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What can the White House do to control the narrative around Biden's ability?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It's been almost two weeks, and the concerns persist.

(SOUNBITE OF MONTAGE)

ADAM SCHIFF: It should not be even close. And there's only one reason it is close, and that's the president's age.

ADAM SMITH: President Biden is not capable of delivering that message effectively or consistently.

SCOTT PETERS: If they don't have a plan, then I think we have to move in a different direction.

CHRIS MURPHY: I do think the clock is ticking.

KELLY: Voters, donors, members of Congress are openly wondering whether President Joe Biden is fit to be the Democratic nominee. This sturm und drang comes on the heels of Biden's debate performance last month and as the Biden campaign, along with the Biden White House, struggle to gain control of what communication strategists refer to as the message. Well, judging from the White House briefing on Monday, they're not succeeding.

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ED O'KEEFE: That's a very basic direct question.

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Hold on. Hold on. Wait. Wait. Wait a second. Wait.

O'KEEFE: ...Times, or at least once, in regards to the president specifically.

JEAN-PIERRE: I just... Wait. Hold on a second.

O'KEEFE: That much you should be able to answer by this point.

JEAN-PIERRE: Wait. No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

KELLY: That moment between CBS White House correspondent Ed O'Keefe and White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre is just that - one moment. But it is indicative of how hard the White House is finding it to quiet questions about Biden's health and mental acuity.

Well, Paul Begala is a scholar at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. Before that, he was a counselor to the president in the Clinton White House, which dealt with its own fair share of political crises. Paul Begala, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

PAUL BEGALA: Hi, Mary Louise. Good to be here.

KELLY: That exchange we just heard between the White House press secretary and a reporter, what does it tell us about the administration and the campaign and how they are navigating this current moment?

BEGALA: I - Karine is a real pro. By the way, so is Ed O'Keefe of CBS. And it suggests to me that the White House spokesperson is kind of dancing in the dark. You know, very few people spend lots of time with Joe Biden. He has the tightest inner circle I have ever seen. And as - and I'm a Democrat. I voted for Biden in the primaries. I support Joe Biden. We need to hear from the people who are around him all the time, and we haven't. And that tells me something. Often, my experience is when a spokesperson doesn't answer a question, it's because she can't.

KELLY: So what would that look like if you - to hear from the people who are closest to him? Who do you want to hear from, and how should that happen?

BEGALA: Where's the president's chief of staff? Where's the president's National Security advisor? Where's the strategists who are the most senior in his campaign? Where are the people who ran the debate prep? All of them are friends of mine. All of them are really good people and good Democrats and good Americans. But we're not hearing from them. And they are the people who are around President Biden even more than the most senior congressional leaders are. And we want to know. And I think that's a fair question. And I hope I never again side with the press against a Democratic spokesperson, but I think the press is right on this one.

KELLY: What about the president himself? He did sit down for an interview with George Stephanopoulos, but that took more than a week. Should he be out there every day doing rallies, taking interviews, making himself seen?

BEGALA: Yes, and doing town halls. He's going to do a press conference with the NATO Summit that he's hosting this week in Washington, but he needs to do more. But I don't think it should only be on him. When the question is, are you too old, you're often not your own best advocate. So I want to see his team, but I do want to see him. And the reporting out of his meeting with the governors is that he said, well, I'm not going to do anything after 8 o'clock at night anymore. I worked for a president. There's a lot of times you got to work after 8 o'clock at night.

KELLY: I mean, I guess the question is, how much wiggle room is there for Biden's advisors when their boss keeps saying, I don't see a problem; everything's just fine here.

BEGALA: That's right. The essential question was asked by Nancy Pelosi. She said this a week ago. On July 2, she said, is this an episode or is this a condition? And a week later, I don't think we have an answer to that yet.

KELLY: Did you see any answers - the president himself sent a letter to congressional Democrats yesterday, a long letter saying, I am not ceding the space. I am not stepping aside. It is time to unite. He gave another interview to "Morning Joe," MSNBC. Did that go any way toward answering questions for you?

BEGALA: Yes. He's showing some feistiness. He's showing - he clearly has a lot of fire and wit. I wish he had shown it during the debate. I wish he'd been as tough on Donald Trump as he has been on these mythical Democratic elites. But, OK, that's a start. The question that Speaker Emerita Pelosi asked, though, lingers. If there is any other event, it could be catastrophic. The debate was already catastrophic, let me be honest. But voters...

KELLY: Hold up one second - catastrophic? You think that is - that word is not too strong?

BEGALA: I don't. I've done this a very long time. I'm in my 40th year in American politics. And I've studied it. I went back and watched the Reagan-Mondale debates, which everybody thought was terrible for Reagan, that he showed signs of aging. He was compared to what we saw in the Biden-Trump debate. Reagan was perfectly sharp. So the problem is, there's one big issue with Joe Biden - is he too old? The debate was supposed to answer that.

I have to say, as a Democrat, I was confident he would. I thought he was terrific at the State of the Union address. I watched his commencement address in May at Morehouse, which was fantastic. I was really confident that he could take the fight to Trump and whip him, and he didn't. And so it caused this central issue to completely metastasize.

KELLY: Is there a path back, politically?

BEGALA: I don't know. That's a great question. His path, it's the path he's pursuing, which is, for all of his railing about elites, it's the members of Congress who may drive this train. We're pretty elite people. And right now, he seems to have staunched the bleeding there.

The rock-solid support of the Congressional Black Caucus is the most important thing. You know, Black Democrats are not the majority of the party, but they're the heart of the party. They're the most important constituency in the party. They made him the nominee. They made him the president. And right now, they seem to be willing to save him. And that's something I think every Democrat will respect.

KELLY: Last thing, and this may be impossible to answer from inside the Beltway and that perspective, but does all of this in the end have a chance of being a tempest in a tea cup among the elites, as President Biden would call it? In other words, do voters out across the country care? Do they have other things on their mind?

BEGALA: Well, they have other things on their mind, but the age issue undermines Biden on every other issue. If you ask voters who's best to take on inflation, they say Trump, not because they think Trump has good ideas, but they think Biden's too old to take on inflation. If you ask them - this is the most heartbreaking question - who's best to defend democracy, they say Trump, who's connected to the January 6 insurrection, not because they think the insurrection was a good thing, but because they think Biden's too old. So old drives all of this.

You know, it's like - they once asked Ray Charles, what's the hardest thing about being blind? He said, you can't see. You know, what's the hardest thing about being 81 is, like, a whole - most people think you're too old to do the job. And once that sets in, it's very difficult, bordering on impossible, to cure.

KELLY: Paul Begala - he was a counselor to President Clinton. He is now a CNN commentator and scholar at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. Paul Begala, thank you.

BEGALA: Mary Louise, thank you. That was depressing (laughter), but thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.