President Joe Biden has been in office for less than two months, and he’s already managed to do something that proved elusive to President Trump over four interminably chaotic years — unite Republicans and journalists, of all people, in common cause.
The thing that’s led these two generally warring factions to find rare agreement was evident last Friday, during the daily White House press briefing. It was another day jam-packed with news and major announcements for the Biden administration. President Biden was set to meet with the CEO of Johnson & Johnson, for example, to talk about the COVID vaccine rollout, and the president was also preparing to sign major executive orders — to say nothing of his $1.9 trillion stimulus package that the US Senate was preparing, finally, to vote on.
But, no, reporters were even more keenly focused on something else, besides all of that. The first question that White House press secretary Jen Psaki fielded at the day’s press briefing, right out of the gate, was another attempt by journalists to get an answer to something that the administration has skirted for weeks, to a degree that the media seems increasingly aggrieved over. “We’re 45 days into the Biden presidency,” Psaki was asked, “and he has yet to hold a presser. Why the delay, and when can we expect the president to hold a press conference?”
Psaki responded: “Well, first, as all you know, the President takes questions several times a week. He took questions actually twice yesterday, which is an opportunity for the people covering the White House to ask him about whatever news is happening on any given day. We look forward to holding a full press conference in the coming weeks, before the end of the month. And we’re working on setting a final date for that. And as soon as we do, we will let you all know.”
It’s a question that’s certainly easier to ignore when it comes from the political opposition, as is evidenced below from the official Twitter account of the GOP. At least in that case, you can chalk it up to politics. If you were so inclined, you can find numerous examples on social media from Trump administration apparatchiks and assorted Republican allies all implying that the lack of a formal press conference from Biden thus far — something that CNN’s Jake Tapper points out Biden’s 15 most recent predecessors all conducted with the media within 33 days of taking office — suggests that something is amiss. Or that maybe the president doesn’t have the mental and physical stamina to engage in a sustained back-and-forth like this with journalists. “Joe Biden,” Republican Florida congressman and staunch Trump ally Matt Gaetz tweeted on Monday, “has had more attacks on Syria than he’s had press conferences.”
Journalists and news outlets, however, have also joined in the piling on. Never mind the fact that as of the time of this writing President Biden has barely been in office for 50 days, having inherited catastrophes on multiple fronts including that of public health, The Washington Post has already felt this matter is urgent enough to publish an editorial taking the president to task over this. “He is the president,” the editorial opined, “and Americans have every right to expect that he will regularly submit himself to substantial questioning.” The Associated Press took it even farther, feeling the need to point out that Biden is a “historically gaffe-prone politician” in its analysis of the Biden White House’s lack of a press conference thus far.
On Thursday afternoon, President Biden signed into law the stimulus legislation that will produce a third wave of stimulus checks for millions of Americans, with the $1,400 checks set to start appearing as electronic bank deposits as soon as this weekend. The president did so in the Oval Office, and declined to answer questions from the assembled press pool. Thursday night, Biden also spoke to the nation for his first presidential prime time address, but again left the podium immediately afterwards without taking questions.
It’s hard not to feel like the uproar here is at least partly connected to some of the oddities seen in the White House press briefing room since January — almost as if certain members of the press corps have been so disoriented by the transition from a frenetic Trump administration to the slower rhythms of the Biden White House that they’ve become watchdogs furiously in search of a bone. How else to explain the weirdly random questions that Biden’s press secretary has gotten from journalists who no longer have Trumpian scandal or bizarre presidential pronouncements to keep them busy? Thus, Psaki has found herself at times fielding seemingly out-of-left-field queries, like this one from a Daily Mail reporter during her first briefing for the press, back in January: “Will (Biden) keep Donald Trump’s Air Force One color scheme change?”
And how about the one last month from a Bloomberg reporter, who wanted to know what the Biden administration’s intentions are vis a vis … Space Force?
One of the dangers herein is that journalists can come off looking like they feel they’re not doing their job unless they’re identifying some flaw, shortcoming, scandal, or problem that needs to be fixed, and producing reportage that calls attention to it — or, better yet, agitates for a fix. What’s also perplexing is that the newspaper pages, columns, blogs, news websites and the like are all filled, from one day to the next, as are each day’s cable news programming, with an incessant stream of examples of why President Biden has a justifiable reason for doing things a bit differently — in ways that don’t adhere to the typical POTUS playbook. He’s a little busy right now, is what his supporters say in response to the outrage from journalists for a press conference, which is exactly the same thing Republican allies would be saying right now about a Republican chief executive.
Instead of fixating on rigid fidelity to the comfort of traditions (Biden will obviously hold a press conference eventually — by the end of March, as a matter of fact, as Psaki noted in the response above) perhaps the press would be better served re-directing its focus from manufactured crises to results. Remember? Isn’t this the kind of thing everyone hated over the last four years, the constant drama, and all the dishy, gossip-filled news headlines and news talk show punditry? More than 1,400 Americans died today, alone, from the coronavirus. No doubt they would have preferred more substance over the past year, and different actions taken instead of everything that transpired in the year we all had to deal with. It was a year, by the way, that included more than enough presidential press conferences, by the time it was all over. “There are legitimate criticisms of Biden,” a Vox writer noted in a piece on Thursday. “That he hasn’t held a press conference yet isn’t really one of them.”