Facing relentless inflation, the prospect of losing both houses of Congress in November’s midterm elections and consistently poor polling numbers, President Joe Biden is looking to change the conversation. But he appears to be running into a particular problem — his own staff.
If there is one skill that presidents have — and one for which they must trust their own instincts — it's messaging.
Biden is said to be unhappy at how his team is trying to tone down his own statements, with NBC News reporting that aides are running a “clean-up campaign” that “undermines him and smothers the authenticity.” In one notable recent example, he ad-libbed that Russian President Vladimir Putin couldn’t stay in power during a speech about Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, only to have concerned aides walk it back.
This isn’t an unusual development. Presidents and other elected officials are frequently told that they are selling the wrong message. But Biden is right to take a skeptical look at this complaint. The reality is that if there is one skill that presidents have — and one for which they must trust their own instincts — it's messaging.
While presidents portray themselves as experts on a multitude of fronts, they generally don’t have particular talents in many fields. Apart from former Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, no modern president was an expert on military policy or held a high rank. None have really been experts on the economy, social policy or policing. Few have been truly impressive business leaders. Even in politics, only a handful of recent presidents — among them Biden and Lyndon Johnson — can make claims to possess long-term expertise in lawmaking. Most had undistinguished legislative or gubernatorial careers.
So what is a president expert in? Crafting and selling a strong message to supporters and undecided voters. While credit for this is often grabbed by high-profile advisers, the candidates’ own abilities as top messaging strategists are frequently ignored. On the other hand, someone like Donald Trump, who clearly doesn’t rely on advisers, has been panned for not listening to political spinners saying he should tone down his message — even though his ultracombative style and extreme policy articulation on immigration and trade were crucial to his winning the Republican nomination and the presidency in 2016.
A nominee can’t succeed on the national stage without appealing to the largest number of people possible. For a presidential candidate to overcome the brutal gauntlet of the primaries and caucuses to get a party’s nomination — which is frankly more of a challenge than the one-on-one nature of a general election — requires a clear message that cuts through the noise and tops the many campaigns of the other candidates to grab the attention and support of voters.
Biden is the latest example of a candidate who was wise to follow his own instincts rather than his advisers’. He was seen as dead in the water in early 2020 following poor performances in the first caucus in Iowa and the first primary in New Hampshire. But he didn’t spend too much time flitting around looking for new messages and staffers. He kept citing his message of unity, which played into his long experience and his relationship to the most popular Democrat in the country, former President Barack Obama.
Then and now, Biden’s strategy — one that has also guided Trump and many other successful politicians — is to exude authenticity. Making off-the-cuff comments and occasional gaffes is a feature of this authenticity, not a bug, and too much managing by outside handlers can be seen as negative.
As Biden tries to find a new winning message, his own instincts are the ones he should trust. Poor poll numbers, largely shaped by recent events and economic developments, don’t negate the fact that presidents have the best feel for their own electorates.
Biden’s skill in messaging was necessary for him to get this far. Democrats are likely to see few gains in pushing against this skill. Instead, the party needs to adopt the wisdom employed by other flagging but ultimately victorious administrations in the past and “Let Biden Be Biden.”