President Biden’s First Press Conference

The media became the story but the President was the news.

Sixty-five days into his administration, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. gave his first press conference. He had been receiving quite a bit of unwarranted criticism for waiting so long but, now, most of the criticism is directed at those asking the questions.

Because it was held during the work day, I missed it live and have only read some a few print reports. By most accounts, he handled himself quite well. The reporters, not so much.

From the left, Dan Froomkin (“At Biden’s first news conference, it wasn’t the president who was out of touch“):

The White House press corps’ abysmal failure to ask important questions about pressing issues during President Biden’s first news conference on Thursday was the clearest demonstration yet of the contrast between what the political media cares about and what is real.

There were no questions about any element of the Covid crisis  - not the vaccine, the prognosis, the economy, nothing! – although it’s by far the most important issue on any normal person’s mind right now. There were no questions about the substance of Biden’s ambitious plans related to infrastructure and climate change, immigration and voting rights.

Instead, the questions reflected the insider, horse-racy obsessions of the political press corps. There were repeated questions about the filibuster, and about the 2024 election(!).

There were several contentious questions about the situation at the border, which the right-wing is intent on turning into a cause for hysteria — with the mainstream media’s collaboration.

[…]

After four years of the media desperately needing to reality-check the president (and often failing), now the president was the one talking about things that mattered and marveling at not one but two reporters asking about the 2024 election. “Look, I don’t know where you guys come from,” he told CNN’s Kaitlin Collins.

[…]

If reporters were trying to show they could be tough against a Democrat, their attempt backfired terribly. Far from knocking Biden off message, the vapidity of the questions actually strengthened Biden’s central theme: That regardless of what others are up to, he’s just trying to get stuff done.

[…]

White House reporters should be tough on the president – on every president. But that doesn’t mean asking questions based on their own obsessions or right-wing talking points. It means coming at the president with tough questions on behalf of the American public. It means pushing him to govern better, more humanely, and more transparently.

From the right, Jennifer Rubin (“Biden excels at his first news conference. The media embarrass themselves.“):

After weeks of whining, the White House press corps got its first official Biden presidential news conference on Thursday. President Biden used the event to pledge that 200 million covid-19 vaccinations would be administered by the end of his first 100 days, double his original goal. (The administration will reach 100 million shots on Friday, Day 58.) He also announced that a survey showed nearly half of K-12 schools are open full-time for in-person learning. (He expressed confidence it would be more than half by the 100th day, consistent with his goal.) Certainly, that should be near the top of any news coverage.

[…]

Try as they might to seem “tough,” the media did not succeed in knocking Biden off message. Biden spoke in great detail and length to show not only his mastery of the issues but also to suck tension and conflict out of the room. He simply would not be lured into accepting a false premise devised by Republicans (i.e., that his nice demeanor prompts parents to send kids thousands of miles under deadly conditions). 

[…]

The media did not distinguish themselves. By asking about immigration multiple times and echoing the false narrative that Biden had created a “surge,” they showed they were more interested in sound bites than actual news. Their failure to ask about the pandemic, the recession, anti-Asian violence, climate change or even infrastructure (Biden had to bring it up himself) was nothing short of irresponsible. They pleaded for a news conference and then showed themselves to be unserious. They never laid a glove on Biden; they did, however, make the case for why these events are an utter waste of the president’s time.

Under the headline “The Presidential Press Conference in the Biden Era Is as Awful as Ever,” Susan Glasser starts off in the same vein:

Sometimes the big moments in our politics meet the very low expectations we have for them. Joe Biden‘s first Presidential press conference, on Thursday, was one of them. By the end of it, after an hour and two minutes that felt much longer, Biden had answered some two dozen questions. The majority of them were repetitive variants on one of two subjects: immigration and the Senate filibuster.

Biden had no actual news to offer on either subject. In case you missed it, he is really, totally, absolutely committed to fixing the terrible situation at the border, and also not yet ready—because he does not have the votes—to commit to blowing up the filibuster. There was not a single question, meanwhile, about the ongoing pandemic that for the past year has convulsed life as we know it and continues to claim an average of a thousand lives a day. How is this even possible during a once-in-a-century public-health crisis, the combating of which was the central theme of Biden’s campaign and remains the central promise of his Presidency? It’s hard not to see it as anything other than an epic and utterly avoidable press fail.

For weeks, Washington clamored for a Biden press conference. This was, after all, the longest a new President had gone without holding one since the Coolidge Administration. Republicans—and the state-run media in Russia—seized on Biden’s reticence as proof that he was somehow too old or incoherent to face the rigors of extended, unscripted questioning. With his critics having set such a low bar, it should surprise no one that Biden, who did, after all, win a national election by surviving almost a dozen debates with his Democratic-primary rivals and two with Donald Trump, cleared it. Republicans, it could be said, succeeded in one respect with their preshow spin: they wanted Biden to be on the defensive talking about immigration and the border, not the passage of his $1.9 trillion covid-relief package and the success of his vaccine campaign. Reporters, based on the questions, agreed.

Before closing on a more important note:

I have spent years, as an editor and a reporter, hating on Presidential press conferences—the faux-gotcha questions, the pointless preening, the carefully calculated one-liners from the President made to seem like spontaneous witticisms. Print reporters like me are biased toward scoops and original reporting; we tend to dislike events that are staged for the cameras, featuring journalists as props.

Then came Donald Trump, and an entire Presidential term of watching press conferences with a renewed sense of urgency. No matter how hard they were to sit through, they were undoubtedly relevant: Trump regularly used them not only as a platform for his lies and cartoonish demagoguery but also for unexpected policy pronouncements that had significant real-world consequences. Trump’s performances required watching because his Presidency defied the norms of governance; he was the only one who could speak for his Administration of one, and thus we had no choice but to pay attention.

That was then. Today, no one watches a Biden press conference worrying that he is about to suggest that Americans drink bleach to cure their covid or that he will declare war on Michigan because its governor wasn’t appreciative enough. Wondering whether Biden, a famously long-winded seventy-eight-year-old former senator, will stumble over an answer does not have the same consequences as watching a Presidential press conference to find out whether Trump is still threatening to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea. This is an improvement, to be sure. But politics moves on, and, in this case, Trump’s exit from the White House means that we journalists have the space and time to consider once again the problem of how to insist on transparency and accountability in our government without relying so heavily on the empty spectacle of the televised Presidential press conference, a platform that arguably had its heyday in the early nineteen-sixties.

I am, of course, all for asking Biden hard, tough, and pointed questions—the more the better. But Thursday’s press conference reminded me of why I hated these staged events in the first place. It taught me nothing about Joe Biden, his Presidency, or his priorities. The problem was not that it was boring. It was that it was bad.

To the extent press conferences continue to serve a purpose in an age where Presidents have so many other ways to get their message out and reporters have so many other venues to ask questions, something more akin to the pre-Tim Russert “Meet the Press,” where a small cadre of journalists sit down for a wage-ranging, back-and-forth conversation rather than a gaggle where a dozen folks get a single question and try to score points.

Regardless, yes, the real news is that Biden has returned the presidential press conference to something other than a bizarre reality television program. That we have a decent, earnest man trying to fix the country’s problems rather than a narcissist throwing out crazy ideas is ultimately much more important that whether reporters are asking the right questions.

FILED UNDER: Joe Biden, Media, Presidency, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Trump’s performances required watching because his Presidency defied the norms of governance; he was the only one who could speak for his Administration of one, and thus we had no choice but to pay attention.

    I had a choice, and I exercised it.

    That we have a decent, earnest man trying to fix the country’s problems rather than a narcissist throwing out crazy ideas is ultimately much more important that whether reporters are asking the right questions.

    Yes, it is, but reporters inability to ask the right questions or insist on honest answers, and if one was not forthcoming call a lie a lie, was a fair part of what was inflicted upon our country for 4 years. If they aren’t going to do their jobs, what are we paying them for?

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  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    And the Press wonders why they are held in such low regard and are not trusted.

    For Biden the presser was a great success, he demonstrated even to those on Faux News that he’s not a senile old man and the criticism in the follow up analysis is of the press and the review of Joe’s performance is what he wanted it to be.

    Seems like there is actually some winning going on.

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  3. Scott says:

    Of course, the big scandal is this:

    New photos show cheat sheets used by Biden during his first press conference

    New photos reveal several cheat sheets used by President Biden during his Thursday press conference — including one with the headshots and names of reporters he planned to call on.

    The president also used notes to assist with facts about US infrastructure, a policy area Biden is focusing on during his first months in the White House.

    As if preparation and accuracy are considered bad things. Sheesh.

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  4. Paine says:

    Those questions from Kaitlin Collins were downright embarrassing. We’re in the middle of a pandemic and she was asking about the 2024 election. With everything going on you want to use your time to ask if Kamala Harris will be on the ticket in 4 years? GTFO.

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  5. Teve says:

    @Scott: Remember, this is the same media that suggested in 2016 that maybe Hillary was “over prepared” for the debate.

    Preet Bharara tweeted yesterday that he’s used notes at every press conference he’s ever given.

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  6. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    I’ve been saying it for years…quite often on this forum…the 4th Estate is failing this country.
    I guess there’s a silver lining in that any story line about Biden being incapacitated should now be put to rest.

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  7. Barry says:

    @Scott: “As if preparation and accuracy are considered bad things. Sheesh.”

    ‘She was overprepared’.

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  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Scott: trump’s cheat sheets were blank pieces of paper. How’d that work out for them?

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  9. KM says:

    @Scott :
    Sensationalism is a hellava drug. 4 years of having it pumped raw into their veins means scandal and outrage are as essential as air now. The right and media *need* something Bad to talk about Biden. If he wasn’t a liberal, he’d be a dream candidate for them: an older, accomplished religious white male that you wouldn’t mind grabbing a beer with but could trust to help you with an issue. The “cheat sheets” aka SOP for anyone giving any kind of address is being used to paint him as senile and doddering because he won’t be able to remember the name of a reporter he’s likely never seen before in his life or the exact amount of a value that’s got over 9 zeros allotted to Bumf*ck, AL’s third dog catching unit.

    Doing his job and demonstrating basic competency isn’t enough anymore; they want drama and by god they’ll get it or start it themselves!

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  10. Teve says:

    They would be “cheat sheets” if this was a 7th grade History test. But it’s a press conference, so they’re called “notes”.

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  11. MarkedMan says:

    I would be happy if the President gives these up altogether, and instead gives a sit-down with no cameras and then some kind of photo op. Why are the questions so repetitive?

    If I had the time, I would compile all the questions and put up a poll on stupidest question. It might be the 14th time someone asked him about immigration. But my vote was the one that went something like, “Mr. President, how hard do you plan to work for your priorities?” In Biden’s place I would have just said, “Next”.

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  12. dmichael says:

    While I don’t waste my time (I can’t, I’m old) watching televised press conferences, I haven’t escaped reading about this one. This is a perfect example of why I don’t subscribe to major media outlets, including the NY Times and Washington Post. Trump was right about one thing: As soon as he left the stage, the media would take a financial hit. It has. Now in the absence of the fat provocateur, the media must create conflict and controversy to gain views and subscriptions. Froomkin’s media criticism is spot on. That’s why WaPo got rid of him.

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  13. Kathy says:

    @Scott:

    I really should turn myself in. I never go buy groceries without a shopping list, and sometimes when i cook I actually read the recipe.

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  14. Monala says:

    I wrote this on the Judging Presidents thread, and it’s even more appropriate here:

    Friday, March 26, 2021 at 11:19
    Several pundits have tweeted in the last month about how much they miss Trump. And because they know how terrible it sounds, they try to rope others in by adding something like, “and you’re lying if you say you don’t.”

    They’ve been shocked at the huge blowback and ratios they’ve received from ordinary Twitter folks who don’t miss Trump and are utterly relieved by his absence.

    I think many journalists thrived on the drama—and the ratings—that Trump brought them. They’re trying so hard to create a similar sense of drama around Biden and his administration, and it’s driving them nuts that he’s not biting

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  15. Raoul says:

    The press comportment is an embarrassment and it explains a lot as to why Trump got elected. If Biden decides to skip press conferences I’m all for it.

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  16. Kathy says:

    A man in his 70s at the White House acting like an adult? It boggles the mind.

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  17. gVOR08 says:

    National Review apparently saw a different press conference. And reader comments are worse. A real tribute to, “The man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest.”

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  18. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: Nah. Bill will be here, johnny on the spot, sometime next week with the next “look what Biden did; oh, never mind, I forgot you’re all libtards” schtick.

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