'Gaffe machine’ Biden prepares to face the press

White House press conferences have varied drastically between recent administrations

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 24: U.S. President Joe Biden replaces his face mask following an Equal Pay Day event in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on March 24, 2021 in Washington, DC. Highlighting the gender pay gap, Equal Pay Day raises awareness that women in the United States earned $0.82 for every dollar men earned in 2019, according to the National Committee on Pay Equity.   Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP
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US President Joe Biden, a self-described “gaffe machine”, is set to deliver his first formal White House press conference on Thursday.

The fact that Mr Biden has waited 65 days into his presidency to engage the White House press corps in a traditional briefing marks a fairly significant historical aberration.

Every US president since Ronald Reagan has held at least two traditional press conferences within his first 50 days, according to data provided to The National by Martha Kumar, a presidential historian who specialises in White House relations with the press.

Within their first 50 days in office, Donald Trump held five press conferences, Barack Obama held two and George W Bush held three.

"Solo press conferences require a lot of preparation," Dr Kumar told The National, noting that Mr Reagan once spent seven and a half hours preparing for one of his famous night-time press conferences. "I imagine Biden is doing a lot."

In addition to providing public transparency, Dr Kumar noted that intense preparation required for press conferences allow the president “to bring a lot of information together” while giving the public “a sense of who the president is, what his likes and dislikes are, how much he knows about subjects and his leadership style".

“For example, with George W Bush, he had a session where they talked to his domestic policy advisers. Then the next day, he spoke with his foreign and national security team. And then he spoke with his economic team.”

Mr Biden thrived as a presidential candidate while his campaign limited his access to the press, opting instead to hold infrequent briefings with reporters during the Democratic primary and his campaign against Mr Trump.

Political reporters rarely offered public complaints about the Biden campaign’s lack of access – a stark contrast to the 2016 presidential campaign, when many journalists kept a running tally of the days Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton went without holding a press conference.

But the Washington press corps has again changed its tune since last year’s election. The White House Correspondents’ Association criticised Mr Biden this month for his lack of a formal press conference – a point that conservative media outlets relentlessly hammered home.

However, Dr Kumar’s data indicates that Mr Biden has held 47 short question-and-answer sessions with reporters, more than any president since George W Bush and only five fewer than Bill Clinton.

These exchanges usually take place while the press has access to the president when he signs executive orders, hosts visitors or walks to and from Marine One upon departing from or arriving to the White House.

Dr Kumar argued that one of these exchanges, which occurred on January 25 after Mr Biden signed an executive order, essentially served as the equivalent to a formal press conference because the president fielded several “tough questions” from multiple reporters covering a variety of areas.

The topics included issues like Afghanistan, nuclear non-proliferation, Covid-19 and the economic stimulus.

White House staffers under any president are notoriously hesitant to put their boss in a situation where he fields questions from multiple reporters for a significant length of time. Any misstep could create a political firestorm in an environment that has grown increasingly partisan over the last several decades.

In his failed 2008 presidential campaign, Mr Biden used racially coded language when he described his fellow candidate Mr Obama as “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy".

During the same presidential campaign, he also described Ms Clinton as “qualified or more qualified than I am to be vice president".

“The risk of making a mistake is something that staff members worry about more than presidents do,” said Dr Kumar. “If something went wrong in a press conference, the president might say, ‘who recommended this press conference anyway?’ And you don’t want to be the person that made that recommendation.”

Presidents can nonetheless exercise some degree of control by preselecting which reporters they call on, typically opting to favour journalists from major cable news networks, hallmark newspapers and the largest wire services.

Media columnist Margaret Sullivan criticised this tradition in a Washington Post op-ed on Wednesday, noting that it results mostly in political reporters asking topical questions instead of more specialised journalists who are better able to focus on policy.

“Political reporters cover the president, and as knowledgeable and talented as they may be, they lack the expertise of science or health journalists or ... immigration reporters who can best respond to what’s being said, which includes knowing how to challenge it with deep knowledge,” Ms Sullivan wrote.

Ms Sullivan also noted that White House reporters have “a temptation to play to the crowd” while on camera in front of a national audience.

For instance, journalists such as CNN’s Jim Acosta gained significant attention for his aggressively combative exchanges with Mr Trump, prompting the White House to revoke his press badge before a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to restore his credentials.

But Mr Trump would also turn to his packed press conferences to call on reporters from multiple outlets, large and small, including those he didn’t know.

At one point, he referred to Kurdish journalist Rahim Rashidi as “Mr Kurd” – a tale Rashidi would gleefully remind his colleagues of throughout the following two years at congressional hearings and diplomatic receptions.

Another time, Mr Trump told Weiija Jiang, an Asian-American reporter with CBS, to “ask China” when she asked a question regarding Covid-19 testing – prompting Jiang to ask Mr Trump why he specifically gave her that answer.

While Mr Trump called on a wide variety of reporters, his answers were often short, less policy focused and rife with factual inaccuracies. He also relied heavily on the short, informal interactions with reporters that Mr Biden has also favoured so far.

“[Mr] Trump liked the short Q&As,” said Dr Kumar. “He didn’t like digging deep on policy. Instead, he would prefer talking about what it is that he was up to. They were personal, about him and what he was thinking about at the particular time or what grievances he had.”

By contrast, Mr Obama preferred to call on a more tightly controlled, limited group of reporters while delivering lengthy, oftentimes in-the-weeds answers. Consequently, he relied heavily on one-on-one interviews with reporters and columnists that typically focused exclusively on specific policy areas he wanted to highlight.

Within the first 50 days of his administration, Mr Obama held 25 interviews with individual media outlets – far more than the five under Mr Biden and the 19 under Mr Trump.

“The idea of that separate event for [Mr] Obama was bringing in columnists and talking to them about an issue he was dealing with like the Iran nuclear deal so that he could inform their work as they wrote about the subject,” said Dr Kumar.

Mr Obama did branch out beyond the major media outlets during one press conference in 2015 when he sought to defend his administration’s diplomacy leading up to the nuclear deal.

After fielding questions on other issues from his preselected group of reporters, he opted to call on every journalist in the room so long as they had a question about the Iran deal – but he refused to address other topics.

As Mr Obama called on reporters he didn’t know, his press secretary, Josh Earnest, visibly twitched in the background.

Mr Biden may have stayed uncharacteristically on message in the opening days of his presidency, but he may yet give White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki reason to twitch when he holds his much-anticipated press conference on Thursday.