President Joe Biden regularly takes a few questions from reporters after speeches, events or between trips on Air Force One or Marine One. But research from Towson University shows Biden, who pledged to run a transparent White House, has held fewer news conferences and interviews than recent predecessors during his first year in office.
Biden, 79, has held nine formal news conferences, three of them joint events with foreign leaders and six on his own, The Associated Press reported Sunday. Former President Ronald Reagan is the only recent president to hold fewer news conferences — and his first year’s schedule was limited after a failed assassination attempt.
Reagan still did 59 interviews in 1981, compared to Biden’s 22 — fewer than all six of the Democrat’s immediate predecessors, according to research recently published by Towson University’s Martha Joynt Kumar, a political science professor.
The comparative lack of interviews and formal press conferences continues to place the White House on the defensive about transparency and landing its message with the public, just as the administration attempts to rein in the COVID-19 pandemic, negotiate voting rights legislation and resurrect a $1.7 trillion social spending and climate package that Democrats couldn’t push through Congress by the end of 2021.
Kumar noted that while Biden takes questions more often at events than his predecessors did, “he spends less time doing so.”
“He provides short answers with few follow-ups when he takes questions at the end of a previously scheduled speech,” said Kumar, who directs the White House Transition Project.
“Fleeting exchanges are insufficient to building the historical record of the president’s views on a broad array of public concerns,” Steven Portnoy, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association and a reporter for CBS New Radio, told AP. “The more formal the exchange with the press, the more the public is apt to learn about what’s on the man’s mind.”
Portnoy added on Twitter that former President Dwight Eisenhower, “who championed democracy versus totalitarian communism, built the interstates and sent troops to integrate schools — made a point of holding news conferences [two times] a month. The historical record of a presidency requires more than fleeting Q&A.”
Over his first year in office, Biden engaged in nearly double the number of informal question-and-answer sessions than his immediate predecessor, former President Donald Trump, (216 to 120), and nearly five times as many as former President Barack Obama (46), whom Biden served alongside as vice president.
In fact, of the most recent six presidents, only former President Bill Clinton (with 245) held more spontaneous sessions with reporters than Biden, the research showed.
Trump, who blasted the media throughout his term, held 22 news conferences in 2017, his first year in office, along with a second-most 92 media interviews, the research found.
Obama held 27 news conferences and 156 interviews — by far the most compared to other recent presidents.
Former President George W. Bush held 19 news conferences, 49 interviews and 144 informal sessions over his first year in office, while his father, George H.W. Bush, fielded questions at 31 news conferences, 46 interviews and 58 unplanned sessions in 1989.
Clinton, meanwhile, apparently enjoyed sparring with reporters, whether during informal sessions or in the White House press briefing room in 1993. The Arkansas Democrat held 245 unscheduled sessions with reporters, while also conducting 54 media interviews (third behind Obama and Trump) and the most formal news conferences of any of the most recent presidents, with 38, the research showed.
White House officials note that Biden answered questions at 55% of the events where he’s delivered remarks or a speech in 2021; that’s more than Clinton’s 48% and Trump’s 41%, AP reported.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, argued during a POLITICO “Women Rule” event in November that the issue over fewer formal press conferences is “misunderstood” and more related to the “White House press corps … and D.C. press, than it is of concern to the American public.”
“I would say that it’s the job of every journalist to push for more access,” she added. “That’s their job. And if we granted access every time a journalist asked for an interview or access, we probably wouldn’t necessarily be doing our jobs. It’s really about how any president uses their time or how they engage with the media. But it’s just not accurate to suggest that he isn’t accessible or doesn’t answer questions.”
Biden administration officials also note that COVID-19 has impacted interviews and news conference schedules throughout 2021.
“I think that we have been very transparent,” Karine Jean-Pierre, White House principal deputy press secretary, told AP. “I don’t think you can just piecemeal and I think you have to look at it as a whole.”
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