| USA TODAY
President Biden: States lifting mask rules is ‘Neanderthal thinking’
President Joe Biden said it’s a “big mistake” for states to lift pandemic restrictions and mask mandates.
Associated Press, USA TODAY
Nearly halfway into his first 100 days, President Joe Biden has yet to personally hold a press briefing, the longest any president has waited to make himself broadly accessible to the media in decades.
Presidential press briefings have historically been one of the few forums where the commander-in-chief is open to direct questioning and scrutiny, shedding light on an administration’s thoughts outside official public statements.
Biden’s delay is in increasingly sharp contrast to both his predecessors; former President Barack Obama held a press conference 20 days into office, while former President Donald Trump held a briefing on his 27th day.
“The more often the president makes himself available, the better the chances that his arguments will reach their intended audience without filtering by the often hostile press,” said Mary Kate Cary, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush.
The White House has stressed it is interested in making Biden available for a press conference but hasn’t said when.
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White House communications director Kate Bedingfield declined to give a timeline, only saying that it was “something he will do in the future.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told the media on Monday that Biden would “not yet” hold a news conference but added “we will definitely have one. We will schedule it, and you’ll be the first to know because you’re pivotal participants in that.”
Psaki also noted during a CNN interview Wednesday that Biden “takes questions from the reporters covering the White House regularly” during and in between events at the White House, arguing that his “focus day in and day out is on getting the pandemic under control and putting people back to work.”
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The absence of a full-on question-and-answer session, however, has drawn criticism from journalists concerned about a lack of transparency. Conservative critics have also seized on the matter as an attack line.
“Where’s Joe? It’s been 41 days. At this point, President Trump had had multiple press appearances, press conferences. President Barack Obama had as well,” former White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany asked on Fox News on Tuesday.
Republican chairwoman Ronna McDaniel echoed that on Wednesday on Twitter.
Biden has been called gaffe-prone and notably shied from the spotlight during portions of the 2020 presidential campaign, in part because of the coronavirus pandemic. The evolving strategy has so far benefited the president and might be desired by the public after the unprecedented media attention received by Trump in office. With Trump largely out of the spotlight, however, it is unclear how sustainable the strategy will prove for Biden’s White House.
Biden’s media appearances and surrogates
To be sure, the president has made media appearances in his first days in office. Biden has held sit-down interviews with People Magazine, CBS News and conducted a CNN town hall in Milwaukee, where he fielded questions from local residents and CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Such media appearances, though, lack the diversity and intensity of the conventional press conference.
The White House also restored regular daily press briefings with Psaki, a tradition that had atrophied under the previous administration.
Vice President Kamala Harris and multiple Cabinet officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, also make frequent media appearances, in addition to Psaki and White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain.
Biden has issued regular public addresses and attended smaller in-person events concerning the ongoing pandemic and executive orders his administration has taken.
The media strategy is one part of the White House’s broader push to pass Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. The approach, which also includes outreach on social media, has had some bumps; Harris was sharply criticized for comments she made during an interview with a West Virginia television station, for instance.
Yet while the White House continues to forgo the most direct way for reporters to hold the administration to account, Biden is not limited in getting his message out without access to traditional media platforms.
A new media strategy in a new media environment
Social media has made it easier than ever for politicians to bypass the news media to get their messages out, diminishing some of the traditional press briefing’s influence. Social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic has also subdued the once-raucous White House briefing room.
“I think you’re watching a president who, consciously or not, is trying to move away from our last ‘Twitter President’,” Kevin Mattson, a professor of history at Ohio University who has studied the presidency and American culture, told USA TODAY.
“Instead of press conferences, Biden seems to make numerous public statements directly to the American people. I’m reminded of FDR’s fireside chats” which were “intended to circumnavigate around the press and to go directly to ‘the people,'” Mattson observed.
Indeed, White House officials have said they are interested in using social media to generate conversations with the American people.
Communications experts have both expressed interest and concern over the country’s current era of political communication. How Biden shapes the next period of presidential communication, through both new technology and demeanor, will have deep implications going forward.
“When Trump tweeted, he was clearly the one speaking, and millions began to follow him,” Cary said. The former president, who often berated the press as “fake news,” would often bypass journalists by using social media to get his message out.
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“Whether you liked what he said or not, the authenticity was what made it fascinating. Even though so far Joe Biden hasn’t been as active on social media as Trump was, I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the way it was. There’s no substitute for hearing directly from the president. There’s a transparency to it that is now a part of our political conversation,” she contended.
Biden’s conventional approach to social media is meant to signal a return to professionalism, aides have argued. “You won’t have to worry about my tweets when I’m president,” he promised on the campaign trail.
Having a lower profile doesn’t necessarily mean the president won’t be communicating with the public, though. Unconventional moves, like posting a video addressing Amazon workers voting whether to unionize in Alabama, are a departure from traditional media strategies.
Biden may also be seeking to contrast himself not just to his former rival but also his former boss. In contrast to the often intellectual Obama, Mattson argued, Biden may want to become a “common language president, someone who walks citizens through what he’s trying to accomplish.”
But walking the public through his policy agenda, and then receiving feedback, is a process that also occurs through a presidential press conference.
While not the singular means of communicating with the public it once was, engagement with journalists remains pivotal for politicians to get their message out. Much of the news media, in turn, is eager to interrogate the president.