WASHINGTON (SBG) — Although the White House has promised President Joe Biden will hold his first news conference soon, patience is wearing thin among the press corps, and the fact that he has waited longer than any president in the last 100 years to face reporters in that setting has triggered a growing debate about presidential accessibility and accountability.
Biden paused on his way out of a White House event touting the passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Monday to respond to a shouted question about whether former President Donald Trump should publicly promote coronavirus vaccines. He commented that local doctors would have more impact on reluctant Republicans and left, ignoring additional questions from reporters.
The exchange lasted about 40 seconds, and it was emblematic of the president’s interactions with the press since taking office in January. It also underscored the frustration of reporters who have not yet had a chance to interrogate Biden in a traditional news conference nearly two months into his presidency.
According to the American Presidency Project, the last 15 presidents held solo press conferences within their first 33 days in office. More than 50 days into Biden’s term, the White House Correspondents’ Association and The Washington Post editorial board are among those pressing him to do the same.
Although Biden has not held a press conference, he has taken questions from reporters dozens of times in less formal settings, similar to the pool sprays Trump often held. Those sessions are shorter and often more chaotic, and presidents can more easily evade or ignore questions they do not want to address.
Biden’s longest interaction with the press as president to date came on Jan. 25, when he fielded questions for about 20 minutes after signing an executive order. Like at Monday’s event, he frequently only takes one or two questions before reporters are rushed out of the room.
In addition to avoiding a formal press conference in his first 50+ days in office, Biden has not yet delivered an address to a joint session of Congress. Recent incoming presidents have typically spoken before Congress to outline their agenda by the end of February.
Biden gave his first prime-time address to the nation as president last Thursday, marking the anniversary of the start of coronavirus lockdowns. He has also made appearances in other high-profile settings over the last seven weeks, such as a pre-Super Bowl interview with CBS News and a live CNN town hall.
The president plans to sit down with George Stephanopoulos of ABC’s “Good Morning America” for a one-on-one interview airing Wednesday. He will be holding public events around the country in the coming days as he promotes the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.
“It seems like Biden would rather take his case to the American people before facing the scrutiny of the news media,” said Nikki Usher, an associate professor at the University of Illinois College of Media and author of “News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism.”
Biden has been less accessible to the press in his first months in office than other modern presidents, but past administrations prove holding a press conference by late February is not necessarily indicative of a more transparent relationship with the media. The coronavirus pandemic has also presented some logistical complications that make direct comparisons to previous presidents more difficult.
While Trump held a solo press conference less than a month into his term, he did not convene another for over a year after that. He held them only sporadically in the following two years—far less than his recent predecessors—before appearing regularly in front of the press to take questions on his administration’s response to the pandemic in the spring of 2020.
Trump also held many joint press conferences with fellow world leaders when they visited the White House during his early days in office, in which they usually took a handful of questions from reporters. With travel restricted due to the coronavirus outbreak, Biden has not had similar bilateral meetings with other leaders.
“I think that Americans expected Biden to be more visible and a calming force compared to Trump, but he has been overly cautious in high-profile situations so far, which calls into question exactly what type of a president he will really be,” said Don Irvine, publisher of conservative media watchdog Accuracy in Media.
The White House has pointed to Biden’s pool sprays and other media availability opportunities, including weekday briefings with press secretary Jen Psaki, a practice that had been curtailed under Trump. Those briefings are longer and less combative than they were during the Trump years, but Psaki has received some criticism for evasive answers.
The White House insists both a solo Biden press conference and an address to Congress are coming soon, but no dates have been announced for either. Psaki has promised a Biden news conference by the end of March, and she has said the White House is working with congressional leaders to schedule a speech.
Regardless of the administration’s other communication efforts, experts say a formal news conference provides the press with a unique opportunity to question a president and hold them accountable. They also offer the American public valuable insight into the president’s leadership that they cannot get from speeches and short answers.
“The press conference is important for the same reason that debates can be important during elections,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a former political media consultant and professor of advertising at Boston University. “It’s a way the citizens can see their president more directly. They can see their president having his measure taken, showing he has command of the issues and command of his agenda.”
According to Usher, a news conference in front of the full credentialed press corps allows more reporters to ask questions than in a pool spray, and they have a better chance of pinning the president down with follow-up questions if the initial answers are evasive. Fairly or not, holding a news conference also has some symbolic value for the public.
“Historically, we tend to judge a president’s relationship with the press based on the number of these formal press conferences,” Usher said. “It ends up becoming a metric of voluntary accountability.”
However, for an administration that has prided itself on message discipline, a wide-ranging, open-ended news conference on whatever topics reporters want to raise presents obvious risks. Waiting until after the American Rescue Plan passed gives Biden a significant achievement to trumpet, but he would inevitably be pressed to weigh in on other subjects.
Any news conference would subject Biden to tough questions on a growing number of crises facing the country. In addition to the pandemic and the economic struggles he inherited, Biden’s administration is grappling with new immigration challenges at the southern border, and his relief package is piling new debt onto deficits that economists already considered unsustainable.
“The White House evidently has a disciplined communications operation that strives to highlight consistent messages delivered on social and other media, through Jen Psaki and other spokespeople, and via Vice President Harris,” said Karen Hult, a political scientist at Virginia Tech and member of the advisory board of the nonpartisan White House Transition Project. “This also has been a very busy early presidency, and preparation for a full press conference can consume considerable amounts of presidential and staff time, energy, and attention.”
Biden critics allege the administration is continuing a 2020 campaign strategy of shielding the president from scrutiny by minimizing interactions with the press and the public. Former Trump White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany suggested last week Biden’s staff is protecting him from reporters due to a “lack of confidence” in his ability to answer questions.
"I don’t think his staff sees the free-wheeling briefing room back-and-forth as the ideal communications model for President Biden," McEnany said on Fox News.
Given his age and his propensity for gaffes, an extended unscripted media appearance poses dangers for President Biden, whose opponents will capitalize on any opportunity to question his mental acuity. He drew mockery last week for seemingly forgetting his defense secretary’s name during public remarks, referring to Secretary Lloyd Austin as “the guy who runs that outfit over there.”
“The downside is, either he does a traditional Biden gaffe or he is unsatisfactory on important questions or, worst-case scenario, he starts to bumble and stumble and plays into what some people think are cognitive challenges,” Berkovitz said.
News conferences can be unpredictable, and the conversation could veer into areas the president is unprepared to discuss, dragging him off his message. Unlike Trump, who often tweeted his unfiltered thoughts on the news of the day, Biden has avoided commenting on many political and cultural controversies.
“A press conference would put him officially on the record on things that he may prefer not to hold an official public position that could cost him, and the Democrats, votes,” Irvine said.
Progressive pundits have dismissed complaints about the president’s lack of availability to the press, suggesting voters care far more about what Biden is doing than how his White House is communicating. Media critic Eric Boehlert, author of the Press Run newsletter, accused reporters of trying to fabricate conflict in the post-Trump era with “gotcha stories about optics.”
“The fact that Biden arrived in office having to deal with a pandemic, an insurrection, and an impeachment trial rarely gets mentioned in the hand wringing press conference coverage,” Boehlert wrote Monday. “Do journalists think Biden, who's been in public life for 50 years, isn't capable of answering questions?”
Experts agree the public is unlikely to be moved by complaints about the president not taking enough questions from the press or not doing it in reporters’ preferred setting. However, that does not mean there is no cost in allowing tensions with the press corps to fester.
Usher suggested the speculation about why Biden is avoiding a news conference could eventually prove more damaging than whatever he might say. It could also do long-term harm to the White House’s relationship with the media, which is healthier than it was under Trump but is still inherently adversarial.
“There was a tiny honeymoon period because the president was no longer calling the media ‘fake news’ and using his Twitter feed to spread misinformation, so things looked better,” she said.
According to Berkovitz, the strategic upside of limiting media interaction with the president appears to outweigh the downside for the White House, for the moment. If an angry press corps pushes back more aggressively or the public comes to see Biden as ignoring major issues, that could change, but holding a news conference might not have much impact on the dynamics between the president and the press.
“There are a host of important questions facing the public and facing the government, and so far, the Biden administration hasn’t really had its feet held to the fire answering those questions,” Berkovitz said.