Bowing at long last to White House tradition, or maybe just to the crescendo of tsk-tsking from an aggrieved Beltway news media, Joe Biden has finally scheduled his first formal press conference for Thursday, March 25—Day 64 of his fledgling presidency.
“It’s a problem—who are we kidding here? More than two months without a press conference? Come on!” a veteran White House correspondent told The Daily Beast, asking not to be further identified for fear that criticism of the Biden White House, for all its lip-service to the First Amendment, might provoke some sort of punishment.
“Obviously, there is no equivalence between this and how the press was treated under Donald Trump—I think we’re all suffering from post-Trump stress disorder—but this is stretching the bounds of access and transparency.”
The correspondent conceded, however, that “from a strategic standpoint, it makes perfect sense because why would he want to get asked about his predecessor all the time? Or Hunter Biden? There are always going to be uncomfortable questions, no matter who’s in office. But there’s a responsibility issue here that he has just been completely ducking. It’s too cute by half. It seems they’re doing this because they think it just throws them off message.”
Trump, by this point in his presidency, had held five press conferences, although four of them were so-called “two-and-twos” with visiting foreign leaders, featuring only two questioners from each nation’s press corps.
As the Washington Post’s media reporter Paul Farhi pointed out in a recent story, this surprising media-shyness by the previously loquacious former senator and vice president—“the longest a new president has gone without meeting the press in the past 100 years,” Farhi wrote—has prompted all manner of stern admonitions from journalism’s elite.
“Americans have every right to expect that he will regularly submit himself to substantial questioning,” declared a Post editorial. “As it has with prior presidents,” the Associated Press’s Zeke Miller, president of the White House Correspondents Association, said in a statement, “the WHCA continues to call on President Biden to hold formal press conferences with regularity.”
“The most important thing to Biden’s success as president… is to communicate as frequently as possible what he’s doing and why, and I think they’re doing a good job of that.”
— Jay Carney, Obama’s White House Press Secretary
The National Journal’s White House correspondent George Condon, a former WHCA president, argued that while full-dress news conferences play an essential role in “getting a better sense of the president’s thinking,” the Biden White House deserves a certain amount of leeway because of the logistical challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s nobody who pushes for press conferences more than I do, but I really think you’ve got to put this one in context a little bit,” Condon told The Daily Beast. “You have the reality that the White House and the Correspondents Association are just getting pelted with complaints every week about ‘why can’t we go into the briefing room’ [because of social-distancing requirements that limit the press seating to just 14]. If you’re getting those complaints, what in the world is going to be the demand for an indoor press conference? It’s just a very difficult situation…If this were a normal non-pandemic situation, I’d be among the loudest voices complaining.”
Meanwhile, a Biden White House official who preferred to remain anonymous insisted that the president’s alleged disappearing act is fake news. The long-delayed press conference aside, this person emailed The Daily Beast that Biden has “done a CNN town hall, Univision, [an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos], and he takes questions from the press here at the White House several times a week.”
Of course, Biden usually fields only one or two questions at a time, often with terse responses and zero follow-ups, an exchange that occasionally competes with the din of whirring helicopter blades. Or he might answer a question during pool sprays when a small contingent of journalists is ushered into the Oval Office for a minute or two and “he can’t hear us half the time,” as a reporter complained the other day to White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
“Press conferences are critical to informing the American people and holding an administration accountable to the public,” the WHCA’s Zeke Miller declared.
But are they?
“I strongly approve of this Biden press conference reticence,” Atlantic magazine staff writer David Frum, a White House speechwriter for George W. Bush, posted this past week on Twitter, where he argued that any president, by definition, is a politically polarizing lightning rod, and “by keeping a low profile, Biden is de-escalating and de-polarizing politics—a smart move” demonstrating not only that “the presidency is an ensemble performance, not a one-man show,” but also that “this highly emotional and often over-talkative man [can] muster the self-discipline required to succeed at the job.”
Frum also argued that presidential press conferences in general, whether gladiatorial or merely theatrical, contribute far less to public knowledge than dogged, down-in-the-weeds journalism: “Reporters get more useful information from operational officials than they possibly can from the president—and are less tempted into performative stunts. Nobody ever says to a reporter, ‘Congratulations, you really tripped up the IRS commissioner!’”
“I really don’t think that Joe Biden has anything to be afraid of.”
— A veteran White House correspondent
Press critic Soledad O’Brien, a longtime television journalist and documentary filmmaker, offered a typically jaundiced take: “It does feel like what the White House press corps wants—as opposed to significant information given out by the president at his press conference—they want the president to show that the White House press corps is very, very important… To me it speaks more to the White House press corps wanting to be seen as very, very important and credible versus ‘the American people have these questions.’”
O’Brien added: “This idea that we’re counting down the ‘days since’—when you had a president [Trump] who was literally a pathological liar—it seems like they [the news media] are clamoring for controversy, because they can only talk about these things if it’s framed as a controversy.”
However, Bill Clinton’s longest-serving White House press secretary, Mike McCurry—who skillfully (if uncomfortably) navigated the Monica Lewinsky scandal—predicted that the Biden White House will ultimately conclude that formal press conferences are at least as beneficial to the president as they are to the media.
“The process of preparing for a press conference is elaborate,” McCurry told The Daily Beast. “In my time, it involved President Clinton and Vice President Gore sitting at the end of the table, and I was the inquisitor. I would pose the meanest version of any question I thought the press might ask. And it would usually enrage President Clinton. Al Gore’s assignment was to calm him down. He’d say, ‘Mr. President, the American people love it when the veins pop out of your neck and you get all red-faced like that. That’s good! It shows energy!’ And everyone would laugh. And he would calm down.”
McCurry continued: “The important point, though, is that we’d go through the guidance we’d been given on this or that particular answer, and invariably Clinton would say ‘that’s just bullshit, that doesn’t say anything,’ and I’d say, ‘I know, but that’s kind of where we are.’ And he would stop the press conference preparation and call the cabinet secretary for whatever the issue was, and it was an action-enforcing event. It would move policy, because we had to have better policy to talk about than whatever was proposed as the answer. So the utility of the press conference is that it actually enforces better government.”
As for the frequency, or lack thereof, of formal exchanges between the president and the press, “It’s a concern in the media but not vox populi,” McCurry said.
That view was echoed by former Obama White House press secretary Jay Carney—who, prior to that job, was Washington bureau chief for Time magazine and then-Vice President Biden’s communications director.
“This is a debate going on in only one place—which is in journalistic circles in D.C., and primarily in the White House press corps,” said Carney, these days Amazon’s senior vice president of global corporate affairs. “From the press’s point of view, I get that they want more,” Carney told The Daily Beast, “but the most important thing to Biden’s success as president—on behalf of the people, not for any other reason—is to communicate as frequently as possible what he’s doing and why, and I think they’re doing a good job of that.”
Carney added: “What feels important in Washington or in the West Wing or in the briefing room is not exactly the same as what’s important to most Americans…Most people out there who are struggling, who are exhausted by COVID, just want to see results. They don’t care if he’s giving one press conference or ten press conferences…If you start thinking that your Washington critics are the same as your national critics, you’re gonna lose.”
Not surprisingly, the announcement of Biden’s impending press conference has done nothing to quiet the dark speculations by his partisan detractors in the opposition media.
“What kind of press conference will it be? Will he have a teleprompter? Will he know the questions in advance? Will he call on friendly reporters only?” Fox Business anchor Stuart Varney mused the other day. “I do believe there’ll be a teleprompter which you can just turn on when you need a set response.”
Varney’s guest, Fox News contributor Joe Concha, said, “Even with the low expectations going into this for Joe Biden, as it always is with this president as far as speaking outside of a teleprompter, this will not go well if reporters ask solid, tough questions with follow-ups,” he predicted.
The wishful thinking of such serial liars as ousted White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and Donald Trump’s hot-headed former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows have included claims that the 78-year-old Biden is being protected by his handlers because he’s simply not up to a vigorous exchange on live television with aggressive working reporters.
Various Trump acolytes and election denialists on Newsmax and Fox News, notably Sean Hannity, have actually diagnosed the 46th president with dementia—a false allegation undermined by, among other evidence, Biden’s informed and confident performance during his newsmaking interview with Stephanopoulos.
“I really don’t think that Joe Biden has anything to be afraid of,” said the veteran White House correspondent who asked not to be further identified. “This whole thing is so weird to me that it has become an issue. Biden did press conferences during the campaign. He’s a pro. I don’t have any doubt that he would be able to handle himself just fine.”
On the other hand, “I think there’s an opportunity there for reporters to overdo it, to get over their skis, and embarrass themselves and their outlets if they’re too cranked up with President Biden,” the veteran correspondent said. “If Peter Doocy goes out there and acts as if Joe Biden is Donald Trump, that’s not going to be good for Fox News or Peter Doocy—not that they care.”