A president who once had too much voice turns to Hollywood, suddenly lacking an effective one

As Biden struggled on Kimmel, it was clear why he turned to smooth-talking Matthew McConaughey

After meeting with President Joe Biden, actor Matthew McConaughey spoke to reporters at the White House about mass shootings, including in his native Uvalde, Texas. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
After meeting with President Joe Biden, actor Matthew McConaughey spoke to reporters at the White House about mass shootings, including in his native Uvalde, Texas. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Posted June 10, 2022 at 1:08pm

ANALYSIS — There was no more fitting place for President Joe Biden to spend most of his week than Los Angeles, aka Tinseltown, for a summit with North and South American leaders.

His poll numbers stagnant, his messages falling flat, his influence minimal, Biden in recent weeks has deployed celebrities to the White House briefing room to speak for him. It is a paradox for a president who, as a senator and vice president, famously had too much voice: He suddenly lacks one.

During a Wednesday night appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” the 79-year-old Biden admitted his team lacks an effective communications strategy. He also had trouble, at times, finding the right words. Kimmel eventually showed some mercy on his special guest and quickly went to a commercial break.

“So there’s a lot of major things we’ve done, but what we haven’t done is we haven’t been able to communicate it in a way that is…” the president told Kimmel, never able to finish the thought.

Such moments are not rare, so his staff has turned to Hollywood, eager to sell what Team Biden sees as a successful first 17 months in office. First up was K-pop group BTS.

To be sure, the topic of their May 31 visit and appearance behind the briefing room lectern was an important one: stopping anti-Asian hate crimes. But their cheery introduction, with starstruck reporters taking smartphone pictures and White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre smiling widely, created an odd scene and vibe as a country mourned.

Just days prior, an 18-year-old gunman entered Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas with an AR-15 assault rifle and slaughtered 19 children and two teachers — after shooting his grandmother in the face. Yet, eager to appeal to part of the Democratic base ahead of November’s crucial midterm elections, Biden and his aides sent the band into the briefing room.

BTS, the K-pop band from South Korea, and Karine Jean-Pierre, White House press secretary, address the media before the group met with President Joe Biden at the White House to discuss anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination on May 31, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Some Republican members and conservative opinion-makers mocked Biden for turning to the young celebrity crooners.

“It tells me they don’t want the president talking to the American people,” Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., told CQ Roll Call. “I notice the president can find time to go on late-night talk shows, but he can’t do interviews with actual journalists or answer questions … because if you take him off script, he can’t form a sentence.”

That is only part of the story of the 46th communicator in chief, however.

For instance, a reporter recently asked Biden, over the loud hum of Marine One’s idling engines, whether he would send long-range missiles to help Ukraine. Biden answered immediately, saying he would not while adding the context that those weapons could be fired into Russia, escalating the conflict. It was a sharp moment that showed his grasp of the issue.

‘Unwanted controversy’

But his unclear and flat messages overshadow his clear ones, and some worry the turn toward celebrities could overshadow the man himself.

James Manley, a Democratic strategist, said politicians bringing in Hollywood stars is always a gamble.

“Working with celebrities always used to make me a bit nervous. On the one hand, you have the ability to reach a wider audience than usual,” he said. “But sometimes, they bring unwanted controversy to an event … that can dominate whatever message you are trying to drive.”

One week after the BTS visit, Biden again turned to a celebrity, Academy Award-winning actor Matthew McConaughey, a Uvalde native, to address the mass shooting there and urge Congress to pass some kind of legislation that might prevent future slayings via the barrel of a firearm.

Other presidents have used the tactic, too. Richard M. Nixon brought Elvis to the White House. Ronald Reagan turned to Michael Jackson. Jimmy Carter to Johnny Cash. George W. Bush had Bono. Barack Obama went with Jay-Z and Beyonce. Donald Trump had Kanye West. And those are just the highlights. Biden and teenage singer-social media influencer Olivia Rodrigo both donned his signature Aviator sunglasses for pictures in the Oval office last July.

“It is a smart strategy. It is not clear how many people it will move. But, if you want to move people of the other party, devices like this are useful,” said Marc Hetherington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina. “Someone even less connected to politics than McConaughey would be even better, by the way — like a conservative-leaning country music star who has just seen enough of the killing.”

McConaughey’s emotional remarks, complete with a dramatic lectern-punch, was viewed by many as genuine — he even appeared on Fox News later Tuesday.

That came after Biden initially said he would stay out of the Senate’s mass shooting prevention talks, saying he lacked the authority to “dictate this stuff,” only to deliver a prescriptive primetime address just days later. His message, like other times since Jan. 20, 2021, was erratic and seemed like a square peg trying to jam itself into the round hole a group of bipartisan Senate negotiators are trying to carve with a still-under-construction mass shooting prevention package. The group dismissed his policy demands immediately.

Los Angeles is three time zones and nearly 2,300 miles away from the mass shooting prevention talks, a fitting bit of symbolism for a president who has had little influence on the talks.

That made McConaughey’s appearance seem like an acknowledgement that the president’s uneven message was not moving the needle of public opinion.

Other Biden critics on the right noticed.

“The White House is so devoid of credible surrogates they’ve had to drag Matthew McConaughey off the set of yet another Magic Mike sequel to drone on about gun control,” tweeted GOP Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, before appropriating one of the actor’s popular catch phrases against him: “Not alright, not alright, not alright!”

As Biden held brief meetings, more formal ones and broke bread with his fellow Americas leaders in California, Senate negotiators made clear they needed more time. But it is unlikely the president will be called in, as he was so many times during the Obama administration, as a closer to nail down a deal.

On the other side of the continent, the White House briefing room sat mostly uninhabited, the blue lectern with the brown wood paneling vacant. But McConaughey’s passionate and forceful voice no doubt still echoes through the executive mansion.

For Biden, there is one inconvenient aspect about the 52-year-old Hollywood leading man’s Tuesday appearance at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: McConaughey, at times, looked and sounded presidential, and with the seal of the White House framing his every plea and anecdote about dead elementary school students in his hometown.

‘I don’t blame you’

Biden sounded anything but presidential during his sit-down with Kimmel. But in other moments, like when asked about the missiles, the commander-in-chief is eloquent and quick — only to become reportedly frustrated when his aides try to walk back those clear statements. Amid this kaleidoscope of confusion, neither the president nor his West Wing staff shows any signs of being able to find an effective communications strategy.

“You don’t just understand it, you overstand it. But here’s the deal: One of the things is that it’s very difficult now to have … With notable exceptions, even the really good reporters, they have to get the number of clicks on the nightly news,” Biden said, visibly searching for — but not finding — the right words.

It only got worse, in fact.

“So instead of asking a question … Anyway, everything gets sensationalized in ways that…” he trailed off again. “But I’m convinced we can get through this. We have to get through it. And one of the things, look …”

A merciful Kimmel threw in the towel: “I’m going to take a break and then we’ll talk a little bit more.”

“I don’t blame you,” Biden replied, ending the segment with a stunningly honest quip that vividly illustrated why he turned to the smooth-talking Texan with the slow drawl and sharp suit.

“McConaughey has special credibility because he is from the town where the massacre took place,” Hetherington said of Uvalde. “And, because it is rare for the White House to do something like this, it got wall-to-wall coverage in the media — everyone loves to cover celebrities.”

But Biden promised a substantive presidency. How many more times can the “Magic Mike” star credibly speak for a president with an underwater approval rating amid skyrocketing inflation?