Biden not yet holding a formal news conference raises accountability questions

He's gone longer without one than any president in the past 100 years.

March 11, 2021, 9:14 AM

Halfway into his first 100 days, President Joe Biden has yet to hold a formal, solo news conference, raising questions about accountability with the White House under increasing pressure to explain why.

Even as the nation deals with multiple crises -- a deadly pandemic and the devastating economic fallout -- Biden has gone longer without facing extended questions from reporters than any of his 15 predecessors over the past 100 years.

The tough exchanges in such a setting can reveal much more to Americans about a president's thinking and test his explanations, as opposed to what so far have been Biden's brief answers -- often one-liner quips -- in the tightly-controlled and often-scripted events the White House has arranged to date.

The contrast with former President Donald Trump has been especially striking, especially given Biden's repeated promises to Americans that he'd always be "straight" and "transparent."

The previous record was set by President George W. Bush, who waited 33 days before hosting a formal, solo press conference. But that was more of an anomaly: Many others held them within a handful of days or a few weeks of taking office, according to an analysis of documents in a database maintained by the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

CNN first reported on Biden surpassing his predecessors' record.

PHOTO: President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg meet with Rep. Peter DeFazio, Rep. Sam Graves, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and other House members at the White House, March 4, 2021, on infrastructure.
President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg meet with House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Peter DeFazio, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Ranking Member Rep. Sam Graves, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and other members of the House of Representatives in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, March 4, 2021, on infrastructure.
Andrew Harnik/AP, FILE

The White House last week pledged Biden would hold a news conference before this month was out, but it has not yet set a date. It did schedule his first primetime address for Thursday, though, "to commemorate the one year anniversary of the COVID-19 shutdown."

Trump held his first solo, formal news conference 27 days after assuming the presidency, while President Barack Obama did the same 20 days after taking office.

Some presidents participated in joint press conferences with foreign leaders before holding their first unilateral one.

Biden has participated in just one extended question-and-answer exchange with the press, for 21 minutes on his fourth full day in the job.

People listen as President Joe Biden speaks about American manufacturing before signing an executive order in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex on Jan 25, 2021, in Washington, D.C.
The Washington Post via Getty Images, FILE

That, though, was not a formal press conference -- it took place at the end of remarks about an executive order the president signed on manufacturing -- and, due to its indoor setting during the coronavirus pandemic, included a restricted number of reporters. Biden took eight questions from six reporters.

"We certainly are going to look for opportunities to continue to do that," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters in late January, although Biden has not done it again.

Aside from that early engagement, his exchanges with the press have largely consisted of him briefly speaking with a small group of reporters who are brought into meetings in the Oval Office or events elsewhere in the White House shouting brief questions at him.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki speaks during the daily press briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House, March 4, 2021, in Washington, D.C.
Samuel Corum/Getty Images, FILE

"The president takes questions several times a week," Psaki said Friday, explaining that he has not yet held a press conference because "his focus and his energy and his attention" has been on COVID-19 vaccines and relief.

She said Monday that "the president has done about 40 Q&As since he took office."

But those exchanges are often devoid of any meaningful back-and-forth, and typically last just seconds.

The president sometimes responds to one or two short questions -- if that -- while White House staff members yell, "Thank you!" and "Let's go!" as they usher the journalists out.

"I'm sorry, can't hear him," Biden said on Thursday as his aides screamed over a reporter and pushed the press out of the room. The president did not answer the question.

President Joe Biden gestures to the press before a bipartisan meeting on cancer legislation in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, March 3, 2021.
Brendan Smialowski/Pool via Reuters, FILE

Formal press conferences "are an indispensable part of the presidency," Mike McCurry, a press secretary for President Bill Clinton, told ABC News. Presidents will gather advisers to prepare and sharpen answers ahead of time, a boon to the policymaking process, he said.

"It's not a substitute for the more normal press conference to just have the president take a few questions in passing," McCurry said.

On Biden's first day, Psaki said the president's "objective and his commitment is to bring transparency and truth back to government -- to share the truth, even when it's hard to hear."

A month and a half into his presidency, Biden has done a few interviews with individual reporters, and he answered questions from Americans during a town hall hosted by CNN.

Psaki said she would have her own daily news conferences, and in fact, unlike those who held her office under Trump, she has given her own lengthy briefings on a daily basis.

Her immediate predecessor, Kayleigh McEnany, made a habit of criticizing press coverage, while Psaki has turned friendly banter with reporters into a hallmark of her news conferences, even if staying somewhat guarded in her answers.

President Donald Trump speaks to reporters and members of the media as he walks to board Marine One on the South Lawn at the White House in Washington, Oct. 3, 2019.
The Washington Post via Getty Images, FILE

The number of substantive one-on-one interactions the president has had with members of the news media, though, has plummeted compared to Trump.

Trump would frequently hold court with the press for long stretches of time at the end of unrelated meetings and events -- or while walking outside to a waiting helicopter -- veering off topic to answer an array of shouted questions. But while he took more questions, his answers were often riddled with falsehoods.

"I think they’re trying to make a statement that they are not Trump," Tony Fratto, who was a deputy press secretary for President George W. Bush, said. "Not being ever-present, being the daily voice on everything at all times."

But, Fratto added, Trump's continuous interactions with the news media has given Biden an opportunity to communicate more by altering Americans' expectations.

President Joe Biden walks to the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C., March 9, 2021.
Tom Brenner/Reuters

"I think the presidential press conference is still very relevant," Fratto said. "It's a test for presidents, and you only get better at those things by doing more of them."

On the campaign trail and during the presidential transition, Biden would more often stand behind lecterns and take questions from reporters, but his level of engagement nowhere near rivaled his opponent, Trump. In part, Biden remained at arm's length from reporters due to COVID-19 restrictions, which also resulted in him holding fewer in-person events where journalist could take advantage of less-scripted moments to pose questions.

Trump's campaign, meanwhile, openly flouted those coronavirus protections.

Biden has enjoyed wide support for his approach to the pandemic, according to a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll.

"I don't think the president pays any price for not having had a press conference so far," McCurry said. "He's had plenty on his plate. And I think the important thing is he's been making news."