After more than 60 days, it finally happened. Joe Biden’s team decided that it was the right time to allow him to appear before reporters on March 25. It is always somewhat rewarding to watch a presidential press conference that is informative, open, honest, and substantive. Unfortunately, this was not one of those press conferences. In fact, it was perhaps more of an embarrassment for both the media and the office of the presidency.
Unlike his predecessors, Biden did not field questions from reporters who raised their hands, not knowing what would be asked. This event was stage-managed. Biden called by name upon reporters who had, it appears, been pre-selected to ask questions. Photographs taken at the event show Biden holding notes and reference cards that included key talking points, facts, and figures as well as pictures of the reporters present, their names, and circled numbers beneath some of them.
That is not to say there was no spontaneity to the presser at all. One could almost sense the frustration some reporters have with a man who has, thus far, been less transparent than any president in living memory. Unlike media appearances by the man who Biden served as vice president, this was not a monotonous stream of softball questions along the lines of: what is your favorite color? – or, why are you so awesome? The media’s exasperation with Biden came through, a little, in some of the questions.
Nevertheless, compared to the confrontations former President Trump had with the press, this event was so tame that one could be forgiven for suspecting that all of the reporters present, along with Biden himself, had been tranquilized before the conference began.
Light on Detail
The commander in chief provided little detail of any plans to deal with any issue. Rather, he pontificated, meandered, and spoke in generalities and possibilities. Almost every question was answered with a vague portrayal of what might be done to solve a given problem. There were plenty of pledges to talk to people, look into things, figure stuff out, and come up with the best solutions. On at least one occasion, Biden lost his train of thought completely and stopped speaking mid-sentence.
There was more reward to be had by analyzing what was not said, rather than what was. Though much of the presser was devoted to immigration, Biden avoided laying out any comprehensive long-term solution to the debacle on the southern border.
To the probable dismay of hardcore open borders advocates on the far left, the 46th president appeared to suggest that the ultimate goal should be to send most of the recent border-crossers back to their own countries. Failing that, negotiations were underway – or would be conducted – to keep them in Mexico until the administration could figure out what to do with them.
Biden did make it clear to reporters that his priorities were dealing with the COVID-19 situation and getting the economy back on track. While he paid lip service to other issues raised, such as climate change, gun control, and overcoming the Senate’s legislative filibuster, Biden avoided tying himself down to specifics and suggested that none of these matters were high on his to-do list. Likely, he knows the political minefields surrounding these topics and prefers not to take a walk through them at this point.
A Negligent Media
Whereas Trump was rarely allowed to respond to a question from the media without his answer being immediately challenged, Biden was not once questioned or pushed on any of the nebulous answers he provided. Even when he twice stated that the flow of illegal aliens across the southern border was no more significant now than it was during the Trump years, he was not queried.
As one reporter pointed out, facilities designed to detain or house border-crossers are currently operating far beyond their intended capacities. This was not the case during the last administration – if it had been, the media would have reminded America of it every day. These facilities are now at bursting point. No matter how many statistics one wishes to throw around, the massive increase in illegal border crossings is proven by the overcrowding in these centers.
Biden’s first press conference may have set a worrying precedent. It appears likely that the man who now occupies the White House – and was, perhaps, a little cryptic when asked if he intended to seek a second term there – will be able to stumble his way through all future press conferences. The media has either set the tone or has accepted a tone set by the White House: As is the case in China, Russia, and numerous other authoritarian countries, it appears the chief executive will be allowed to say whatever he likes to the media without being confronted or fact-checked on a word of it.
Read more from Graham J. Noble.