Halfway through his first 100 days in office, President Joe Biden still hasn't given a formal press conference. It's probably not the most important issue facing the republic. But it's not unimportant, either. A functioning democracy requires accountability — read your Thomas Jefferson — and in America, this has traditionally meant the top elected official in the land occasionally stands before the press to take a few direct questions.
Apparently, this tradition is now controversial.
Over the last week or so, the Washington press corps has grown increasingly vocal about its lack of direct access to the president, with stories in The Washington Post, ABC News, CNN, Vox and — not unexpectedly — Fox News. "It's not a small thing that the leader of our country hasn't stood for questions in the midst of multiple crises," the journalist Jessica Huseman said Sunday on Twitter.
But the media's agitation for a presidential press conference has sparked an angry pushback from Biden's supporters — witness the often-snarling replies to big-name journalists like Huseman, Maggie Haberman, or Peter Baker, who have taken note of the president's silence. Biden is busy with big challenges such as the pandemic and its economic fallout, say the president's defenders. Besides, doesn't he have a press secretary who answers questions every day?
"I am not in the least concerned that President Joe Biden has not held a news conference himself," one writer said in a letter to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "It appears to me that, instead, he has been doing the people's work — for example, the COVID relief legislation and the selection of highly qualified nominees for crucial administration positions. To the best of my knowledge, he has not taken time off for other pursuits such as playing golf."
David Frum, the former Republican speechwriter turned NeverTrump writer, over the weekend offered a thoughtful list of reasons why the dearth of press conferences is no big deal. Among them: that "assertive presidential leadership" can be polarizing — that it might be better for national unity for the president to recede from the foreground a bit. What's more, Frum argued, the United States government requires many hands to function, so it is best to spread around accountability.
"People on Twitter often complain of the 'green lantern' theory of the presidency — that the president can achieve things by sheer willpower," Frum wrote. "Americans need to *see* that other people in government beside the president also make decisions — and must answer for those decisions."
It is true that some observers have suggested that, by lying low and ducking culture war battles, Biden is making himself more effective on the policy front. But Frum's comments aren't an argument against press conferences so much as a case against the institution of the presidency itself, which concentrates immense power in one human being's hands. Many of the people who are making those big decisions in government report to Biden, and voters will surely hold him accountable for their choices and actions. And while there are other elected officials — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), for example — who help steer policy, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are the only ones elected by the country at large. A president can't hide. The buck really does stop at the Resolute Desk. The media should act accordingly.
This discussion is haunted, of course, by the specter of Donald Trump. (The Minneapolis letter writer's reference to golf outings gives this game away.) The former president met regularly with the press — too often, really — and turned presidential press conferences into circuses, events staged so he could be seen on TV bragging and jousting with reporters when he wasn't just outright lying. That might make the whole press conference format seem suspect. It is also the case that there are plenty of people who will be irritated by any effort to hold Biden to account, especially given that his predecessor evaded responsibility for so much and for so long. For many Americans, though, democratic accountability mainly matters when the other party is in charge.
But the choice doesn't have to be between Trumpian excess and zero access.
For what it is worth, Biden isn't totally ducking reporters. He has frequently taken a question or two at the end of speeches or statements; the White House says a formal press conference is coming at some vague moment before the end of the month. And press conferences aren't the only way for reporters to get answers about what a president is doing and why. But Biden campaigned on the promise of helping restore a pre-Trump normalcy to the nation and its government. Taking normal questions in a normal way from the press for a half-hour or so would be part of the process. It's time for the president to hold a press conference.