Thats because if youre Biden, press conference avoidance has been a winning political strategy. As he discovered during the presidential campaign, the less people saw him, the more they liked him, and the more they liked him, the more willing they became to vote for him, and all the baying in the world is going to cause Biden to unlearn that lesson. According to a fresh POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, 62 percent of registered voters give Joe their approval. Biden must be asking himself: Why break a sweat running when coasting is what got you to where you always wanted to go?
By limiting his direct exposure to the scrutinizing powers of pressers, Biden has followed the example of his former boss. President Barack Obama famously avoided press conferences by holding only 36 of them in his first term, fewer than Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, or Bill Clinton had during their presidencies, as historian Harold Holzer writes in his recent book, The Presidents Vs. the Press. If Biden decides to go the full Obama, hell do what his predecessor did and fill the news stream with editorial content of the White Houses own making. As Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen wrote for POLITICO in 2013, Obamas people busied themselves producing in-house photos of the president, videos of White House officials and blog posts by presential aides and other substitutes for journalism that could be instantly released to the masses through social media. They often include footage unavailable to the press.
With the possible exception of Kennedy, who waltzed and quipped through his press conferences, presidents seem to dread them. I will mount the usual weekly cross and let you drive the nails, said Eisenhower in 1953 as he solicited questions at a presser.
But how painful is the experience? Nobody becomes president without having first applied themselves to the arts of parry and deflection on the campaign trail, so a presidential press conference isnt the first plunge for any of them. A reasonably prepared president can dull or blunt even the sharpest question from a skilled interrogator like Kaitlin Collins of CNN or Weijia Jiang of CBS News if he puts his mind to it. Its his house. He decides who gets called on and can cut a reporter off almost at will. He can filibuster all he wants. He can end it whenever he likes.
But even though nobody has ever sunk his administration by gaffeing at a presserconsider all the nutty things President Donald Trump said at his press conferences!the format induces performance anxiety in most presidents. Attribute it to the institutional girth the event has acquired. The press gives them a big build-up; the lights seem brighter; the reporters come packing special rhetorical heat; every presidential twitch, flinch and pause is recorded and analyzed; newspapers give the story prominent play; all the networks cover the event live; and the whole world watches.
Instead of treating formal pressers as the mostly meaningless exhibition games they are, generally forgotten within a week after being staged, presidents insist on compounding their anxiety by foolishly treating the showdowns as elimination matches that might determine the course of their presidencies. Bidens well-documented tendencies would, somewhat counterintuitively, make him immune to the risks of the high-pressure presser. I am a gaffe machine, he confessed back in December 2018, preloading all judgment of him with the understanding that if its possible to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, Biden will say it. Just as we discounted any wacky thing Trump said because he was a known liar, weve agreed not to hold Biden to his words because we understand hes as confused by what hes saying as we are.
But just because presidential news conferences dont crater our memories with significance doesnt mean they dont matter. They do. They sometimes put the administration on the record, which is helpful in clarifying government policy. They often elevate the status of under-discussed issues and give them the benefit of a public hearing. They have even been known to break news. They can also be helpful in disseminating a presidential message. One suspects that Biden has agreed to his presser not to quiet the press pack but because he wants to crow about his legislative victory, his $1.9 trillion American Relief Act. Democrats who criticized Obama for under-touting his relief plan in 2009 are much pleased by the fanfare Biden will surely trumpet next week.
Biden, who seems to know a thing or two about politics, understands that popular presidents dont really need press conferences (especially if they can talk over the heads of the press) and that the unpopular presidents who think pressers will increase their approval numbers are only conning themselves. Going into next Thursdays session, Biden will do fine, by which I mean wont start a world war or instruct his press secretary to eject a reporter from the session. Although some conservatives have invested heavily in the pejorative fantasy of Biden as drooling, trip-over-his-own-laces, senile incompetent, theyre likely to be disappointed in his presser performance. He never validated their mockery in his debates with Trump and hasnt botched a public appearance since being sworn in. Like previous presidents, hell respond to most questions by giving the answer to the question he wished hed been asked, not the one directed at him. Hell keep the session short but go long on the relief act. We can depend on him gaffeing and confusing himself and making jokes that nobody gets because thats his way. And after having milked the occasion for his political ends, hell slip away and wont return until the growling and barking peaks once more and he finds a new reason to throw the beasts some fresh meat.