[guest post by Dana]
More than 7 weeks in office, President Joe Biden will finally be holding his first news conference tomorrow. Speculation about the delay seems to be for one of two reasons depending on where you fall on the political spectrum. One thought is that Biden’s camp is afraid that he will screw up an answer or make an embarrassing gaffe that would only reinforce the chatter that he is no longer mentally all there. The other possibility is that he is positioning himself as the anti-Trump president, meaning that he does not want to be in America’s face ad nauseam like the previous president.
Pressure for Biden to conduct his first news conference had been mounting for weeks. Reporters were quizzing Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, at her daily briefings. Opinion writers were chiming in. Which led to a lot of speculation about why Biden was so reluctant to meet with the press en masse. The most popular theory is that Biden aides feared that a president who’s at times too loquacious for his own good might flub an answer. “He’s not that quick on his feet,” Frank Luntz, the longtime pollster, told me. Parrying questions on live television is a skill that tests even the most disciplined speaker, which Biden is not. “Now look, I realize no one ever doubts I mean what I say,” he told an audience in 2015. “The problem occasionally is I say all that I mean.”
Overlooked is that Biden and his team are also making a strategic bet. Limiting his exposure to the press and, by extension, the public isn’t simply a defensive ploy to avoid an embarrassing gaffe. It’s a conscious calculation that people don’t need—or want—to hear from the president on an hour-by-hour basis, that they will be satisfied if he can revive the economy and end the pandemic. After all, Americans just had a president who entered their life and refused to leave, who gripped the megaphone and wouldn’t let go. Biden has no wish to resurrect Donald Trump’s in-your-face presidency.
“People aren’t beating down the door and saying, ‘Why isn’t he in my living room every day? Why am I not seeing that big face staring at me and promoting himself in some way?’” Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, told me. “People are happy to see Joe Biden when they see him. But they’re happy not to see him every day.”
While there are good reasons for Biden to hold off on the press conference (it can only hurt him), Americans need to hear directly from the President:
Were he advising the White House, Luntz said, he’d recommend delaying the news conference even longer, perhaps holding one at the 100-day mark. “A press conference will not help him and can only hurt him,” he said. “There’s nothing to be gained from it. His message is getting out, and it’s getting out relatively unedited and uncriticized.” Luntz added that the audience for a presidential news conference these days is shrunken and fractured. “The problem is, you’re talking to the choir,” he said. “No Trump voter will listen to Joe Biden, just as no Biden voter would listen to Donald Trump.”
What incentive, then, does Biden have for showing up at a news conference and risking a misstatement or garbled bit of syntax? For one, it’s in the public interest for the president to make himself routinely available to questioning by journalists. For another, there’s always the chance Biden will ace the test. Republicans have spent the past two years spreading the notion that Biden suffers from some sort of cognitive infirmity. Against that low bar, he’s bound to exceed expectations. “Here’s where I think Republicans have made a mistake,” Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary under George W. Bush, told me. “If Joe Biden doesn’t drool all over himself at the news conference, he’s going to have done better than they expected. They set those expectations at the drool level.”
Also, if President Biden were to refuse to hold a news conference, he would be breaking an American tradition established back in 1955 with President Eisenhower.
In advance of the Biden event, Washington Post writer Margaret Sullivansure hopes that reporters won’t use the event as an opportunity to showboat and treat Biden the same as they did Trump :
But when President Biden steps to the lectern Thursday, the pressure will also be on the White House press corps themselves, as reporters recalibrate after the tumultuous, misinformation-filled years of Donald Trump to a president who is far less showy and, to date, much more truthful.
It’s a major test for news organizations and reporters in covering Biden.
And Joe Lockhart, a press secretary under President Bill Clinton, fears the press corps won’t be able to resist walking in with the mentality of, “We’re gonna show all the MAGA people we can be just as tough on Biden as we were on Trump.”
The burgeoning number of migrants — including thousands of children — is a legitimate concern and a valid story. But much of the news media seems to be using it to show that they intend to present Biden in just as critical a light as they often did Trump — regardless of whether that’s deserved.
Of course, the administration hasn’t helped this dynamic by refusing news media access to government detention facilities. That pushes a lot of buttons for reporters who are hard-wired to equate transparency with policy wisdom. Which isn’t always the case.
It sure sounds to me like Sullivan is pleading with reporters to treat Biden with kid-gloves. But if she wants to be taken seriously, shouldn’t she be demanding that the press treats Biden like they did Trump? Equal-opportunity reporting… Further, if the press wants the public to trust their reporting, the goal should always be to treat both Democratic and Republican presidents the same. [Ed. Of course, that’s not how things work in real life, but still…] Moreover, what is happening at our Southern border is indeed a crisis by any definition, and should be recognized as such by both the Biden administration and the press. This is a dire situation that deserves serious scrutiny and inquiry, and it shouldn’t matter who is currently sitting in the Oval Office. It shouldn’t matter but it always does.