To Oval or not to Oval

Welcome to POLITICO’s West Wing Playbook, your guide to the people and power centers in the Biden administration. With help from producer Ben Johansen.

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The Oval Office is not an inherently natural place to give a speech.

There’s camera and teleprompter equipment surrounding you. Behind them, staff and pool reporters are filling the room to the gills. It can get hot when it’s that cramped. There is something stuffy about it. It is an extraordinary setting, but an awkward one too. After all, you’re sitting at a desk and what are you supposed to do with your hands?

“It can be a challenging setting because most presidents don’t give speeches sitting down,” said former Obama White House press secretary ROBERT GIBBS. “There’s a little bit of awkwardness in that.”

Even for skilled orators, it can be a lot to overcome. Few presidents have been able to use the room effectively since RONALD REAGAN. The former actor was one of the rare presidents to actually seem somewhat natural behind the desk, giving 29 primetime Oval Office speeches over the course of his presidency.

BARACK OBAMA only gave three Oval Office addresses during his entire presidency, preferring other White House venues like Cross Hall, where he chose to announce that the U.S. had killed OSAMA BIN LADEN in 2011. When he tried to make a 2015 Oval Office speech a bit more comfortable by standing at a podium instead of sitting at the Resolute Desk, he was widely mocked. DONALD TRUMP, who also felt stiff and uncomfortable in the setting, gave two primetime speeches from the Oval.

The room has obvious drawbacks that push presidents to select other speech venues. But there’s no getting around the fact that when the White House wants to convey a sense of gravity and urgency, few locations can help accomplish that goal in the same way.

“It’s awkward. It’s stilted. It doesn’t have the visual impact, or the emotional impact that it did under Reagan,” said JEFF SHESOL, a speechwriter for then-President BILL CLINTON who went on to found the consulting firm West Wing Writers. “At the same time, it is a signal to the media and to the public: ‘Hey, this is really important. I don’t do this a lot. And I want your attention when you would probably rather be watching the baseball playoffs or something else.’”

That was part of the thinking that went into the White House’s decision on where President JOE BIDEN should give his Thursday evening speech on the Hamas’ terrorist attacks against Israel and the war in Ukraine. It will be just his second formal Oval Office address since taking office.

Biden had initially planned to give a speech urging Congress to approve more funding for Ukraine, but the timing of that address was pushed back in the wake of conflict in Israel and Palestine. It quickly became clear to White House officials that Biden would have to broaden his address. A senior White House official said that Biden felt it was important to communicate directly with the public about what was at stake abroad and to acknowledge how painful the recent global events have been for many Americans. In sum, it was the right moment to use the Oval.

It was also important to the White House to get the big networks to cut into their prime-time programming to take the president’s speech live, which is not always an easy sell. CNN, ABC, NBC and CBS all plan to interrupt their programming to take the president’s speech live. Even Fox News is preempting its 8 p.m. opinion hour for coverage of Biden’s address, according to network spokespeople.

“Even though the audiences are a fraction of what they were 20 years ago, nationally televised addresses remain one of the best ways for a president to reach a broad swath of the public simultaneously,” said former Obama senior strategist, DAN PFEIFFER.

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Thanks to the White House Historical Association for this question!

Which president was the first to meet an organized sports team in the White House?

(Answer at bottom.)

NEVER POST: The White House issued a mea culpa today after its social media team posted a picture of the president meeting with Delta Force operators in Israel. The picture, which showed the faces of the special ops members, was ultimately deleted, but not after being viewed and liked by thousands.

“As soon as this was brought to our attention, we immediately deleted the photo,” a White House official said. “We regret the error and any issues this may have caused.”

DOUG OPENS UP: Second gentleman DOUG EMHOFF has led the White House’s efforts to combat antisemitism — a job that has brought him in front of a number of communities dealing with fear and heartache. In a new piece by LA Times’ COURTNEY SUBRAMANIAN, he confided that in the aftermath of Hamas’ attacks against Israel, he felt the same. Before participating in a White House event with Jewish leaders last week, Biden pulled Emhoff aside.

“How are you doing? How are you?” the president asked him.

“It just got — it got me,” Emhoff recalled, his eyes misty. “And then I had to go out and speak. And so you saw my raw emotion.”

WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE WANTS YOU TO READ: This piece by WSJ’s ALAN S. BLINDER about how Americans should be giving Biden more credit on the economy amid polling that suggests they aren’t sold on his performance. “Although the Biden administration can’t crow about it, for fear of seeming out of touch, the economy is doing remarkably well,” Blinder writes. He argues that although inflation is falling, prices are still higher than much of the public is willing to tolerate. Deputy Communications Director HERBIE ZISKEND shared the piece on X.

WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE DOESN’T WANT YOU TO READ: This Morning Consult and Bloomberg News poll that found Biden still trails former President Trump in swing states by four points. “Whether the economy is actually failing is beside the point: Many voters don’t think ‘Bidenomics,’ the phrase the president has used to brand his economic policies, has been good for America,” Morning Consult’s ELI YOKLEY writes.

NEW FACES AT OPE: Office of Public Engagement director STEVE BENJAMIN is making some leadership changes to his team.

— JENNY KAPLAN is now deputy assistant to the president and senior adviser to Benjamin. She most recently served as senior adviser to Commerce Secretary GINA RAIMONDO.

— JAMIE CITRON has been elevated to deputy assistant to the president and principal deputy director.

— ERICA LOEWE is now special assistant to the president and chief of staff. She most recently served as the White House director of African American Media.

— KATE BALCERZAK is now special assistant to the president and director of partnerships and private sector engagement. She was most recently at PepsiCo and the Department of State.

— TAYLOR WRIGHT is now senior adviser for public engagement on the private sector and partnerships team where he leads on issues including implementation equity and philanthropy. He most recently served at the Department of Transportation and Small Business Administration.

— FEVEN SOLOMON is now senior adviser for public engagement, serving as liaison to the African American community. She most recently was deputy executive director at the Congressional Black Caucus.

MORE PERSONNEL MOVES: JEREMY M. EDWARDS joined the White House press office on Monday, serving as an assistant press secretary to support the newly-established White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention. Edwards is on detail from FEMA, where he served as deputy director of public affairs and press secretary.

RESIGNING IN PROTEST: JOSH PAUL, a senior State Department official who has worked for more than 11 years at the department’s bureau of political-military affairs, has resigned over the Biden administration’s approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict, HuffPost’s AKBAR SHAHID AHMED reports.

“It was clear that there’s no arguing with this one. Given that I couldn’t shift anything, I resigned,” Paul said in an interview with HuffPost.

PREVIEWING THE BIG SPEECH: Biden spoke with President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY Thursday afternoon to discuss ongoing U.S. support for Ukraine ahead of his prime-time address, according to the White House pool.

A subsequent readout of the call was issued by the White House: “The leaders discussed Ukraine’s ongoing fight to defend its freedom and independence from Russian aggression. President Biden underscored the continued strong bipartisan support in the United States for Ukraine’s defense of its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and democratic future.”

SHUFFLING SUPPLIES: The Pentagon plans to send thousands of artillery shells to Israel, which had previously been allocated for Ukraine, Axios’ BARAK RAVID reports. U.S. officials say that the move will not have an immediate impact on Ukraine’s fighting capabilities, but as Ravid notes, concerns loom over whether supplies will be stretched thin if the war in Israel escalates further.

Earlier today, our PAUL MCLEARY wrote that the Pentagon was working to establish a team to gather stockpiles to resupply Israel’s missiles.

CLEAN ENERGY FOR ALL: The Biden administration plans to open applications for a “bonus” credit program aimed at expanding renewable energy for low-income communities, our KELSEY TAMBORRINO reports for Pro subscribers. Deputy Treasury Secretary WALLY ADEMEYO said the program will create thousands of projects annually and deputy energy secretary DAVID TURK referred to the tax credit as “the most significant tax incentive in U.S. history.”

How to Fly an American President Into a Country at War (NYT’s Peter Baker)

The real way RFK Jr. could spoil the 2024 election (POLITICO’s Brittany Gibson)

What Sidney Powell’s Deal Could Mean for the Fulton County Case Against Trump (The Atlantic’s David A. Graham)

Following his move to D.C. in 2016, BRADY PETERS, White House associate director of writing, decided to take a stab at improv. After listening to podcasts and watching many episodes of 30 Rock, he signed up for classes at the Washington Improv Theater.

In a 2017 improv tournament with the theater, Peters performed with a group called “My White Mom,” where he had the audience in stitches!

Check out this video of Brady’s performance! If any of our readers feel like they can top that, please be our guest and send us your best work.

President ANDREW JOHNSON was the first president to meet an organized sports team inside the White House when baseball teams, the Nationals and the Atlantics, visited the White House on Aug. 30, 1865, according to the White House Historical Association.

A CALL OUT! Do you think you have a harder trivia question? Send us your best one about the presidents, with a citation or sourcing, and we may feature it!

Edited by Eun Kyung Kim and Sam Stein.