The Presidential Press Conference in the Biden Era Is as Awful as Ever
By Susan B. Glasser - March 25, 2021
https://www.newyorker.com/news/letter-f ... ul-as-ever
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.
Sixty-five days into Biden’s tenure, there was plenty to ask him about, even in the absence of the Trump-manufactured dramas that fuelled the news in the past few years: horrific mass shootings, escalating tensions with China and Russia, missile tests by North Korea, and, oh, yes, the pandemic. The killings in Georgia and Colorado over the past week forced Biden to cancel part of his carefully planned “help is here” tour to tout the covid-relief package—a reminder that, no matter how disciplined and organized his Administration is, no matter the contrast to Trumpian chaos, all leaders fall prey to the press of urgent and unanticipated crises. Biden opened the press conference by announcing a new plan to administer two hundred million vaccines by his hundredth day in office and a vow to get a majority of elementary and middle schools open by then. But that is where the big story of his Administration began and ended—as far as the journalists were concerned.
Biden’s policies on the pandemic have been popular with the public, including with Republican voters, but there are plenty of tough questions to be asked about them, given the huge uncertainties of when and how we are going to get out of the covid mess. Instead, the press conference quickly reminded me why I never liked them much. What did we learn? That Biden agrees with Barack Obama that the Senate filibuster is a “relic of the Jim Crow era” but is not yet committing to a full-out attack against it. That he has not yet decided whether to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan by the May 1st deadline set by his predecessor. That he will “consult with allies” about the North Korean missile tests. That he plans to run for reëlection in 2024 but might not because, hey, it’s a long time from now and who knows if there will even be a Republican Party by then. His strongest words were reserved for the current Republican campaign in numerous states to restrict voting rights—which the President called “un-American” and “sick.” The funniest moment by far was when he was asked whether he would run in 2024, given that Trump had already announced he was doing so by this early point in his tenure. “My predecessor?” Biden said, and then he laughed. It was a short, derisive laugh. “Oh, God, I miss him,” he said.
Although Biden refused to endorse the effort by progressives to get rid of the Senate filibuster, he eventually seemed to lose enough patience with the press conference that he engaged in a little filibustering of his own. Late into the hour, I found myself tuning out a bit when Biden gave a long lecture on the twenty-first-century battle between autocracies and democracies. During his answer, I noticed that Zeke Miller, the Associated Press correspondent who had been given the first question at the press conference, was tweeting from inside the press room—about a different subject entirely, the Israeli elections. (In another rarity, Israel and the Mideast also did not come up at the press conference, I should note; perhaps American foreign policy is finally pivoting, after all?) Meanwhile, Biden had begun another stem-winder, on infrastructure. “There’s so much we can do that’s good stuff,” the President said. This, by the way, was in response to a question about gun control that he did not really answer. It’s not for nothing that Biden served for all those decades in the Senate.
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.