Joe Biden will hold his first official news conference as president on Thursday, 25 March, at the White House, his spokeswoman Jen Psaki has announced.
And with that, the Washington press corps can close the curtains on one of its most contrived political “mini-scandals” in recent memory.
What originated as a talking point among Republicans on
Capitol Hill and quickly splashed its way onto the headlines and chyrons of media outlets owned by conservative newsman Rupert Murdoch (Fox News, the New York Post, and The Wall Street Journal) eventually got picked up by mainstream outlets such as The Washington Post in an increasingly characteristic display of bothsidesism.
These more sanctimonious members of the White House press corps, to be clear, have not taken main issue with the administration’s overall level of transparency.
The current administration as a whole has been far more public-facing than the previous one — providing veritable information at daily briefings, making Cabinet-level decision-makers available for questions, and working to provide statements in response to reporters’ queries.
No, the press corps’ issue has not been with the administration’s relationship with facts or the straightforwardness of its policy positions.
It’s simply that those facts and policy positions have not come directly from the president’s mouth. Mr Biden himself has not been made available for a lengthy, sustained grilling by the journalists who cover the day-to-day of his presidency.
That is intentional. And not for any sinister reasons.
Reason No 1 for his reluctance to hold a press conference is that he does not want to further divide the nation along party lines on the crises he is overseeing.
Mr Biden has largely resisted putting himself at the centre of the government’s response to the two massive crises he inherited from Mr Trump: the coronavirus pandemic and its resultant economic downturn.
The president saw how Mr Trump’s wild spars with the press at his coronavirus briefings sowed distrust and partisan polarisation on everything from the safety of potential vaccine candidates to the efficiency of the nationwide testing regime to what therapeutics were safe to request from doctors. (For the thousandth time, please do not mainline bleach into your bloodstream.)
By letting senior health care adviser Andy Slavitt and Covid “czar” Jeff Zients and Centres for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky take the lead on answering questions about the Covid crisis — and, just as importantly, not contradicting their remarks — Mr Biden is removing his politically polarising name from Covid-related issues and conversations altogether.
Let’s be very clear: Mr Biden has left good-government watchdog groups wanting more in terms of transparency.
Yes, the administration has given the press the runaround on information pertaining to the ongoing crisis at the US-Mexico border, where unaccompanied migrant children have been showing up in droves seeking asylum and overwhelming the Homeland Security and Housing and Urban Development Departments’ systems for processing their cases. It took someone at DHS leaking those numbers to the
New York Times last week for them to become public.
And yes, the White House is withholding virtual visitor logs for the president and Cabinet officials, even though such meetings represent the bulk of their meetings amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But, again, that’s not been the primary point of contention here for the White House press corps.
Those reporters have expressed few doubts about the facts Ms Psaki has presented on a multitude of issues at her daily press briefings. Reporters are afforded the opportunity multiple times per week to ask questions of the scientists and experts Mr Biden has delegated to lead his response to the Covid crisis. Among others, Ms Psaki has brought to her podium DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to explain the administration’s policies at the border; economic adviser Bharat Ramamurti to dish on the rollout of the $1.9trn Covid aid package; and national security adviser Jake Sullivan to discuss the president’s latest interactions with Iran.
Each of those Cabinet-level officials fielded dozens of questions on their areas of expertise, far more clearly and likely in far greater detail than Mr Biden would be able to.
Every presidential administration is more than just one person.
The president is often, believe it or not, the least informed principal in the room at any given policy meeting; the kinds of people with whom presidents discuss certain topics usually devote their waking lives to that singular issue. Those people are much better equipped to convey valuable, concrete information to reporters.
Including members of the armed forces, the executive branch employs more than 4m Americans.
The US government is responsible for overseeing so many aspects of American life that the division of labour and exercise of policy expertise is essential even at the top rungs of US governmental leadership.
Of course it’s important that the man at the very top of that chain of command make himself available every now and again to face questions, set the tone for the nation, and explain his stance on certain policy matters in clearer terms than we’d likely get from the sterilised filtration system of bureaucratically rigid advisers and press aides.
But let’s quit confusing Mr Biden letting experts speak on his behalf with administrative secrecy.