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White House reverses course after suggestion Biden might not serve full second term

By Ben Marquis
|
April 26, 2023

President Joe Biden formally launched his 2024 re-election campaign on Tuesday amid legitimate concerns about his age and health and ability to serve out the entirety of a second term in the White House.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre seemed to acknowledge the possibility that Biden would be unable to complete another term in office but then later reversed herself and expressed certainty that, if re-elected, he would serve an entire eight years as president, the Daily Mail reported.

In doing so, Jean-Pierre also made a vague reference to the Hatch Act, a law that prohibits political advocacy by federal employees, which some White House reporters have accused the press secretary of excessively wielding as a shield to avoid answering certain questions.

"Not going to get ahead of the President"

The Daily Mail reported that President Biden announced his re-election campaign on Tuesday with the release of a three-minute video that included what will apparently be the main theme and slogan of the effort -- "Let's finish the job."

Later in the day during the press briefing, Jean-Pierre fielded a number of questions from reporters about Biden's 2024 announcement but, more often than not, the press secretary repeatedly cited the Hatch Act or referred reporters to the campaign itself for answers.

At one point, a reporter working off the assumption that Biden would successfully win re-election in 2024 asked, "Does the President plan to serve all eight years?"

"I’m not -- I’m just not going to get ahead of the President. That’s something for him to decide," Jean-Pierre replied. "I’m just not going to get ahead of it. And we’re -- there’s a 2024 campaign. Anything related to that, I would refer you to that."

Jean-Pierre clarifies: Biden "would serve all 8 years"

The Daily Mail made note of the obvious implication of Jean-Pierre's response as revealing at least some level of doubt with regard to the ability of President Biden, who will be 82 during the 2024 election, to serve out a full second term in office, and further pointed out that Vice President Kamala Harris, who is next in line for the presidency, was featured prominently in the new campaign video.

Jean-Pierre's response was also highlighted in a tweet from Fox News White House correspondent Jacqui Heinrich, which appears to have prompted a clarification from the press secretary to clear up any potential misunderstandings.

In a retweet of Heinrich's post, Jean-Pierre wrote, "As you know, we take following the law seriously. So I wanted to be sure that I didn't go into 2024 more than is appropriate under the law. But I can confirm that if re-elected, @POTUS would serve all 8 years."

Overreliance on the Hatch Act

Though not specifically named in Jean-Pierre's answer to the question or subsequent clarifying tweet, her remark about "following the law seriously" was undoubtedly a reference to the Hatch Act.

That law, first passed in 1939, "limits certain political activities of federal employees" and other government employees who work with "federally-funded programs," per the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. "The law’s purposes are to ensure that federal programs are administered in a nonpartisan fashion, to protect federal employees from political coercion in the workplace, and to ensure that federal employees are advanced based on merit and not based on political affiliation.​​​​"

​​In December 2022, Politico reported on the noticeable trend over the prior few months of Jean-Pierre routinely citing that law to avoid answering a variety of queries but pointed out that "members of the media are privately grumbling that Jean-Pierre is applying an overly broad definition of Hatch Act restrictions to the topics they’re asking."

"Reporters say Jean-Pierre is turning the Hatch Act into an escape hatch," the outlet continued. "They note she can be quick to shut down their questions -- yet talk freely from the podium about Democrats’ stronger than expected midterms or use political language like 'mega MAGA Republicans.'"

Jean-Pierre's "Escape Hatch"

Indeed, the Washington Examiner also reported in December 2022 on Jean-Pierre's increasingly apparent reliance on the "Escape Hatch" Act to dodge certain questions and provided 10 separate examples of her citing the law as a way to not provide an answer to a reporter's query.

One unnamed White House journalist told Politico, "I think reporters get the feeling that it’s a way to avoid having to answer some delicate questions. You can almost feel the entire briefing room rolling their eyes when they hear the Hatch Act drop."

Another White House reporter said, "It’s pretty obvious it’s become her latest verbal crutch when she’s trying to avoid a question that’s even remotely campaign-related. She’s extremely cautious about stuff but this has become a tactic to avoid even the simplest questions."