Coincidentally, the clip below from yesterday afternoon is making the rounds on social media today, hours after CNN published a piece noting that Biden’s gone an awfully long time without holding a press conference.
Is that why the feed cuts out after Biden opened things up for questions? Because his staff is concerned about perceptions of his “capacity” if he’s put on the spot?
This is pretty amazing.
Biden actually says he’ll take questions.
Obviously that was not the game plan because the White House went right to a graphic instead.
Not sure what went on here, but it looks like a real fear of unscripted Biden.
— Tim Murtaugh (@TimMurtaugh) March 4, 2021
There may be less to that than meets the eye. He was addressing the House Democratic caucus on a virtual conference call. “Nance” is Nancy Pelosi, who was also on the call. He wasn’t inviting questions from reporters, I don’t think, he was inviting questions from House Dems who were dialed in. And in theory, Biden should have little to fear from members of his own party trying to trip him up by challenging him.
But I don’t know. Maybe his staff figured it would look even worse if some progressive wonk like Ro Khanna or Pramila Jayapal put him on the spot with a nuts-and-bolts query about the COVID relief bill or minimum-wage hike and Biden’s answer made clear that he was shaky on the details. The only thing worse than having the media expose his lack of “capacity” would be having a Democrat do it.
There are more mundane possibilities for why the sessions ended as it did. It could be that his staff feared a contentious exchange with progressives not because they thought it would make Biden look incapacitated but because it would expose real divisions on policy between the new president and the left flank of his base. Or, even more mundanely, maybe the Q&A was canceled because there wasn’t time for it. Remember that yesterday the House suddenly canceled its remaining sessions for the week due to the security threat related to March 4. They were forced to shoehorn an extra day’s worth of business into the evening hours, finally passing their voting-rights bill at around 11 p.m. ET. Possibly Pelosi pulled the plug on the session with Biden, not wanting to extend a long day any longer than it had to be extended.
Whatever the explanation, there’s no denying that Biden has been unusually press-shy during his first six weeks in office relative to his predecessors. CNN:
CNN White House reporter Kevin Liptak shared this note with colleagues on Wednesday: “As we await word on when President Biden will hold his first solo press conference, an analysis of the past 100 years shows he is behind his 15 most recent predecessors, who all held a solo press conference within 33 days of taking office.” Liptak pored through this university database to confirm the data.
Thursday will be Biden’s 43rd day in office. “While he has taken questions from reporters on a few occasions, including during sprays and a more formal Q&A session following an event in January, he has not held a formal press conference,” Liptak noted. “That includes both a solo press conference or a 2+2 news conference during his two virtual ‘bilateral’ meetings with the leaders of Canada and Mexico.”
I didn’t notice that he hasn’t held a presser until recently because his staff, shrewdly, has had him in front of the cameras almost every day. And not always to deliver scripted statements: Yesterday’s “Neanderthal thinking” remark was made off the cuff, at a spray with reporters at which, it seems, they weren’t allowed to ask questions. He’s visible to the public. He’s just not being challenged during his appearances.
Although it’s worth noting two exceptions to that. On January 26, he took questions from five news outlets — but all of them had been pre-selected by his staff. (He also allowed a question from Peter Doocy of Fox News, who’s been on the Biden beat for awhile.) Then, on February 16, he held a live town hall in Wisconsin with CNN that included questions from some average joes chosen by the network. For what it’s worth, not all of those questions were softballs. One questioner told Biden frankly that his student-loan forgiveness plan wasn’t generous enough, and Biden refused to back down:
AUDIENCE MEMBER: (Laughs.) The American Dream —
THE PRESIDENT: You think I’m kidding.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: — is to succeed. But how can we fulfill that dream when debt is many people’s only option for a degree? We need student loan forgiveness beyond the potential $10,000 your administration has proposed. We need at least a $50,000 minimum. What will you do to make that happen?
THE PRESIDENT: I will not make that happen. It depends on whether or not you go to a private university or public university. It depends on the idea that I say to a community, “I’m going to forgive the debt…” — the billions of dollars in debt for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn and schools my children — I went to a great school. I went to a state school. But is that going to be forgiven, rather than use that money to provide for early education for young children who are — come from disadvantaged circumstances?
A town hall isn’t as challenging as facing a roomful of seasoned reporters, but if you’re worried about your guy’s “capacity” being revealed, would you put him on live TV without a script under any circumstances?
It may be that Team Joe is generally hyper-cautious about managing their interactions with reporters. Last month the Daily Beast revealed that Biden’s comms team had been quietly nudging reporters to see what questions they planned on asking — not of Biden but of Jen Psaki, whose “capacity” isn’t in doubt. Biden was famously gaffe-prone even as a younger man, so it’s conceivable that the White House is holding him back due to the same hyper-cautious impulse. (It’s paying off so far, if so, as his job approval stands at 53/39.) If he’s still ducking reporters after the COVID bill passes, that’ll turbo-charge the doubts about whether he has the wherewithal to do an extended Q&A. But for the moment, it doesn’t seem to be hurting him outside of voters who are inclined to dislike him already.