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Politics: Biden has done just three local interviews in first year in office

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Democrats and other political observers say President Biden is missing the mark by not doing more local interviews.

Biden has done just three local interviews in first year in office © AP-Andrew Harnik Biden has done just three local interviews in first year in office

Biden griped recently that he hasn't been able to travel as much because of the pandemic, but these critics say Biden by doing more local interviews could start getting his message across without being on the ground.

The criticism comes as Biden deals with anemic approval ratings and a daunting midterm election season, which have Democrats worried about a wipeout this fall.

"They're really shooting themselves in the foot by not using every tool available to them," said one top Democratic strategist, who pointed to Biden's recent trip to Georgia as an example where the White House could have done more. "It's an opportunity to speak directly to people, especially in places where they really need to maintain support. And it doesn't take a lot of effort."

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Since taking office last year, Biden has sat down for three interviews with local affiliates, according to Mark Knoller, the veteran White House correspondent who actively tracks presidential movement and interviews.

He pointed to interviews Biden held with WKRC in Cincinnati, WHIO in Dayton, Ohio and WLTX in Columbia, S.C.

The president has conducted a total of 19 media interviews, according to Knoller's tally.

The White House has signaled an aggressive pivot in some of its messaging at the beginning of the year, which could preview more interviews by Biden, say some Democrats.

"It is certainly surprising that the president has not sat for more local interviews but I imagine you may see that ramp up in 2022," said Democratic strategist Joel Payne.

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Biden is following in the footsteps of his predecessors, who also prioritized national media in their first year in office, said Martha Kumar, a political scientist who serves as director of the White House Transition Project.

According to Kumar's accounting, former President Trump sat for 11 local interviews during his first year and 76 national interviews, the bulk of which were granted to Fox News. Former President Obama gave 17 local interviews and 101 national interviews during the same period. Former President George W. Bush gave 5 local interviews and 30 national interviews.

"What they are doing is introducing themselves to the nation as a whole, not just to their voters. In the first year, they want to discuss what their goals and priorities are and then demonstrate their leadership style," Kumar said.

The Biden White House has made other overtures to the local press. White House press secretary Jen Psaki on occasion welcomes a local journalist to ask a question via Skype at the end of the briefing.

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Trump had a combative relationship with the press and overwhelmingly favored conservative news outlets during his tenure, granting more interviews to Fox News than any other outlet throughout his tenure.

The Trump White House also opened up the briefing room to local journalists and commentators who chimed in via Skype during the former president's first year in office.

Past presidents have moved toward doing more interviews with local outlets in later years of their terms. And Biden, who will be looking to drum up support for Democrats in the 2020 midterms, has said he intends to get out on the road more in his second year to speak directly to Americans.

"I'm going to be out on the road a lot, making the case around the country, with my colleagues who are up for reelection and others, making the case of what we did do and what we want to do, what we need to do," Biden said during a press conference last week.

The White House did not respond to an inquiry about whether Biden planned to increase his local media interviews.

Obama, Biden's one-time partner, sat down for a string of local interviews from the White House map room in 2011. In one month alone that year, Obama sat for interviews with stations from Charlotte, Miami, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Albuquerque, N.M., and Norfolk, Va.

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Before that, he did interviews with reporters from Richmond, Va., Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Tampa, Denver, Des Moines and Columbus. Those all represented key markets for Obama in swing states.

Overall, Obama sat for 58 local interviews in 2011 and 117 in 2012, according to Kumar's tally.

"I know that there have been strategies in the past where a White House would do local media to go 'over the top' of the national media, or because someone thought the questions were easier. But I don't think about it that way," said Tony Fratto, who served as deputy press secretary to former President George W. Bush. "I just think it's an opportunity missed for the President to localize some of their bigger accomplishments -- especially infrastructure."

Biden has had far fewer exchanges with the press in general. Biden's 16 national interviews include three town halls on CNN, sit-downs with the three networks and an interview with People Magazine. Vice President Kamala Harris has also sat down for more interviews, logging at least 56 interviews.

"It's problematic when we hear from Jen more than the President," said one Democrat close to the White House, referring to Psaki.

Some say interviews aren't Biden's strength.

"There is minimal benefit, and maximum downside for the president to increase his visibility on local media," said Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of communications emeritus at Boston University, who was a media consultant on Democratic campaigns.

"Local interviews are immediately picked up by the national media, so if the president misspeaks, it is not just to local viewers, but all the media that run with the story," Berkovitz noted. "Local interviews can also focus on issues such as crime and education that tend not to be on the front burner during network interviews. This can open a can of worms on controversial issues that matter more to parents and families than to network anchors."

Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, said Biden should stick to scripted, public remarks rather than marathon press conferences like the one he presided over last week.

"It would be hard for any president, even one as good at this as a John Kennedy, to stand up there for two hours and just do it."

"I think he is strongest giving set speeches and reading from a script, where most contemporary politicians are not as good at that."

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