Like kenneled dogs who have missed a feeding, White House reporters have been growling and barking over President Joe Biden’s failure to hold a formal press conference since being sworn in. He has kept them waiting so long, he now owns the record for the longest a new president has gone without holding such a presser. He finally acknowledged the yelping this week—maybe Champ and Major conveyed the press hounds’ consternation to him—by finally scheduling a presser for March 25.
If you’re a reporter, Biden’s press conference avoidance has been an outrage. Presidential accountability, say the pressies, demands that the chief executive stand and deliver at prescribed and frequent intervals. The press conferences aren’t really for reporters, the reporters would have you believe, but for citizens. “People have a right to see their president regularly answering questions,” ABC News White House correspondent Jonathan Karl told the Washington Post this week. This so-called “right” to see the president answer questions did not exist in theory or practice until late in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first administration, and even then the video elements were subject to White House review and approval before release. It wasn’t until John F. Kennedy’s presidency that the events were carried live on television.
But presidential press conferences are almost never about the public. They’re about letting the press preen a little, to provide a live, broadcast forum where they can ask some sharp-edged questions and maybe get the president to say something newsy or even better: fumble. Biden knows this and he isn’t in any rush to satisfy that urge.
That’s because if you’re Biden, press conference avoidance has been a winning political strategy. As he discovered during the presidential campaign, the less people saw him, the more they liked him, and the more they liked him, the more willing they became to vote for him, and all the baying in the world is going to cause Biden to unlearn that lesson. According to a fresh POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, 62 percent of registered voters give Joe their approval. Biden must be asking himself: Why break a sweat running when coasting is what got you to where you always wanted to go?
By limiting his direct exposure to the scrutinizing powers of pressers, Biden has followed the example of his former boss. President Barack Obama famously avoided press conferences by holding only 36 of them in his first term, fewer than Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, or Bill Clinton had during their presidencies, as historian Harold Holzer writes in his recent book, The Presidents vs. the Press. If Biden decides to go the full Obama, he’ll do what his predecessor did and fill the news stream with editorial content of the White House’s own making. As Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen wrote for POLITICO in 2013, Obama’s people busied themselves producing in-house photos of the president, videos of White House officials and blog posts by presidential aides and other substitutes for journalism that could “be instantly released to the masses through social media. They often include footage unavailable to the press.”
With the possible exception of Kennedy, who waltzed and quipped through his press conferences, presidents seem to dread them. “I will mount the usual weekly cross and let you drive the nails,” said Eisenhower in 1953 as he solicited questions at a presser.
But how painful is the experience? Nobody becomes president without having first applied themselves to the arts of parry and deflection on the campaign trail, so a presidential press conference isn’t the first plunge for any of them. A reasonably prepared president can dull or blunt even the sharpest question from a skilled interrogator like Kaitlin Collins of CNN or Weijia Jiang of CBS News if he puts his mind to it. It’s his house. He decides who gets called on and can cut a reporter off almost at will. He can filibuster all he wants. He can end it whenever he likes.
But even though nobody has ever sunk his administration by gaffeing at a presser—consider all the nutty things President Donald Trump said at his press conferences!—the format induces performance anxiety in most presidents. Attribute it to the institutional girth the event has acquired. The press gives them a big buildup; the lights seem brighter; the reporters come packing special rhetorical heat; every presidential twitch, flinch and pause is recorded and analyzed; newspapers give the story prominent play; all the networks cover the event live; and the whole world watches.
Instead of treating formal pressers as the mostly meaningless exhibition games they are, generally forgotten within a week after being staged, presidents insist on compounding their anxiety by foolishly treating the showdowns as elimination matches that might determine the course of their presidencies. Biden’s well-documented tendencies would, somewhat counterintuitively, make him immune to the risks of the high-pressure presser. “I am a gaffe machine,” he confessed back in December 2018, preloading all judgment of him with the understanding that if it’s possible to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, Biden will say it. Just as we discounted any wacky thing Trump said because he was a known liar, we’ve agreed not to hold Biden to his words because we understand he’s as confused by what he’s saying as we are.
But just because presidential news conferences don’t crater our memories with significance doesn’t mean they don’t matter. They do. They sometimes put the administration on the record, which is helpful in clarifying government policy. They often elevate the status of underdiscussed issues and give them the benefit of a public hearing. They have even been known to break news. They can also be helpful in disseminating a presidential message. One suspects that Biden has agreed to his presser not to quiet the press pack but because he wants to crow about his legislative victory, his $1.9 trillion American Relief Act. Democrats who criticized Obama for undertouting his relief plan in 2009 are much pleased by the fanfare Biden will surely trumpet next week.
Biden, who seems to know a thing or two about politics, understands that popular presidents don’t really need press conferences (especially if they can talk over the heads of the press) and that the unpopular presidents who think pressers will increase their approval numbers are only conning themselves. Going into next Thursday’s session, Biden will do fine, by which I mean he won’t start a world war or instruct his press secretary to eject a reporter from the session. Although some conservatives have invested heavily in the pejorative fantasy of Biden as drooling, trip-over-his-own-laces, senile incompetent, they’re likely to be disappointed in his presser performance. He never validated their mockery in his debates with Trump and hasn’t botched a public appearance since being sworn in. Like previous presidents, he’ll respond to most questions by giving the answer to the question he wished he’d been asked, not the one directed at him. He’ll keep the session short but go long on the relief act. We can depend on him gaffe-ing and confusing himself and making jokes that nobody gets because that’s his way. And after having milked the occasion for his political ends, he’ll slip away and won’t return until the growling and barking peak once more and he finds a new reason to throw the beasts some fresh meat.
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