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One day after President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris assumed their new roles in the White House, The 19th presented a conversation with the administration’s women-led communications team.
Editor-at-large Errin Haines spoke to Kate Bedingfield, Karine Jean-Pierre, Jen Psaki and Symone Sanders about how the 46th president plans to communicate with the public, and what his message will be as the country faces a pandemic, an economic crisis, ongoing climate change, racial inequities, and widespread disinformation that has led to divisions and violence.
“With great opportunity comes great responsibility,” said Psaki, who is the White House press secretary, and previously served as the White House communications director under Barack Obama and State Department spokesperson. “I think what our focus is in the Biden-Harris administration … is to do everything we can every day to rebuild trust with the American public and accept that it’s not going to happen overnight.”
Biden is likely to have the most diverse Cabinet ever with a record number of women, including Harris — the first woman and Black and South Asian person to be vice president. In addition to those in charge of the administration’s communications team, a number of women take leading roles, from grassroots organizers, like Stacey Abrams, to high-ranking officials, like Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Haines asked the panelists about their role in normalizing women leaders and its impact on people’s political imaginations.
Psaki said many of her colleagues in the president’s press office are working mothers, “tough as nails” and qualified: “This is the group of women who are the best in the business, and that is why we have these jobs.”
Jean-Pierre, who previously served as chief public affairs officer for MoveOn.org and as a political analysist for NBC and MSNBC, said Biden and Harris had been pushing for national unity even before a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol on January 6 in an attempt to stop the certification of the electoral votes.
“When I think about my role … we’re partners in truth,” Jean-Pierre said. “And I think that’s really important. After the last several years, it’s important as spokespeople to make sure that we bring that back into the White House.”
When it comes to Biden’s predecessor, Psaki said the team doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about former president Donald Trump.
Bedingfield, who was the communications director for Biden during Obama’s administration, said Biden’s social media presence will spread hope and optimism in the “battle for the soul of the Internet” — a contrast to the “divisive” and “hate-filled” content that Americans became accustomed to during the last four years.
“I think it’s safe to say that you can expect that President Biden is not going to be breaking news at 1 a.m. on Twitter, so everybody can just take a deep breath and take a step back,” Bedingfield said.
Sanders, who was the youngest presidential campaign press secretary while working for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign, said the American people need relief as many struggle to buy food and pay rent. One of the Biden-Harris administration’s main priorities, she said, is to “communicate early and often” to be transparent and accountable, especially as the government continues to distribute the coronavirus vaccine.
“As a communications team, we’re going to have to think about how do we communicate honestly with the American people when we have hard news to share?” Bedingfield said. “President Biden has said many times that the American people can handle anything but you have to tell them the truth.”
In his inaugural address Wednesday, Biden said: “I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days. I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal, that we are all created equal, and the harsh ugly reality that racism, nativism and fear have torn us apart. The battle is perennial and victory is never secure.”
Jean-Pierre said Biden’s team will continue to push equity at the core of its messaging across all issues— from the economy and the pandemic, to climate, housing and education.
“It’s going to take some time, right?” Jean-Pierre said. “You can’t talk about systemic racism and say you’re going to fix it even in a first term. This is something that is going to take a long time and you got to begin to start the process.”