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With Debate Canceled, Joe Biden Appeals To Voters Via Town Hall

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Presidential candidate Joe Biden has faced pressure in recent days for a question he would not answer. Responding to the Republican move to confirm a justice to the Supreme Court, Democrats have talked of expanding the size of the court that would let Biden, if he wins, appoint new justices. For days, Biden declined to say what he thought of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: Now, look; I know it's a great question to y'all, and I don't blame you for asking. But you know the moment I answer that question, the headline in every one of your papers will be about that.

INSKEEP: Biden had previously expressed skepticism about the idea. And this week, he finally relented and answered the question, telling a Cincinnati station he still is not a fan. How does Biden make news, and why does he sometimes avoid making news? We've called Jennifer Palmieri. She was communications director for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign.

Good morning.

JENNIFER PALMIERI: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Do you think Biden actively wants to stay out of the headlines?

PALMIERI: No. I don't think he wants to stay out of the headlines, but he wants to be in the headlines making the right kind of news that's going to help him in the closing weeks in October. So...

INSKEEP: And this was not the right kind of news for him. Why not?

PALMIERI: Because it's not what - it's not what actually voters are - care about, right? This is not what - I think the press may ask him these questions. These are not questions that he's getting asked about by voters. And when you are running against Donald Trump, it is very hard to break through. So when you do break through, you want to make sure that you are breaking through with talking about an issue that people are - that's actually on their minds and that's going to help you, particularly in these closing weeks. You know...

INSKEEP: Oh.

PALMIERI: ...Trump is behind a lot - by a lot right now. He was behind by a lot at this point in 2016. And he can get disciplined, and he can come back. And so the moments that Biden does have to break through, you want to make sure he's talking about COVID, he's talking about health care, he's talking about bringing the country together. And, you know, when you feel the pressure that I know the Biden campaign feels to bring this victory home, you get very relentless about staying on those messages and not getting distracted by questions that are going to generate headlines that are unhelpful. And you just - you have to be that disciplined in the closing weeks.

INSKEEP: Although it is interesting, there are some Democrats - and it sounds like you're one of them - who would say that there is a risk of Biden disappearing because the president is so good at focusing attention on himself. Is there a risk to making no news?

PALMIERI: There is a risk to making no news. And I don't - I think that the Biden campaign always wants to make news. The problem is, how do you get through the clatter that Trump creates? And, you know, the first debate was sort of a physical manifestation of what Trump does, right? He makes news. He heckles. He interrupts Biden onstage as he does when they're not onstage together just by being who he is. And so...

INSKEEP: That's what's happening tonight. Biden scheduled a town hall meeting.

PALMIERI: Yes.

INSKEEP: Trump has a town hall at the exact same time.

PALMIERI: Yes. Yes, right. So Trump just tries to get in the way of Biden being heard. And so I think that's why the Biden campaign is smart to sort of draft off of Trump. So Amy Coney Barrett nomination - what do they do? They use that as an opportunity to talk about the Affordable Care Act 'cause they know that people are worried about health care. When the president does have these moments where he's seemingly unhinged, they talk about bringing the country together; they talk about being a unifier. When things are getting bad with COVID, they talk about how he would manage COVID better. And it is - that is the way you have to run against Trump is you've got to find the - how he is making news and you can find, where can I fit in and get - and use him to get some attention for what I want to do?

INSKEEP: In a couple of seconds, is it an adequate answer for Biden finally to say about court packing, I'm not a fan?

PALMIERI: Yeah, I think so. I guess I don't actually - I don't think that actual voters are asking him about this. Actual voters are asking about health care, right? Actual voters are asking him about how you bring the country together.

INSKEEP: Jen Palmieri, thanks so much.

PALMIERI: My pleasure. Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Jennifer Palmieri was communications director for Hillary Clinton and author of "She Proclaims: Our Declaration Of Independence From A Man's World." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.