Biden Holds Fewest Press Conferences Since Reagan

WASHINGTON — In the 100 years since Calvin Coolidge took office, only Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan have held as few press conferences each year as current occupants of the Oval Office.

Traveling in Ireland last week, President Biden broke with decades of tradition of holding press conferences while abroad. On Thursday, President Gustavo Petro of Colombia met with Mr Biden, but the two did not hold a joint press conference, another practice of his predecessors that Mr Biden has frequently bypassed. After the meeting, Mr. Petro answered questions from journalists—alone—on a microphone in front of the West Wing.

And even though his press secretary promised that Mr. Biden would “return transparency and truth to the government,” the president gave the fewest interviews since Mr. Reagan became president: just 54. (Donald J. Trump gave 202 during his two years as president; Barack Obama gave 275.)

More than any president in recent memory, Biden, 80, has taken steps to reduce opportunities for journalists to question him in forums where he can provide unscripted answers and they can follow up. The result, critics say, is a president who has fewer moments of public accountability for his comments, decisions and actions.

Mr. Biden did not accuse the news media of being “the enemy of the people,” as his predecessor did during four years in which news organizations documented thousands of lies by Mr. Trump.

But as Mr. Biden prepares to announce his candidacy for a second term on Tuesday, he is hastening the death of the traditions that have underpinned relations with the news media for decades. The president's strategy of keeping the press at arm's length is a gamble that he can circumvent that tradition in the new media environment. And it is public evidence that the political strategist Mr. Biden wants to protect him from the unscripted exchanges that often result in missteps and criticism.

White House officials have not disputed their different approaches. They say it is part of a deliberate strategy to get around traditional news media to connect with audiences “where they are”, without being subjected to the filters of political or investigative journalists.

“Our ultimate goal is to reach the American people wherever and however they consume media, and that's not just through a Washington-based boardroom or news agency,” said Ben LaBolt, White House communications director. “The rupture of media and the changing nature of information consumption requires communications strategies that adapt to reach Americans where they get their news.”

That often means low-stakes conversations with celebrities or supportive internet influencers as a casual way to generate publicity.

In recent months, Mr. Biden has sat down for lengthy, separate interviews with actors Jason Bateman and Drew Barrymore, weatherman Al Roker, and Manny MUA, a beauty blogger on YouTube. Ms. opening question Barrymore during his interview was about whether Mr. Biden is a gracious gift giver for his wife, sparking long conversations about the poems he writes for the first lady each year.

“All presidents are mad at people who question their opinions about the great policies we make and the good things we do,” said Mike McCurry, who was President Bill Clinton's press secretary. “But at some level, you have to have a process in the White House that respects that.”

Mr McCurry said the president felt less pressure to bow to such questions from journalists in today's news environment, where traditional organizations have lost the influence they once had because their share of the public's time has dwindled.

“That's a real problem too, because we can say, ‘Well, we don't have to be so responsive to a bunch of journalists rattling on our knees every day,'” says Mr. McCurry. “And that's too bad. Preparing for and giving press conferences forces the White House and other agencies to provide better answers and sometimes better policies.”

Since taking office, Mr. Biden has communicated with the public in a number of ways. He has written opinion essays, given speeches, participated in several televised town hall meetings and was involved in impromptu back and forth with Republicans on Social Security during his most recent State of the Union address.

White House officials noted they were reinstating the tradition of daily White House briefings by press secretaries after Trump suspended them for more than a year. And they cited what they called the president's “informal and informative Q. and A. interactions with reporters,” as evidence that he was willing to engage with the journalists who covered him regularly.

One official noted that during the president's four-day trip to Ireland, he answered 40 questions from journalists in five different exchanges, including a short grounding session the morning after Air Force One touched down near Washington.

“President Biden has held nearly 400 question-and-answer sessions with reporters since he took office,” LaBolt said. That's more than Trump, Obama or George W. Bush did during the same period of their presidencies, said LaBolt.

But interactions between Mr. Biden and journalists are usually very brief, with shouting questions the president often chooses not to answer. When he does, sometimes with truncated answers, one or two words.

A transcript of the White House exchange following Air Force One's return from Ireland shows Biden offering short answers to questions about a possible unification of Ireland, the debt ceiling, and the upcoming Supreme Court abortion ruling. He started talking to reporters at 2:43 a.m. and finished at 2:45 a.m

Another session is similar.

When Mr. Biden returned to the White House on January 2 from his vacation in the Virgin Islands, he stopped to speak to reporters at 4:35 p.m. after exiting Marine One. He answered questions about his relationship with Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and said “no” when asked whether the United States was discussing joint nuclear exercises with South Korea at the time. The exchange ended exactly one minute later, at 4:36 p.m., according to the White House transcript.

In September 2022, Mr. Biden paused to speak to reporters but said “no” when asked to comment on negotiations over a railroad strike. He answered a question about Ukraine and two questions about inflation. The exchange lasted two minutes.

Mr. Biden did not completely leave the press conference. After the Democrats did better than expected in last year's midterm elections, Biden spent 53 minutes answering questions in a formal press conference at the White House. In January 2022, he marked his first year in office by holding a marathon session with journalists, answering questions in the East Room for one hour and 51 minutes.

“OK. Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold on, guys,” Mr. Biden said at one point during that press conference. “We're only gone an hour and 20 minutes. let's get this straight here: How long are you guys ready to go?You want to be gone for another hour or two?

“Yes,” shouted the journalist, with one adding: “Until we are all summoned, sir.”

The length of the interview or press conference doesn't always matter. Mr. Trump is notorious for spreading lies and misinformation during lengthy Q. and A. sessions. During the coronavirus pandemic, he once used a press conference to suggest that people should inject bleach into their bodies.

But data compiled by professors who study differences between presidents suggests exchanges with journalists are far less frequent than before.

Based on The American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Biden averaged 10 press conferences per year during his first two years in office, including 11 solo sessions and nine with foreign leaders. Mr Trump averaged 19.5 over the same period. Mr Obama averaged 23, and Mr Clinton averaged 41.5. Herbert Hoover held an average of 82 press conferences, while Mr. Coolidge holds an average of 90 conferences annually.

Mr. Nixon and Mr. Reagan averaged seven press conferences in their first two years, although Mr. Reagan's average was cut short by an assassination attempt in March of his first year in office.

The comparisons are similar when it comes to interviews, according to a tally by Martha Joynt Kumar, a longtime presidential communications scholar. Compared to 54 interviews with Mr. Biden as of December (including interviews with celebrities), Mr. Trump gave 202, Mr. Obama gave 275, Mr. Bush gave 89, Mr. Clinton gave 132, George HW Bush gave 96, and Mr. Reagan gave 106 – all during the first two years of their presidency.

Mr. Biden has especially avoided interviewing major newspapers. Since taking office, he has not conducted a single interview with reporters from a major newspaper.

Every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, with one possible exception, has given an interview to the news side of The New York Times (historians have been unable to find one from Dwight D. Eisenhower, though they can't rule it out). Likewise, every president over the decades has spoken to The Washington Post.

(Mr. Biden has met with the Times columnist, but never recorded. “President Biden invited me to lunch at the White House last Monday,” Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote in May 2022. “But it was all off the record — so I can't tell you anything he said.”)

Press conferences and interviews always carry risks for politicians, who can look bad or make mistakes. In a nearly two-hour session last year, Biden appeared to suggest that Russia's “small incursion” into Ukraine was acceptable, forcing the White House to delete his comments. In a 2021 interview with ABC host George Stephanopoulos, Mr. Biden said there was no way to avoid chaos during the evacuation from Afghanistan, which drew strong criticism.

Tamara Keith, a White House reporter for NPR and president of the White House Correspondents Association, said she loved that Biden regularly responded to shouted questions at the end of meetings or events.

“But there is a qualitative difference between informal gaggles and formal press conferences, where the press prepares, and the president prepares, and the public can gain insight into the president's thinking and approach to policy,” he said.

Ms Keith urged the White House to return to a time when the president regularly confronted reporters in official news conferences. That would give reporters a better chance to press him for answers.

“With a question shouted, he chose a question,” he said. “With a press conference, he gets to choose the questioner but he can't choose the questions.”

David W. Dunlap And Peter Baker reporting contribution.