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Biden’s omnipresent accessory, even in your living room: A teleprompter

PALO ALTO, Calif. — President Biden was in a multimillion-dollar home here, standing in an open kitchen as donors sat on couches and chairs arranged around the adjacent living room. Everything about the scene spoke to the kind of intimate setting that donors pay thousands of dollars to attend, with a chance to have a small interaction with the world’s most powerful officeholder in someone’s home.

But there was a discordant addition to the cozy gathering where about 30 people had assembled: At the front of the room, where the president spoke, stood a lectern and a teleprompter, two large screens hovering about six feet high.

It was a physical manifestation of the type of accommodation that White House officials over the past year have come to make for an aging president. But while most of the changes have been aimed at addressing his physical ailments — tennis shoes and shorter steps to Air Force One so he doesn’t trip, smaller distances to cover so his short shuffle isn’t as pronounced, having his wife nearby to assist on stairs — the teleprompter has been the primary accommodation to assist a president whose speech can meander and who can seem to lose his train of thought.

For much of his political career, one of Biden’s hallmarks has been his plain-spokenness, his identity as an off-the-cuff pol who did little to shield his real thoughts. He was a self-professed “gaffe machine,” a trait that endeared him to voters even if it gave his advisers heartburn.

“No one ever doubts I mean what I say,” the president has often said. “The problem is, I sometimes say all that I mean.”

In recent years, his aides have tried to rein him in more, especially as he ascended to a position where a small verbal misstep can have global impact.

Even so, early in his presidency, he remained largely unscripted during fundraisers, when he was speaking to his biggest fans and offered a more unvarnished window into the presidential mind. Such settings are where he disclosed fundraising figures earlier than advisers wanted him to, where he offered blunt assessments of foreign adversaries like Russian President Vladimir Putin, where he let slip candid comments about Donald Trump at a time when he was otherwise rarely speaking of his predecessor.

But recently that, too, has been altered, as Teleprompter Joe replaced the off-the-cuff president. And that has not gone unnoticed by donors who increasingly are treated not to informal private remarks from the president, but to the same scripted comments he makes in public. And now, some donors fret that his advisers are providing these scripts in part to avoid the sort of moments the public saw during the presidential debate, a rare event when Biden could not read notes and did not have the benefit of a teleprompter.

Before news conferences, his staffers call reporters in an effort to ferret out what questions they might ask, a practice that was not typical in earlier presidencies. For some major interview opportunities like the Super Bowl, Biden’s team has simply declined, giving up a chance that most politicians would grasp at eagerly.

In the past year, Biden has almost never appeared in public without the use of the teleprompter. The rare exceptions are news conferences, which have been few and far between, and media interviews, which he has granted more rarely than any recent president, according to tallies.

Biden’s staff argues that teleprompters are now routine equipment for any politician, given the need to juggle endless meetings and responsibilities and the lack of time to rehearse before every appearance.

“Look, it is not unusual for a president to use a teleprompter. It is not unusual,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said this week when asked about the president’s reliance on scripted remarks. “That is something that presidents have done in the past.”

The Biden campaign said the president does much of his delicate, demanding work behind the scenes without a teleprompter or any other such aid.

“The President regularly does engagements without a teleprompter, not the least of which are contentious, high stakes negotiations with world leaders and Republican leaders in the House and Senate,” said campaign spokeswoman Lauren Hitt.

“By Republicans’ own accounting at the time, he handles those negotiations more than adeptly, using his experience and acumen to avoid multiple government shutdowns, deliver aid to Ukraine and stand up to Putin, passing the first bipartisan gun reform in 30 years, and finally delivering much needed funding for our nation’s crumbling infrastructure,” she added.

A teleprompter can only do so much work, and Biden is still capable of veering from it, sometimes offering comments that stray from the official line of his own White House. He commented that Putin “cannot remain in power” as an ad-libbed line at the end of a speech in Poland, for example, forcing his aides to clarify that the U.S. policy had not changed to include regime change in Moscow.

Biden’s reliance on a teleprompter has become increasingly problematic, some aides and donors say, at high-dollar fundraisers, where supporters are paying thousands of dollars for a private audience with the president, often in intimate settings. The campaign fielded a flurry of concerns in particular after an April fundraiser in Chicago at the home of Michael Sacks, a major Democratic donor.

Biden only spoke for 14 minutes, took no questions and then left, frustrating donors who wanted more opportunities to engage with the president, according to people familiar with the event who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue. Even with the teleprompter, Biden struggled with his delivery, and some donors said they had trouble hearing him. After the event, several donors in attendance grumbled to campaign officials about Biden using a teleprompter in an intimate space like Sacks’s living room.

Biden himself worries frequently about being prepared, aides and associates say. The president, who overcame a childhood stutter that still occasionally resurfaces, spends significant time working on speeches and, particularly during his campaign four years ago, he would say, “The words of a president matter.” He fine-tunes his phrases and is wary of making any mistake. And, in what may be a lingering effect of a 1988 presidential campaign that was derailed when he was accused of plagiarism, now sometimes attributes even mundane phrases to other sources.

“As the old saying goes, ‘Give me a break,’” he said while campaigning in August 2020.

But Biden throughout his career has resisted staying on message, and teleprompters have been a way for his exasperated aides to try to keep him on track.

When he was vice president, the military officers who ran the device would often find it challenging to keep up since Biden would veer so often from the text he was supposed to be reading. Once, the teleprompter unexpectedly rebooted toward the end of a speech, forcing Biden to ad-lib while his speechwriter at the time, Dylan Loewe, frantically retyped the ending in real time.

“When it was over, I thought he’d be mad,” Loewe recounted in an earlier interview. “But he came over and high-fived me and said, ‘That was the most fun I’ve had all day.’”

“Some of his worst moments have happened when he’s veered off script,” he added. “But most of his best moments have happened that way, too.”

In addition to Biden’s reliance on a teleprompter, donors have grown frustrated by his refusal to take questions at his fundraisers.

One business executive who organized a fundraiser in the past year said some donors pulled out, declining to donate or attend the fundraiser after learning they could not ask questions. Many of them had been writing checks of $100,000 or more. The executive said that when they helped raise money for Biden in 2020, it was clear he was “fragile,” but he was sharp and charming and “seemed with it.”

“The donors I’m talking to, they are depressed,” this person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. “It’s just a total mess. Everyone knew that he wasn’t as sharp as he used to be, but the debate truly shocked people.”

In the days since the debate, Biden and his team have sought to reassure Democrats his performance last week was an aberration. But his appearances at a slew of fundraisers in the days since have done little to reassure them.

“The thing that pissed people off, they waited for three hours, and he spoke for [eight] minutes,” said a donor who attended a fundraiser in East Hampton, N.Y., on Saturday. “It was a teleprompter. No questions. He was out of there. They were disappointed with the brevity of his remarks, the lack of his interaction with the crowd, that he didn’t take any questions.”

The donor said they had probably attended 10 or 15 fundraisers with Biden in the past, and the “problem in the past is you couldn’t get him to stop taking questions. He’d stay forever. He’d never leave. He’d work the line and shake every hand, he’d want to take more questions than the audience even had.”

On Tuesday, after months of relying on a teleprompter and with criticism mounting, Biden’s aides finally decided he would appear without one. When he walked to the front of a living room in McLean, Va., he stood in front of a large fireplace and spoke to several dozen people.

He workshopped a new line, suggesting that his busy schedule and foreign travels were a reason for his poor debate performance and adding a punchline. “I came back and nearly fell asleep onstage,” Biden said to some laughter.

But he was also soft-spoken at times, with several lines hard to hear from the back of the room. After about six minutes, he wrapped up, before singer Renée Fleming came to perform a song made famous by singer Ella Fitzgerald, “All the Things You Are.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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