the problem also runs deeper: A president’s words resonate. In times of crisis, lives can be on the line. Their words move markets. Being constantly corrected sows confusion about Biden’s authority and leadership.” This is all true, but despite running for around 2,000 words the reality never seems to occur to Mr. Collinson: People keep correcting the President because he is a terrible communicator. The worst we have seen in the modern era. That’s the fundamental problem and it is never gonna get better.