One reporter called him “a moral, decent man.”
Another asked him to react to what Barack Obama had said at John Lewis’ funeral.
And several prodded him on how he would accomplish liberal priorities.
With a couple of prominent exceptions, President Biden’s first news conference yesterday was an easy session, failing to pin him down on significant issues. Too much time was wasted on process questions.
Biden did fine, for all the pregame chatter about whether he was too undisciplined to face the press for an hour He rambled on too long at times (as he himself observed at a couple of points), stopped himself in mid-sentence, and oddly kept fumbling to find the preordained list of who he’d call on. And he finessed major controversies, turning a question about gun control into a disquisition on infrastructure.
In short, it was nothing like a Trump presser.
Other than tough, pointed queries from ABC’s Cecilia Vega and NBC’s Kristen Welker, the journalists were either polite, asked open-ended questions or made clear they wanted him to push his agenda.
PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor, who spoke of Biden’s decency, asked about conflicting messages to migrant families with this free pass: “How do you resolve that tension?”
After the president spent part of a long answer blaming the Trump administration, Alcindor switched to Republicans who she said are trying to “restrict” voting rights. She invited him to attack the filibuster, favorably quoting Chuck Schumer and Jim Clyburn.
CNN’s Kaitlin Collins, who quoted Obama as saying the filibuster is a “relic,” pushed Biden on the issue as well. That focus on a Senate parliamentary tactic left the impression that some of the press corps wants the practice abolished so the president can easily pass his Democratic agenda without Republican delays.
The AP’s Zeke Miller set the tone at the top when he asked about the GOP’s “stiff united opposition” to Biden’s agenda on “immigration reform, gun control, voting rights and climate change.” But then he tossed a softball: “How far are you willing to go to achieve those promises that you made to the American people?”
What’s he going to say? Not far enough?
Baked into several of these questions was the assumption that all this “reform” is the right path to pursue. I don’t recall many reporters asking Trump how far he’d go to achieve his promises, when those were such initiatives as tax cuts and building a border wall.
CBS’s Nancy Cordes went back to local Republican efforts to “restrict” voting, saying “Democrats fear” that would “particularly Democrats fear impact minority voters and young voters. The very people who helped to get you elected in November. Are you worried that if you don’t manage to pass voting rights legislation, that your party is going to lose seats and possibly lose control of the House and the Senate in 2022?” Again, no challenge on the substance, just the process and the politics.
Cordes did elicit Biden’s most passionate answer, in which he called the Republican measures “anti-American,” “sick” and “despicable.” He said in some states voting would end at 5 p.m. and no one could bring water to people waiting in line. But the reporters made no effort to describe those measures or criticism of the Democrats’ bill. In fact, not one journalist asked the president to respond to Republican criticism, other than Mitch McConnell saying he’s talked to Biden only once.
Cordes also asked if Biden is running for reelection in 2024, and Collins followed by asking if Kamala Harris would stay on the ticket—this just a couple of months after he’s taken office. No president would so prematurely declare himself a lame duck.
On the other hand, Vega challenged the president by invoking a 9-year-old boy she’d met who had walked to the border from Honduras: “Is your messaging and saying that these children are and will be allowed to stay in this country and work their way through this process, encouraging families” to come? Biden said he would not “let them starve to death” and suggested Trump had done so.
And Welker didn’t need a long windup: “Will you commit to allowing journalists to have access to the facilities that are overcrowded moving forward?” Biden said he would commit, “when my plan very shortly is underway.” She tried without success to pin him down on a date.
To be sure, the topics, which included Afghanistan, China and North Korea, were substantive. No one asked about Biden’s dogs. But here’s the deal: poorly phrased questions and a tacit acceptance of Democratic priorities made this kind of a cakewalk easy for Joe Biden.