Biden’s NATO press conference will be a key test for him. But he is not a master of the big rhetorical moment.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden has a fresh opportunity Thursday to try to prove to the American public that he is capable of serving another four years after his shock debate defeat threw the future of his presidency into doubt. But Biden is not known as a master of the big rhetorical moment, and his latest efforts to clear it have fallen compact.

Biden, 81, will close the NATO summit in Washington — an event designed to showcase his leadership on the world stage — with a scarce solo news conference. His stamina and effectiveness are under scrutiny like never before, and he is struggling to quell Democratic panic about his chances in November.

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By many metrics, from job growth and important legislation to a broadened transatlantic alliance, Biden can point to successes during his term. But where he has sometimes fallen short — spectacularly, in the case of the debate — is in a defining part of the role that is not in the official job description: delivering inspiring speeches that command the nation’s attention and respect.

Biden has tried to improve his performance since the debate, but his ABC interview last week was disappointing. Nothing he has tried to do seems to stop the bleeding, and a growing number of lawmakers are calling for him to withdraw amid concerns he could hand the White House to Republican former President Donald Trump.

Americans tend to judge their leaders less by what they do than by how they perceive them, and Biden’s debate defeat shook his party to its core.

“The debate reminded us that you can have as many policies as you want, but what matters most is what the public sees and hears,” said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton.

” READ MORE: Jill Biden, the president’s closest adviser, faces mounting criticism. She’s not cracking.

Rhetoric is closely linked to the contemporary presidency, from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” to Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

It can inspire in the face of tragedy, like George W. Bush’s megaphone speech over the smoking ruins of Ground Zero, and facilitate a country weary of war and recession regain its sense of self-worth, like Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can!” Even Donald Trump’s cry of “Make America Great Again” reflected the temperament of a nation in turmoil.

“People saw Trump as a reflection of a more turbulent, chaotic, angry country,” Zelizer said. “Voters may see Biden’s weakness as a symbol of weakness or their own instability.”

Biden can give a good speech—his State of the Union address earlier this year helped silence skeptics about his fitness as a candidate. But his strength as a president and politician has been the way his humanity in intimate situations resonated with voters, as well as the strength of his personal narrative and down-to-earth roots.

But those moments, played out in the privacy of their homes or before miniature crowds, even if they are amplified on social media as Biden’s team is hoping, are likely to reach fewer viewers than the tens of millions who watched him fight Trump.

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Despite calls from some in his party to step down, Biden has stood his ground and said he is the best Democrat to defeat Trump, whose candidacy he has called an existential threat to democracy.

His press conference will be closely watched for his ability to think on his feet, demonstrate dynamism and articulate that he is still capable of doing the job and that he is capable of winning it again.

Even before the debate, Biden’s presidential victories have often come despite his inability to sell them to a skeptical public. Before facing Trump, he has historically low job ratings as an American leader. And he has been unable to overcome voters’ pessimism about the country’s direction, with most voters in his own party already believing he is too old to effectively lead the country.

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Rather than helping Biden reset the race against Trump, the debate confirmed voters’ pre-existing fears about him, said Allison Prasch, a professor of rhetoric who studies presidential communication at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

“The president is a symbol,” she said, adding that Americans often look at the president as a mirror in which they reflect their hopes and fears.

“You could argue that when you see a president who appears frail and has difficulty performing basic presidential duties, it raises questions about the state of the nation,” she said.

She compared his recent, vacillating public statements with his campaign message from four years ago.

“In 2020, he promised to project confidence in the face of chaos. He said, ‘I am this constant force,’” Prasch said. “When you’ve promoted yourself like that and you’re doing the opposite in this debate, that’s why it was so jarring to the public.”

Biden’s advisers and allies have responded to the debate with a series of public statements defending Biden’s mental health and fitness for the job, focusing in particular on the big decisions he makes in the Oval Office, not his ability to communicate them to the masses.

“I saw no reason to question or doubt his clarity of mind, his understanding of context, his inquisitive nature and the degree to which he has complete control over the facts and figures,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said Monday.

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Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa and a veteran of four administrations, said he was never concerned about Biden’s decision-making.

Speaking of Biden, he told The Associated Press: “I’ve never seen a president who wasn’t prepared, who wasn’t thoughtful, who didn’t ask rigorous questions of the people in the room or of a foreign leader,” adding that Biden “sometimes makes decisions that are often difficult decisions and then actually follows through on them.”

Although Biden and his team have made a concerted effort since the debate to boost his public profile — which has been limited by aides concerned about Biden’s propensity for mishaps and stumbles — it has proven uneven and at times disappointing.

Campaigning in Pennsylvania on Sunday, Biden delivered speeches lasting less than 10 minutes at a Philadelphia church and a rally in Harrisburg, but he spent three times as much time taking selfies and hugging children — the kind of uplifting content that has always bolstered his political standing.

” READ MORE: President Biden, desperate for support, went to Philadelphia church to ‘feel the love’

A phone interview with MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” showed Biden’s defiance of party “elites” as he vowed to stay in the race. In his opening speech at the NATO summit, Biden was staunch in defense of the alliance.

“The more he goes out and campaigns, the clearer the contrast will be and the easier the choice will be for voters: between Joe Biden, a decent man fighting for the middle class, and an unstable billionaire like Trump who wants to repeal the ACA and turn our country into a dictatorship,” campaign spokesman Kevin Munoz said, referring in part to the Affordable Care Act.

But when asked in an ABC interview how he would feel if his candidacy handed the White House back to Trump, he gave a distorted and uninspiring answer: “I will, as long as I’ve given my all and done as good a job as I can, that’s what it’s all about.”

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