One day before holding his first formal news conference, President Joe Biden seemed to write the whole thing off.
“What press conference?” he joked when asked Wednesday evening how he was preparing.
In reality, Biden has been getting ready for days to face the White House press corps, according to multiple people, who all conclude he recognizes the bright spotlight it will garner. Biden has talked his strategy through with several members of his inner circle and even held an informal practice session earlier this week.
The event, scheduled for early afternoon in the White House East Room, will be Biden’s most extended period of questioning since becoming president. For all his years in Washington, it’s a moment he hasn’t quite experienced for himself before; senators and vice presidents rarely hold their own solo televised news conferences.
He’s taking the step later in his presidency than his recent predecessors, who all convened formal news conferences within their first 40 days in office. The White House officially put Thursday’s event on the calendar in the middle of last week, giving reporters – and themselves – ample time to prepare.
Biden's First 100 Days
For most of Biden’s formal events at the White House, he has spoken directly into a camera mounted with a teleprompter and read from a prepared speech. His encounters with reporters have been more ad-hoc, responding with one or two sentences when lobbed a question at the end of an event or on his way to his helicopter.
He has prepared extensively for some of those events, including his prime-time address to the nation earlier this month. He spent days line editing his remarks, ensuring he was striking the appropriate tone while using exactly the right words and phrases. Biden did not want to make a single mistake, he told others.
A news conference, however, is a different prospect. While Biden is expected to open with prepared remarks, the question-and-answer session won’t be scripted.
To help punctuate the event with agenda-driven news, Biden plans to announce a new vaccination target after reaching his initial 100 million shots goal well ahead of schedule. That fits within his desired messaging about the pandemic response.
But the remainder of the event will be dictated by reporters’ questions that are certain to veer from the White House’s preferred topic of confronting the pandemic.
To prepare for the event, aides have written sets of talking points for potential questions on a wide array of topics. White House officials expect a number of questions to arise on immigration, but have also been preparing for a number of other topics, from the state of bipartisanship to the future of the Senate filibuster to a decision on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.
As he has before other major public appearances, Biden has taken home briefing books containing policy positions and framing for potential answers. Biden’s three-ring binders are typically organized by topic, with tabs separating the sections and the contents typed out in 14-point font. He has read them in the evenings and returned the next day with feedback for his team.
So, too, have Biden’s advisers worked to avoid situations that would cause the President’s temper to flare, as it did a few times on the campaign trail when faced with questioning he didn’t like. Among former staffers and people who have worked closely with him, Biden’s penchant for defensiveness when challenged is well-known.
He once lashed out at a voter who questioned him about his son, Hunter, calling the 83-year-old Iowan a “damn liar.” Another time he called a younger voter in New Hampshire a “lying dog-faced pony soldier” when she asked a question about his electability.
He’s gotten into verbal spats with reporters as well when questioned about his family or, early in his administration, about his goal of administering 100 million vaccines within 100 days.
“Come on, gimme a break, man!” he said.
While advisers do not believe occasional flashes of anger are necessary a bad thing for Biden, they do not believe his news conference should be marked by open hostility in the same way President Donald Trump’s were.
Part of avoiding that is providing Biden as many potential questions as possible, aides say, in the hopes he feels prepared for whatever might come his way and not be caught off guard in a way that puts him on the defensive. How questions are phrased – which, during a presidential news conference, is often quite pointed – could also cause Biden’s temper to flare.
Asked by reporters this week how Biden was preparing, press secretary Jen Psaki joked he was “looking at your Twitters and seeing what’s on your mind.”
“He is, you know, thinking about it,” she said aboard Air Force One. “It’s an opportunity for him to speak to the American people, obviously directly through the coverage, directly through all of you. 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.”
Like his predecessors, Biden has been provided succinct talking points that attempt to boil down complex issues in ways that would be easily communicated to a general audience.
That has not always been Biden’s strong suit. He sometimes meanders into the inner complexities of matters or uses confusing turns of phrase to describe a thought or idea. Since his presidential campaign last year, he has noticeably worked to curtail those kind of tangents, telling audiences that he doesn’t want to bore them.
“It’s gonna be, like, Sanskrit to people listening here,” he said when answering a question about last year’s delayed transition during an interview with ABC News last week.
“I’m going to get into trouble,” he said during a CNN town hall in February. “I’m supposed to only talk two minutes in an answer.”
Indeed, keeping Biden succinct has been a perennial challenge of the people who work for him, and a press conference provides precisely the venue where brevity is viewed as an advantage – but where lengthy answers have befallen his predecessors.
In his recent memoir, former President Barack Obama said he “enjoyed the unscripted nature of live press conferences” but admitted to sometimes droning on about policy matters.
“I succumbed to an old pattern, giving exhaustive explanations of each facet of the issue under debate,” he wrote of a health care news conference in 2009 that became overshadowed by an answer he delivered about the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates at his home in Massachusetts.
For all presidents, news conferences present the unique challenge of facing questions that have little to do with that day’s preferred topic. Biden has taken extra pains to remain strictly on message during his first two months in office, rarely veering away from taking about his efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
But events this week alone illustrate the difficulty in sticking to that message. Two mass shootings that have left 18 Americans dead, an influx of migrants on the Southern border and fresh provocation from North Korea all have little to do with the agenda priorities he has worked ardently to promote.
A news conference will only exacerbate the difficulty in remaining on message as Biden is forced to answer key questions on topics he hasn’t discussed at length since taking office.
Questioned on one such issue this week – diversity within his Cabinet, specifically focused on Asian Americans – Biden offered a flash of defensiveness.
“We have the most diverse Cabinet in history. We have a lot of Asian Americans who are in the Cabinet and sub-Cabinet level,” Biden told reporters in Ohio, before raising his hands to add, “Our Cabinet is formed.”