When Joe Biden was running to unseat former President Donald Trump, one of the main talking points during the race was that electing the former Vice President would return the United States to a level of democratic norms we had lost during the Trump Administration. Indeed, much of that has come to fruition — our current president has yet to incite an insurrection over false claims of voter fraud, for example. However, Biden has failed to adequately mend one of the most damaged parts of our democracy: a frequent, cordial and informative level of interaction with the free press.
He is certainly an improvement from our previous administration. Outside of a few minor incidents, the notorious spat with CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins in June being one of them, Biden has afforded the press a level of civility that Americans were more or less used to before the Trump presidency. There has been no lambasting of the press as the “enemy of the people.” But being a nice guy, and giving the press corps the occasional presidential cookie, doesn’t mean Biden has handled the press well. My problem with Biden isn’t his civility toward the press, it’s his availability. Biden is averaging the fewest press conferences per month since Ronald Reagan. He constantly claims that he “isn’t allowed” to take off the cuff questions from the press. He does almost no sit-down interviews, and if there’s one thing for sure, you better not try to overcome his press wranglers.
Biden’s wariness of the press isn’t just a partisan talking point — it’s a real issue. Sure, Republicans are overzealous in their baseless claims that Biden “has implied that handlers set the rules and determine when and where he’s allowed to take questions,” and the idea that he lacks the mental acuity to interact with the press was never founded on any sound footing. But, one could very well argue the current president does not appear to feel it’s a priority to answer questions from the press. The press corps represents the American people, and the American people deserve to hear from the leader of the free world in a non-scripted format.
This September, Biden’s apprehensive media tendencies were exposed in a painfully obvious way. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was visiting the White House for a meeting in the Oval Office when the two had a brief appearance together in front of the media. After brief remarks, Johnson invited his fellow British reporters to ask questions. They did, and he promptly answered. One would expect Biden would reciprocate the offer to the American press, especially given the location, but this offer never came. He didn’t open the floor to American reporters, and his wranglers yelled so loudly that the one question he appeared to answer was indistinguishable. It was frustrating to see, and it made Biden look timid at an important moment.
The White House press corps formally issued a complaint to the White House about the matter. When a press corps feels so deprived of meaningful communication opportunities that they are filing complaints, it is doubtful that Biden has restored our presidential press relationship to an adequate level. This isn’t something that should be pushed aside. If those who are doing the questioning think it’s a real problem, it can no longer be cast aside simply as a partisan attack.
I’ve long felt empathy for Biden with his communication abilities, especially given his history with stuttering. But all the crises his administration has gone through in the last few months, most of which he has been unwilling to answer tough questions about, are deeply concerning and bode poorly for the state of transparency in his administration.
This behavior is mystifying politically, democratically and morally. One of the biggest attacks on his campaign, and now his presidency, has been that he doesn’t want to face the music. At this rate, he may prove that to be true. Republican talking heads couldn’t ask for him to fall in line any better. Perhaps it is time to ask ourselves if much of what Republicans are saying about Biden’s press interactions are less so a set of disingenuous talking points, and more of an unfortunate reality.
I find Biden to be a strong speaker, and he has even been lauded in the past by right-wing networks for numerous speeches he gave as a candidate and as president. With policing talks breaking down, the deadline for raising the debt ceiling fast approaching and the Democratic Party infighting reaching a breaking point, the nation desperately needs its leader to raise his voice, and not just to the level he feels convenient or comfortable.
Devon Hesano is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.