Opinion by Julian Zelizer, CNN
(CNN) — This week provided the nation with two masterclasses in political theater — and an important lesson for President Joe Biden on the necessity of stepping up and commanding the bully pulpit.
On Wednesday, Hunter Biden surprised Capitol Hill by turning up unannounced at a House Oversight Committee hearing just hours before it and the Judiciary Committee voted to hold him in contempt of Congress.
By showing up, Hunter Biden attempted to expose the partisan chaos that consumed the lower chamber and undercut the House Republicans’ accusations that he disregarded the subpoena for a private deposition in the impeachment inquiry against his father, President Joe Biden. (Hunter Biden, citing a concern that House Republicans might leak and misrepresent his comments should he sit for a closed-door deposition, has repeatedly offered to testify publicly.)
As Republicans lashed out at Hunter Biden, there he was sitting right before them, while Democrats on the committee said they should proceed to let him testify.
But Republicans failed to take Democrats up on the offer, underscoring the fact that the hearing was a political spectacle from the beginning as the GOP moves forward with its impeachment inquiry at a key moment in the presidential election.
President Biden, battling low approval ratings, has tried to bolster his reelection campaign by delivering two recent speeches — one focusing on the threat that former President Donald Trump poses to democracy and another on the administration’s commitment to racial justice.
But the GOP is trying to derail those messages by attempting to smear Biden and his family — despite not being able to find any proof thus far that the president has engaged in wrongdoing. The point is to get the impeachment story into the news and, in turn, into the public discourse — and discredit the prosecutions of Trump by alleging that Biden could also be accused of corruption. Hunter Biden‘s surprise appearance on Wednesday suggests he is attempting to disrupt that plan and fight back.
That same evening, Trump went on Fox News to participate in a town hall while his Republican rivals for the nomination, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, sparred in a debate on CNN. The town hall, coming just days before the Iowa caucuses, was the culmination of Trump’s reelection strategy of redirecting attention away from his opponents. By repeatedly refusing to share the stage with the other Republicans, Trump has undercut some of the appeal to tune in, making the debates seem less interesting and important than they might otherwise be.
The strategy has been effective. There are many reasons for Trump’s formidable lead in the Republican primary, but at the top of the list is the fact that Haley, DeSantis and others in the GOP have struggled to attract similar levels of attention as the former president, whose mastery of grabbing the media spotlight is unrivaled.
The events of January 10 should be instructive for President Biden as the election gets underway. There will be many challenges in the months ahead, whether it be mobilizing votes, raising money, or offering compelling messages. Navigating the turbulent world of the modern media will also be essential, especially at a time when attention constantly shifts and the news cycle can turn from one story to the next within hours, if not minutes.
Biden, who isn’t as comfortable in front of the news pack and avoids the kind of dramatic gestures that his own son undertook this week, will need to figure out how he can thrive in this playing field. In 2020, he managed to do this by positioning himself as the voice of reason who could preserve our democratic institutions and stabilize the country after Trump’s presidency and the Covid-19 pandemic. Nearly four years later, however, that message is less compelling.
In the 1976 film “All The President’s Men,” viewers learned to “follow the money.” In 2024, the saying should be: follow the media attention.
Seizing and sustaining media interest will be the name of the game in 2024. One of the best ways to gauge how effective, or ineffective, the candidates are will be to discern who benefits the most from the stories that appear before us on our screens. The candidate who can best handle that challenge will likely be the one who ends up in the Oval Office come January 2025.
While the modern dynamics of the media-political complex are not ideal for democracy, they are a reality that the candidates will need to face. It is not enough for President Biden to warn that another Trump presidency would be disastrous or to list his accomplishments in order to make the case as to why different parts of the electorate, such as the Black community, should vote Democrat. If he wants to win, the president, along with Vice President Kamala Harris, will need to step up their media operations and bring in a first-rate team that can help them keep the cameras and the social media posts focused on their message.
Otherwise, they will quickly get lost in the Trumpian noise.
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