WASHINGTON – No news conference. No Oval Office address. No primetime speech to a joint session of Congress.
President Joe Biden is the first executive in four decades to reach this point in his term without holding a formal question and answer session. It reflects a White House media strategy meant both to reserve major media set-pieces for the celebration of a legislative victory and to limit unforced errors from a historically gaffe-prone politician.
Biden has opted to take questions about as often as most of his recent predecessors, but he tends to field just one or two informal inquiries at a time, usually in a hurried setting at the end of an event.
In a sharp contrast with the previous administration, the White House is exerting extreme message discipline, empowering staff to speak but doing so with caution. Recalling both Biden’s largely leak-free campaign and the buttoned-up Obama administration, the new White House team has carefully managed the president’s appearances, trying to lower the temperature from Donald Trump’s Washington and to save a big media moment to mark what could soon be a signature accomplishment: passage of the COVID-19 bill.
The message control may serve the president's purposes but it denies the media opportunities to directly press Biden on major policy issues and to engage in the kind of back-and-forth that can draw out information and thoughts that go beyond the administration's curated talking points.
“The president has lost some opportunity, I think, to speak to the country from the bully pulpit. The volume has been turned so low in the Biden White House that they need to worry about whether anyone is listening," said Frank Sesno, former head of George Washington University's school of media. “But he’s not great in these news conferences. He rambles. His strongest communication is not extemporaneous.”
Other modern presidents took more questions during their opening days in office.
By this point in their terms, Trump and George H.W. Bush had each held five press conferences, Bill Clinton four, George W. Bush three, Barack Obama two and Ronald Reagan one, according to a study by Martha Kumar, presidential scholar and professor emeritus at Towson University.
Biden has given five interviews as opposed to nine from Reagan and 23 from Obama.
“Biden came in with a plan for how they wanted to disseminate information. When you compare him with Trump, Biden has sense of how you use a staff, that a president can’t do everything himself,” Kumar said. “Biden has a press secretary who gives regular briefings. He knows you hold a news conference when you have something to say, in particular a victory. They have an idea of how to use this time, early in the administration when people are paying attention, and how valuable that is.”
The new president had taken questions 39 times, according to Kumar’s research, though usually just one or two shouted inquiries from a group of reporters known as the press pool at the end of an event in the White House's State Dining Room or Oval Office.
Those exchanges can at times be clunky, with the cacophony of shouts or the whir of the blades of the presidential helicopter idling on the South Lawn making it difficult to have a meaningful exchange.
“Press conferences are critical to informing the American people and holding an administration accountable to the public,” said Associated Press reporter Zeke Miller, president of the White House Correspondents' Association. “As it has with prior presidents, the WHCA continues to call on President Biden to hold formal press conferences with regularity.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday defended the president's accessibility to the media and suggested that a news conference was likely by the end of March.
“I would say that his focus is on getting recovery and relief to the American people and he looks forward to continuing to engage with all of you and to other members of the media who aren’t here today,” Psaki said. “And we’ll look forward to letting you know, as soon as that press conference is set.”
The president’s first address to a joint session of Congress — not technically a State of the Union address but a speech that typically has just as much pomp — is also tentatively planned for the end of March, aides have said. However, the format of the address is uncertain due to the pandemic.
The president has received high marks for two major scripted addresses, his inaugural address and his speech marking the 500,000th death to COVID-19.
Having overcome a childhood stutter, Biden has long enjoyed interplay with reporters and has defied aides’ requests to ignore questions from the press. Famously long-winded, Biden has been prone to gaffes throughout his long political career and, as president, has occasionally struggled with off-the-cuff remarks.
His use of the phrase “Neanderthal thinking” this week to describe the decision by the governors of Texas and Mississippi to lift mask mandates dominated a new cycle and drew ire from Republicans. That created the type of distraction his aides have tried to avoid and, in a pandemic silver lining, were largely able to dodge during the campaign because the virus kept Biden home for months and limited the potential for public mistakes.
Firmly pledging his belief in freedom of the press, Biden has rebuked his predecessor’s incendiary rhetoric toward the media, including Trump's references to reporters as “the enemy of the people.” Biden restored the daily press briefing, which had gone extinct under Trump, opening a window into the workings of the White House. His staff has also fanned out over cable news to promote the COVID-19 relief bill.
And while Biden’s own Twitter account, in a sharp break from Trump’s social media habits, usually offers rote postings, his chief of staff Ron Klain has become a frequent tweeter, using the platform to amplify messages and critique opponents.
Delaying the news conference and joint address also, symbolically, have kept open the first chapter of Biden's presidency and perhaps extended his honeymoon. His approval rating stood at 60% in a poll released Friday from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Tobe Berkovitz, a professor at Boston University’s college of communications, said Biden’s “rope-a-dope” strategy was right for the moment.
“Presidential press conferences are not on the top of the agenda for Americans who are worried about COVID and the economic disaster that has befallen so many families,” he said.
Lemire reported from New York.