The White House press corps recently elevated President Joe Biden’s “delay” in holding a press conference to the level of a scandal. The narrative was that he couldn’t handle the unscripted format—because of dementia, gaffes, other “Uncle Joe” problems, or all of the above.
Finally, two whole months into his presidency, he scheduled one. And it was a disaster.
For the White House press corps.
I admit, I worried about Biden at first. At the outset, he seemed to be reading from notes on the lectern. It was only when the questions began that he came alive. But some of his questioners did not.
Predictably, and fairly, Biden faced multiple questions about the so-called “crisis” at the border. But he fended off several odd queries about whether somehow his reputation for decency was attracting more migrants. He answered, correctly, that the surge is a seasonal thing: “They come because this is the time of year when the journey is most survivable.” When ABC’s Cecilia Vega asked if the currently terrible conditions for child migrants at the Donna, Tex., facility are “acceptable” to him, he shot back, “That’s a serious question, right? Is it acceptable to me? Come on.”
He went on to say about children: “The idea that I’m going to say, which I would never do, if an unaccompanied child ends up at the border we’re going to let them starve to death and stay on the other side, no previous administration did that either, except Trump. I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it.” He traced the steps a parent might go through deciding to send their child north more than once, concluding, “What a desperate act,” and added that “I make no apology” for ending Trump policies of separating children from their mothers.
As president, Biden is responsible for conditions at the border, and immigration and asylum policies. This is an awful problem morally, politically, and logistically. Ultimately, he might not handle it well. But he handled loaded questions with moral passion and clarity.
As he did with questions about the wave of voter suppression laws pushed by Republicans across the country. “What I’m worried about is how un-American this whole initiative is,” Biden said. “It’s sick. It’s sick.” (He said it made “Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle,” which confused a lot of people, and probably wasn’t the most apt analogy, but he made the necessary point: It’s really bad.) He also sounded more than open to doing away with the filibuster for voting rights bills, and maybe more—one substantive takeaway from an otherwise pretty frivolous hour. Frivolous because of the questions, not Biden’s answers.
The president was asked not only if he is going to run again in 2024—predictably, he said that was his “plan,” with Kamala Harris by his side—but whom he expected to run against. “I don’t even know if there will be a Republican Party [four years from now].” To me, that was actually the news in his remark, but I saw reporters leading with the fact that he said he’d run again. As if he could say anything else.
Biden opened by saying he was increasing his vaccine goal to 200 million doses in 100 days. He didn’t get one single question about the pandemic—the best proof that he’s handling it well. But can these people even see themselves?
I say this so often it should become my e-mail signature or my Twitter bio: I didn’t support Biden in the primaries; I didn’t even think he should run. Of course, I supported him once he became the nominee. But he’s surpassed my limited expectations. His cabinet and other appointments have been excellent, as is his American Rescue Plan. I give his first press conference delivery equally high marks—and I hope the White House press corps tries to rise to the level of his performance, because that was a shit show.