The first presidential news conference of the Joe Biden era is in the books.
He came out twelve minutes later than his call time—fashionably late. He made a five-minute statement. He took questions from ten reporters—seven women and three men—and spent about five minutes on each question. He left almost exactly one hour later. Reporters shouted questions at him as he left.
The president covered a variety of topics, including immigration, gun control, Afghanistan, the filibuster, China, and running for re-election—and he self-inserted the topic of infrastructure as he avoided talking about gun control at one point. He also let us know he expects no American troops in Afghanistan within a year.
Disconfirming the right-wing claim that Biden is in the throes of dementia, he showed that he could handle himself well in this type of environment and really only stumbled, very briefly, once: While talking about votes in the Senate to pass legislation, Biden said he was going to say something outrageous—but he never did. He seemed to forget his place briefly and then moved on.
Other than that, the president served his interests well. But after two months in office, Biden has, like his press secretary Jen Psaki, faced a mostly depleted White House press corps. Only thirty reporters faced Biden today. Psaki usually faces just fourteen. This environment is much easier to control and is less of a test for the administration then facing up to a hundred people in the briefing room and sometimes twice that in a presidential news conference. The camera, however, shows little of that. It shows the president’s answers.
Biden hit some definite high points. He said it “is my expectation” that he will run again for president—perhaps not surprising, since any good politician would know not to turn himself into a lame duck so soon in his presidency, but still the first time he explicitly said he plans on running in 2024. He also said he was going to double the goal for the number of Americans to be vaccinated within his first 100 days in office (i.e., by the end of April), from 100 million to 200 million.
He had a variety of soundbites that will play well on the news. For instance, in an answer to a meandering question that touched on immigration and gun control and GOP opposition to the president’s plans, he said “I’ve been hired to solve problems, not create division.”
When initially asked about immigration, Biden finally and definitively put a nail in the coffin of the notion that there is a non-existent “crisis” on the border—and that, because people view him as a “nice guy,” illegal immigration is increasing. “I guess I should be flattered ‘people are coming because I’m the nice guy, that’s the reason it’s happening, that I’m a decent man’ or however it’s phrased. . . . Truth of the matter is, nothing has changed. . . . It happens every single, solitary year.”
Reporters who continued to press home their questions on immigration obviously did not grasp the border as well as Biden, who understood that people are not arbitrarily deciding to migrate on a whim but because of the conditions in their countries of origin. “What a desperate act to have to take, the circumstances must be horrible,” he acknowledged.
That was a far cry from the Trump administration, which painted a picture of roving caravans of criminals tearing across the land like a band of cartoon Tasmanian Devils.
What no one asked, and what Biden didn’t explain, was how the circumstances got so desperate in Central and South America to begin with. That would expose America’s responsibility in the creation of the immigration problem on the border we now have to handle. He mentioned that he asked Vice President Kamala Harris to start working on such “root causes.”
Biden got in his shots on Trump, sighing and smiling as he claimed to miss him—and musing out loud about the status of the GOP. “I have no idea if there’ll be a Republican party, do you?” he shot back when asked about 2024.
Biden also said something so sublime it may well be lost in the mix, but it deserves to be highlighted. He defined the path for the United States going into the future:
I predict to you, your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral theses on the issue of Who succeeded—autocracy or democracy? Because that is what is at stake. . . . We’re in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution, of enormous consequence. Will there be a middle class? How will people adjust to these significant changes in science and technology and the environment? How will they do that? Our democracy is equipped, because all of the people get to speak, to compete. . . . This is a battle between the utility of democracies in the twenty-first century and autocracies. . . . We’ve got to prove democracy works.
If we consider those statements at face value, President Joe Biden just sent a wake-up call to the country. He derided Republican lawmakers in several states who are engaging in voter suppression. He got his loudest as he criticized the legislative efforts of those lawmakers—like the Republican state representatives in Georgia who, just this afternoon, passed a bill forbidding giving food or water to people standing in line to vote—and made notice of the fact that Republican voters are as upset with the officeholders as anyone. Biden admitted he may not be uniting Congress, but the country is uniting. “I can’t guarantee we are going to solve everything,” Biden advised. “But I can guarantee . . . we can make it better.”
Biden never really got his temper up, but did say “come on, man” in answer to a question about children at the border.
What wasn’t seen in this press conference was a wider variety of questions. If you give the president good marks for his performance, you have to give below-average marks to the press—who, while on a couple of occasions said they were following each other’s questions, failed to really do so and failed to nail down answers to specific questions.
Biden didn’t bother to spar with Fox. He didn’t call on anyone contentious, and for the most part there wasn’t any contention in the room at all. As one editor told me, “The press looked flat. Like an NBA team on the back end of a long West Coast road trip.”
In our march back to normalcy, the White House press corps was happy today to take answers that didn’t include anyone calling us “fake news” or “enemy of the people.” Biden proved he could handle a press conference, now so must we.
As COVID restrictions ease, we must push for the administration to open up the White House to everyone—the way it used to be. Biden put the presidential train back on the rails with his first news conference. But going forward, there has to be more people in that room and more chances for a wider variety of reporters to ask questions.
Thirty people in the East Room won’t cut it.