Biden’s first press conference: A return to the pre-Trump normal

When Joe Biden took the podium in the East Room of the White House on Thursday to field dozens of questions from reporters, he remained calm, respectful, and circumspect.

On multiple occasions, he cut himself short as he realised his response had drifted into the long-winded nitty gritty of policy detail.

For other questions – especially on the Senate filibuster rule and the situation at the southern border – the president’s answers were difficult to parse, a product of both his guardedness on those topics and the fact that, at 78 years old, he has lost his fastball when it comes to articulating nuanced issues.

Mr Biden’s voice and demeanour conveyed little to no hostility even as reporters repeatedly pressed him on the inadequate housing conditions for the surge of unaccompanied migrant children in US custody at the border with Mexico.

Instead of creating and selling to the media an alternate reality in which the migrant housing crisis simply does not exist, Mr Biden admitted the current conditions are “totally unacceptable” (although he did shift blame onto the Trump administration for failing to provide the resources to deal with such a surge).

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“There’s no easy answer,” he said about what to do with unaccompanied migrant children who reach the US.

Mr Biden sprinkled in a few news bits: He’s now aiming to have Covid vaccines in the arms of 200 million Americans by the of his first 100 days; he expects to remove all troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year; he intends to run for president again in 2024.

But he made no outlandish promises or claims, kept his legislative strategy close to his chest, refrained from launching personal attacks against reporters, and largely repeated what his top aides and spokespeople have been telling the media for weeks on a range of burning issues, from border challenges and gun violence to gridlock in the Senate and voting rights.

In a phrase, Mr Biden’s first official press conference as president marked a return to the pre-Trump normal for these types of events: boring-yet-necessary affairs defined by their rhetorical reticence.

Of course, the president animated the storylines that have dominated the recent news cycle with a series of punchy new quotes defending his administration’s vulnerabilities and attacking Republicans for stymieing his agenda – both important for contextualising the current political moment.

But if you were looking for drama, a personal showdown with a nagging reporter, or a major new announcement, this was never going to be the place for that.

Here’s the deal (to steal a phrase from the president): Mr Biden self-admittedly has never been the sharpest public speaker. Every single one of his 15 Cabinet secretaries, all of whom have now been confirmed by the Senate, are both more articulate and more knowledgeable in their given subject areas than he is – as they should be.

Unlike his predecessor, who lurched his administration from one bombshell policy decision to the next with surprise announcement after surprise announcement, this president has opted to lead from behind, enabling the relevant parts of his administration to formulate and announce key policy moves on their own schedule. That’s the exact opposite of Mr Trump’s govern-by-tweet-and-everyone-else-play-catch-up approach.

Asked on Thursday why he has not visited the southern border himself as the Department of Homeland Security works to establish more facilities to process the influx of unaccompanied migrant children, Mr Biden had this to say:

“One of the reasons I haven’t gone down – all my chief folks have gone down – is I don’t want to become the issue. I don’t want to be, you know, bringing all the Secret Service and everybody with me to get in the way,” he said.

Mr Biden promised “full transparency” to border facilities once they are up and running.

“This is being set up, and you’ll have full access to everything once we get this thing moving,” he said.

When will that be? the reporter asked.

“I don’t know,” Mr Biden admitted.

Often these press conferences reveal more about the state of our government based on which topics aren’t broached.

After 64 days in the White House, with the coronavirus still killing thousands of Americans per week and forcing millions of schoolchildren to take classes online, the president did not receive a single question about his response to the Covid crisis.

That’s as good an indicator as any that his administration has gotten off to a hot start on the single most pressing issue facing the nation.

The timeline for herd immunity has shrunk significantly since Mr Biden took office in January, and the administration has already begun parceling out the $1.9 trillion in Covid relief that Democrats rammed through Congress on a party-line basis earlier this month.

And while White House aides such as chief of staff Ron Klain complained on Twitter about the absence of questions on such topics, it’s not the media’s job to pat the president on the back for his successes.

It never has been.

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