White House faces questions over lack of Biden interviews, press conferences after transparency vow
WASHINGTON (AP) — In what has become a familiar scene, President Joe Biden lingered after delivering a recent speech on the pandemic as reporters fired off a barrage of questions.
He bristled at a question about the shortage of rapid COVID-19 tests, answered another about omicron-spurred travel restrictions and avoided a third if Sen. Joe Manchin failed to keep his word when torpedoed social services and Biden’s climate spending plan.
“I’m not supposed to have this press conference right now,” Biden said at the end of a winding response that didn’t directly answer the question about Manchin.
Seconds later, Biden turned and walked out of the state dining room, abruptly ending what has become his preferred method for his limited press engagements.
As Biden completes his first year in the White House, he has held fewer press conferences than any of his five immediate predecessors at the same point in their presidency and participated in fewer media interviews than did any of its recent predecessors.
The dynamic has the White House wondering if Biden, who has sworn to have the most transparent administration in the nation’s history, is failing to pull back the curtain on how his administration works and miss opportunities to explain his program.
Biden asks questions more frequently in public appearances than any of his recent predecessors, according to new research published by Martha Joynt Kumar, professor emeritus of political science at Towson University and director of the White House Transition Project.
He regularly stops to talk to reporters who shout questions over Marine One’s whirring propellers as he paces back and forth from the White House. He parries with reporters at Oval Office photo ops and other events. But these exchanges have their limits.
“While President Biden has answered questions more often at his events than his predecessors, he spends less time doing so,” Kumar notes. “He provides short answers with few follow-ups when answering questions at the end of a previously scheduled speech.”
Biden has given just 22 media interviews, fewer than any of his six most recent White House predecessors at the same time in their presidencies.
The 46th president has held just nine official press conferences – six solo and three jointly with visiting foreign leaders. Ronald Reagan, whose schedule was cut at the start of his first term in 1981 after an assassination attempt, is the only recent president to hold fewer freshman press conferences, according to Kumar. Reagan did 59 interviews in 1981.
Former President Donald Trump, who has regularly pilloried the media, gave 92 interviews during his first year in office, including more than two dozen with friendly callers at Fox News. But Trump also held lengthy sessions with ABC News, The Associated Press, The New York Times, Reuters and other outlets whose coverage he challenged throughout his presidency.
Biden’s 22 media interviews have included one-on-one sessions with reporters from three major television networks, three CNN town halls, an appearance on MSNBC, a trio of regional television interviews via Zoom, as well as conversations with the late night host Jimmy Fallon and ESPN’s Sage Steele. He granted only three print interviews.
The White House responded to media requests — and complaints from the White House Correspondents’ Association — for Biden to do more one-on-one interviews and formal press conferences.
Press secretary Jen Psaki pushed back, arguing that a formal press conference with “embroidered cushions” on reporters’ seats is unnecessary since Biden takes questions several times a week.
But those exchanges often don’t allow for follow-up questions, and Biden can ignore questions he might not want to answer.
“Ephemeral exchanges are not enough to build the historical record of the president’s views on a wide range of public concerns. We’ve had few opportunities in this first year to learn the president’s perspective on a wide range of public concerns,” said Steven Portnoy, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association and a reporter for CBS New Radio. “The more formal the exchange with the press, the more the public is likely to know more about what the man is thinking.”
PSAKI also holds daily press briefings, unlike his predecessors in the Trump administration.
The president answered questions at 55% of the events where he delivered remarks or a speech, more than even two of the most vocal presidents, Bill Clinton (48%) and Trump (41%).
White House officials pointed to these frequent interactions with reporters as evidence that Biden has demonstrated his commitment to transparency. Officials also suggested the pandemic also affected the number of interviews and press conferences in the administration’s first year.
“I think we’ve been very transparent,” White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “I don’t think you can just piecemeal and I think you have to look at it as a whole.”
Trump had regular, and sometimes lengthy, exchanges with reporters as a Marine One waited for him on the South Lawn.
Biden continued the tradition of “chopper talk,” a nickname coined by late-night host Stephen Colbert for tense exchanges, though he tends to keep the exchanges brief.
At other times, Biden has used the exchanges to drive the news cycle.
Asked after a private visit with Pope Francis to the Vatican in October if they had discussed abortion, Biden said it had not been brought up. But then he quickly pivoted to claim Francis had told him he was “a good Catholic and that I should continue to receive Communion.” All the round trips with the journalists lasted about a minute.
The administration has been focused on finding ways to talk to Americans where they are as it tries to maximize the president’s limited time for messaging efforts, according to a White House official who snagged. spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the administration’s communication strategy.
To that end, Biden was interviewed by YouTube personality Manny Mua and appeared on “The Tonight Show” to advance his national agenda and encourage people to get vaccinated. The White House believes such platforms can help the president more easily reach middle-class workers or young Americans who aren’t glued to cable networks or The New York Times.
Biden has also leaned on celebrities with big social media followings — including actress and songwriter Olivia Rodrigo and Bill Nye The Science Guy — who made videos with Biden to help bolster his vaccination campaign and to plug in its major national spending initiatives.
Biden is not the first president to look beyond mainstream media to try to connect with the public.
Former President Barack Obama appeared on Zach Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns” to help sell his health care law and visited comedian Marc Maron’s garage to record an episode on the popular WTF podcast days after the 2015 Charleston church shooting. Obama spoke bluntly about racism in the high-profile interview with Maron.
Trump frequently called Fox News opinion shows, reaching his base directly without the filter of reporters.
Brian Ott, a communications professor at Missouri State University who studies presidential rhetoric, said the paucity of Biden’s press conferences and interviews with mainstream media could help explain why approval ratings of Biden are near historic lows, even though most polls show that much of his domestic agenda remains popular with a majority of Americans.
While pop culture and social media provide opportunities to connect with a segment of America, Ott said, the president connecting with the electorate through traditional broadcast and print media — and holding conferences official press releases – will be key to correcting this disconnect.
“Presidency has always been a mostly rhetorical business,” Ott said. “You can’t drive a program without a casting vision and part of that has to go through the mainstream press.”