Times have changed.
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President Joe Biden has not yet held a formal press conference, which has sparked a fair amount of chatter from the press corps as well as a lot of indignant defenses of Bidens choice, at least from what I could see on Twitter. So lets get into it. Short version: Yes, Biden should keep the tradition of press conferences alive, and hes a bit
behind pace, but we shouldnt overstate the importance of the issue.
Presidents answer questions in all sorts of formats. In addition to formal news conferences, there are informal press Q-and-A sessions; one-on-one sessions with reporters; town halls with questions from citizens, often with follow-ups from correspondents; and more.
They all have strengths and weaknesses. Brief sessions with reporters are good for pressing the president on topics in the news, but its easy for presidents to ignore the questions they doesnt want to answer (since theyre often responding to shouted questions, not raised hands). One-on-one sessions allow a reporter to probe in depth but also allow presidents to pick a friendly journalist. Town halls produce policy questions, which is useful, but ordinary citizens often dont have the expertise about the policy-making process to ask the right follow-ups about what the president is actually doing. Formal press conferences give reporters the chance to ask about lots of topics, but they are often marred by grandstanding questions and process questions voters dont care about.
Its healthy for democracy when presidents use a mix of all of these formats. Biden has done all except the formal press conference, and hell no doubt do one of those soon. Its also healthy for the White House to communicate in other ways; the Biden White House has featured regular briefings by the press secretary and interviews with other personnel. Chief of Staff Ron Klain appeared in a
televised interview Sunday night.
Presidents, as the journalist Matt Yglesias
pointed out on Twitter, choose forms of communication that serve their self-interest, and over time formal presidential news conferences have faded in large part because they no longer are worth the effort. To deliver the impact of a 1950s or 1960s press conference, the broadcast networks have to air the live feed and it would have to be carried by most cable channels and half of the streamers. (Imagine: Your access to WandaVision will continue shortly, but first enjoy this special report from ABC News.) Thats not going to happen, and therefore that particular form of answering questions is no longer what it used to be.
Nonetheless, its worth keeping it around. Yes, news conferences are different from other formats, which may have some marginal advantages. Theyre also
usually good for the president, even if these days fewer people are watching. If a grandstanding reporter asks a silly inside-baseball question or phony-scandal query, the president can answer however he wants and at any length for example, by asserting that nobody cares about whatever but they do care about whatever the president wants to talk about.
These sessions also have a governing role. As presidency scholar Andrew Rudalevige
points out, preparing for a formal press conference tends to be a useful exercise for a White House, forcing presidents to review and think about a very wide range of issues. Any skilled politician can duck a question from a reporter, but prepping for a press conference forces the choice of whether to respond to various policy questions or not.
Presidential press conferences also have symbolic importance: They signal the governments obligation to inform citizens of what it is doing. Democratic norms are an important constraint on the presidency. Yes, former President Donald Trump trampled all over democratic and presidential norms when he held the office. But that only makes it more important for his successor to observe them.
And remember, despite all the loose talk about Trump getting away with things, hes sulking in Florida while Biden is in the White House enjoying approval ratings far higher than Trumps at the same point of his presidency. Indeed, one of the reasons that Biden will probably give a press conference soon is because smart presidents dont deliberately annoy the working press without good reason. And even if press conferences are no longer the showcases for presidents they once were, they arent significant hazards, either.
1. Aminatou Seydou at the Monkey Cage on
the coronavirus vaccine in Africa.
2. Laura Bronner on the accuracy of
polling on policy issues.
3. Steve Benen
on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: It was 10 years ago this month when I first wrote that we tend to name buildings after leaders with records like hers. I haven’t changed my mind. Exactly correct.
4. Margot Sanger-Katz on
health insurance and the pandemic relief bill.
5. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Michael R. Strain on which economic metrics to use to judge the performance of
the relief bill.
6. Kadia Goba on members of the House of Representatives who are
holding up a return to normal operations there by refusing to be vaccinated.
7. Margaret Sullivan on
harassment of female journalists.
8. And Jonathan Chait has some fun with
Republican responses to Bidens prime-time speech on Thursday.
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To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at [email protected]
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at [email protected]
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