The Biden press conference felt a bit like a Super Bowl, without the ads and without the ratings. There was a ton of build up among those who count these things and then the main event was, well, it was what it was.
There are plenty of takeaways that those who wish to view the proceedings through their partisan or media lenses can find to undoubtedly fill their air time and column inches, while recognizing that both terms are probably dated. But perhaps dated is an apt description, considering the event we just saw. President Biden looked and sounded a lot like presidents looked like and sounded like before the last one. He spoke carefully and respectfully. He seemed prepared and hit the points he wanted to hit. He knew he would take some heat, especially on immigration, and he tried to parry those questions as best he could. He offered empathy and some reflection. He said some things that were head scratchers (Jim Eagle?), and he probably said some things that his aides wish he hadn’t. But in the main I think his supporters would be thrilled with the result - especially when one considers how he has sometimes performed in such venues.
What struck me most about the president was something that has appeared increasingly obvious during the campaign. He seems to me to be a different man in temperament and tone from the politician I covered for so long in Washington. The prior Biden was known as an undisciplined talker, someone eager to fill any void of silence. There was an air of a man trying to prove himself. Now, I sense here a man, and perhaps it comes with age, who is more responsive. Yes, his answers can be verbose, and I wouldn’t want to diagram some of his sentences, but I don’t think he is just talking to hear himself speak. There are so many real crises on his plate that he can’t help but be in a defensive posture against the incoming demands. But his approach seems to be to play defense by playing offense - to answer big problems by prioritizing and proposing big solutions. None of this is of course an original observation, but it strikes me once more today.
In the immediate wake of the press conference, a lot of the chatter is about the performance of the White House press corps. And as a former member of that body, I can assure you that that is not what reporters want the story to be. Many are noting that there was not a single question on COVID, that there was a sustained fusillade on immigration (with President Biden’s supporters arguing that it echoes the Republican playbook), and there were questions about the 2024 election, only two months into Biden’s first term.
I am loath to pass judgement on any one reporter. There are a lot of complicated factors that go into drawing up your question. You want to have the president say something substantive. You hopefully make some news. You want to expand the spectrum of topics under public discussion. But I couldn’t help but think how less interesting and less impactful this press conference was from previous Biden town halls. These questions today were not the questions that nurses in ERs care about, or teachers worrying about going back into the classroom, or single moms juggling childcare and doctor’s bills. These were not the questions that those who are worried about a more active wildfire season, or student debt, or historical injustices around race care about.
It seemed at times you could see the frustration on the president’s face. “Really, this is what you harangued me for weeks about holding a press conference, this is what it was all about,” he seemed to be saying. Don’t get me wrong, the president does deserve a lot of hard questions and scrutiny, including on what is happening on the border. But those questions should be about answering human needs, not winning points on Twitter or cable news. We need oversight, not gotcha, dialogue not sound bites, understanding not sloganeering.
The president should be pressed on the concerns of the people, and that means talking to the people, all across the country. From the South Bronx to the reservations of Arizona, from the old steel towns of the Midwest to the tech communities along the Pacific, from Black farmers to immigrant shopkeepers, from every corner and demographic of this great nation, people are facing challenges, and worries, and insecurities. They have questions that deserve answers and the president should have to speak to them. Today, it seemed he was mainly being asked to speak to the bookers on cable news.