Thursday 25 March 2021

Biden's big day: President holds his first press conference since taking office 65 days ago and will face questions on border crisis and whether he will seek a second term

 Joe Biden will hold his first press conference as president Thursday afternoon with a room of 25 reporters – waiting longer than any other president in the last 100 years to formally take questions from members of the media.

On Day 65, Biden has a lot to tout – like the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan and vaccine rollout successes – but he will also field some tough questions on the border crisis and potential executive orders on gun control.

A TV reporter told Politico Playbook that taking into account Biden is 78 years old, members of the press are going to want to know if he will seek a second term. 

'He is likely to punt,' the reporter acknowledged. 'But Vice President Kamala Harris and Democrats across town would surely be eager to hear the true answer of when he will make a determination about 2024.'

The gaffe-prone president has been largely steered away from the press by his team.

At 1:15 p.m. on Thursday, however, the president will finally face questions from a room of socially-distanced journalists in the East Wing of the White House.

President Joe Biden will hold his first press conference as president Thursday at 1:15 p.m. in a nationally televised event in the East Room of the White House

President Joe Biden will hold his first press conference as president Thursday at 1:15 p.m. in a nationally televised event in the East Room of the White House

While it appears the White House was waiting to present Biden to the press until after he could celebrate his American Rescue Plan passed, other challenges have come up along the way for which he will have to answer.

A pair of mass shootings, rising international tensions, early signs of intra-party divisions and a growing southern border crisis are all confronting a West Wing known for its discipline in messaging.

Recently, Biden's communications team has been receiving flack for mixed-messaging on allowing photographers, videographers and reporters to tour and capture images from detention and holding facilities at the border.

'This issue about the press being allowed to document HHS facilities at the border is their first real live test of transparency,' New York Times' reporter Annie Karni, who will be at the briefing Thursday, told Politico.

Biden is the only chief executive in four decades to reach this point in his first term without holding a formal question-and-answer session with journalists.

'It's an opportunity for him to speak to the American people, obviously directly through the coverage, directly through all of you,' White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters aboard Air Force One on Tuesday.

'And so I think he's thinking about what he wants to say, what he wants to convey, where he can provide updates, and, you know, looking forward to the opportunity to engage with a free press.'

While Biden has been on pace with his predecessors in taking questions from the press in other, more informal formats, he tends to field just one or two inquiries at a time, usually in a hurried setting at the end of an event or in front of a helicopter.

Pressure had mounted on Biden to hold a formal session, which allows reporters to have an extended back-and-forth with the president on the issues of the day. Biden's conservative critics have pointed to the delay to suggest that Biden was being shielded by his staff.

There's a lot of interest on whether Biden will call on Fox News reporter Peter Doocy and how he will handle the right-leaning reporter.

'I'm obsessed with whether the president will call on Fox News' PETER DOOCY, who tormented Biden during the campaign with constant questions about his son Hunter,' a print reporter revealed.

'Does Biden want to enter the Fox thunderdome, or does he play it safe with the milder networks?'

A TV reporter made the case that Biden's team has purposely been holding off on a formal press conference because they are worried about what he might say.

'I assume there's a reason they've waited this long,' the individual said.

'It's his natural inclination to talk to us,' the reporter continued. 'They are [holding] him back. And there's a reason for that. But they are not going to be able to control him on Thursday. For a comms team and for a chief of staff who have the tightest ship going right now, there is probably a lot of anxiety.'

West Wing aides have dismissed the questions about a news conference as a Washington obsession, pointing to Biden's high approval ratings while suggesting that the general public is not concerned about the event.

When Biden was asked Wednesday if he was ready for the press conference, he joked, 'What press conference?'

Behind the scenes, though, aides have taken the event seriously enough to hold a mock session with the president earlier this week. And there is some concern that Biden, a self-proclaimed 'gaffe machine,' could go off message and generate a series of unflattering news cycles.

'The press conference serves an important purpose: It presents the press an extended opportunity to hold a leader accountable for decisions,' said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, presidential scholar and professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania. 'A question I ask: What is the public going to learn in this venue that it couldn´t learn elsewhere? And why does it matter? The answer: The president speaks for the nation.'

Biden will stand behind a lectern emblazoned with the presidential seal and point to a surge in vaccine distribution, encouraging signs in the economy and the benefits Americans will receive from the sweeping stimulus package. But plenty of challenges abound.

One reporter revealed they are interested in whether Biden, 78, will seek at second term – a question sure to perk the ears of Vice President Kamala Harris

One reporter revealed they are interested in whether Biden, 78, will seek at second term – a question sure to perk the ears of Vice President Kamala Harris

His appearance will come just a day after he appointed Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the government's response to the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border, where the administration faces a growing humanitarian and political challenge that threatens to overshadow Biden's legislative agenda.

In less than a week, two mass shootings have rattled the nation and pressure has mounted on the White House to back tougher gun measures. The White House has struggled to blunt a nationwide effort by Republican legislatures to tighten election laws. A pair of Democratic senators briefly threatened to hold up the confirmation of Biden appointees due to a lack of Asian-American representation in the Cabinet. And both North Korea and Russia have unleashed provocative actions to test a new commander in chief.

In a sharp contrast with the previous administration, the Biden White House has exerted extreme message discipline, empowering staff to speak but doing so with caution. The new White House team has carefully managed the president's appearances, which serves Biden's purposes but denies the media opportunities to directly press him on major policy issues and to engage in the kind of back-and-forth that can draw out information and thoughts that go beyond curated talking points.

Having overcome a childhood stutter and famously long-winded, Biden has long enjoyed interplay with reporters and has defied aides´ requests to ignore questions from the press. He has been prone to gaffes throughout his long political career and, as president, has occasionally struggled with off-the-cuff remarks.

Those are the types of distractions his aides have tried to avoid, and, in a pandemic silver lining, were largely able to dodge during the campaign because the virus kept Biden home for months and limited the potential for public mistakes.

Firmly pledging his belief in freedom of the press, Biden has rebuked his predecessor's incendiary rhetoric toward the media, including Donald Trump's references to reporters as 'the enemy of the people.' Biden restored the daily press briefing, which had gone extinct under Trump, opening a window into the workings of the White House. And he sat for a national interview with ABC News last week.

Biden has also delivered a series of well-received speeches, including his inaugural address, and has shown that he can effectively communicate beyond news conferences, according to Frank Sesno, former head of George Washington University's school of media.

'His strongest communication is not extemporaneous. He can ramble or stumble into a famous Biden gaffe,' said Sesno in a recent interview. 'But to this point, he and his team have been very disciplined with the message of the day and in hitting the words of the day.'

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