The seven-week stretch is the longest a new president has gone without meeting the press in the past 100 years, dating back to when Calvin Coolidge, a man known as “Silent Cal,” was president, according to research by the American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Biden delivered his first prime-time address to the nation Thursday night — but it appears the nation will wait longer to see him respond to questions at his first presidential news conference. He has often taken a question or two from reporters at the end of speeches or statements, as he did Wednesday after remarks about an increase in the coronavirus vaccine supply. But his record as president so far mirrors his behavior as a candidate, when Biden gave several interviews but rarely interacted with a roomful of reporters.
His reluctance to do so since becoming president has attracted comment and criticism from allies and foes alike.
Kayleigh McEnany suggested last week that Biden is ducking the media to avoid gaffes, and that his staff is “protecting” him from the sort of unscripted exchanges he would face in a news conference. Former Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows made similar comments to Fox News host Sean Hannity on Tuesday, and Hannity alleged that the White House is continuing to “hide” Biden.
The Washington Post’s editorial board, which endorsed Biden’s candidacy, on Sunday urged Biden to get on with it, too: “Americans have every right to expect that [the president] will regularly submit himself to substantial questioning.”
White House correspondents are, of course, eager to fire questions at the new president. “Reporters like press conferences and will always demand them, but they aren’t just for our benefit,” said Jonathan Karl, ABC News’s White House reporter. “Above all, press conferences are for the public’s benefit. People have a right to see their president regularly answering questions.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week that Biden will hold his first news conference “before the end of the month,” though she didn’t specify a date. She said Biden’s “time, energy and focus” have been elsewhere — specifically, on the coronavirus pandemic, the economy and the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill passed by Congress this week.
At this point in office, Trump had given five news conferences. Obama had given two, George W. Bush three and Clinton five.
However, those figures require an asterisk. Four of the five news conferences Trump gave during this period were the bilateral kind, in which the president and a foreign leader appear jointly and take turns calling on reporters. He went solo in only one of the five. Obama, Bush and Clinton also appeared alone just once during their first 50 days.
The pandemic has limited Biden’s ability to meet with foreign leaders or to travel abroad, Gerhard Peters, the Presidency Project’s co-director, pointed out. Thus, “it is not at all surprising to me that the frequency of [news conferences] is much lower than presidents in recent years. Essentially, there is little opportunity.”
Still, there’s been plenty of news on the home front — which many reporters argue is ample reason for holding a news conference. Presidential news conferences, which have been televised since Eisenhower was in office, enable the commander in chief to explain his approach to issues and crises under independent questioning. “Press conferences are critical to informing the American people and holding an administration accountable to the public,” said Zeke Miller, the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, which has called on Biden to hold regular news conferences.
Yet all modern presidents develop communications strategies that play to their strengths and comfort levels, and sometimes these do not prioritize news conferences, said John Woolley, the Presidency Project’s other co-director.
“I can imagine [Biden] doesn’t see a big benefit in press conferences,” Woolley said, especially since he has recently succeeded with the passage of the coronavirus relief bill. Meanwhile, there could be little to be gained by “taking questions on every conceivable topic from a very heterogeneous media crowd.”
In the meantime, Biden has used other strategies to communicate his agenda and policies, such as restoring daily briefings by his press secretary and relying on staff and surrogates to promote initiatives like the covid bill.
In any case, Woolley said, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of a relationship between a president’s achievements and reputation and the frequency of his news conferences. “So really, [the question is] ‘so what?’ ”
Trump, for example, was unique in that he said so much in public — via daily Twitter blasts and informal “exchanges” with reporters — that his news conferences “weren’t very effective,” Woolley said.
And despite his reputation as “the Great Communicator,” Reagan hosted very few news conferences, only 46 over his eight years, the fewest of any president in the past 100 years.
The news conference king? That would be “Silent Cal” Coolidge, who gave an average of six per month during his 5½ years in office.