It has been more than 150 days since President Biden held a formal press conference at the White House. For context, the average person could walk across the continental U.S. in less time.
Let that sink in: The U.S. president has refused to speak with any reporter who isn’t pre-approved from a very short list in the past five months. And his advisers certainly seem to want no part of a press conference format, which can be wide-ranging and (if journalists do their job right) uncomfortable.
For context, George H.W. Bush held 90 solo press conferences in his term as president.
Bill Clinton had 59 over two terms; George W. Bush, 49 over his eight years; Barack Obama, 64 from 2009-2016; and Donald Trump held 44 from 2017-2021.
But Joe Biden? He’s held just 11 during his 26 months in office, putting him on pace to hold 20-22 press conferences, or about half the number Trump provided, and about one-third the number of Obama.
The American press is mostly forgiving of the 46th president, especially when compared to the hostile posture it took with Trump. But the lack of access has finally prompted some pushback, as evidenced by a testy exchange between Gray Television’s Jon Decker and White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
“Is the administration trying to protect the president from our questions? Please answer that question,” Decker asked earlier this week.
“Absolutely not. Absolutely not,” Jean-Pierre replied.
“Then why the lack of any interaction in a formal setting to have a press conference?” Decker followed.
After some back and forth, Jean-Pierre said that Biden has taken their questions “many times” and even suggested that he’s taken more “shouted questions” than any other president in history. White House correspondents groaned at the absurdity of that statement.
In a related story, Biden did not have a press conference during his trip to Ireland, nor is he expected to hold one back home anytime soon.
It doesn’t help that the media don’t seem all that interested in Biden, preferring to focus on Biden’s click-generating and ratings-boosting predecessor.
Avoiding the press worked out just fine for Biden in 2020. Back then, he had a ready excuse for avoiding the press when COVID-19 was at its peak. But this time, Biden will have to make his case for reelection (if he runs) both on the campaign trail and in the East Room, where formal press conferences are held and invariably lead the news cycle.
The president’s advisers have another communications strategy they are set to unveil: Using TikTok influencers to coax Millennials to the polls. Yes, that’s the same Chinese-owned TikTok that many lawmakers, including many Democrats, see as a major national security risk.
The American public are largely on board with banning the app, with 50 percent supporting a ban, according to Pew, and just 22 percent opposing it.
But a deeper dive into the numbers tells a more nuanced story: While just 15 percent of those between the ages of 50-64 oppose banning TikTok, that number jumps to 46 percent opposition for those between the ages of 18 and 29, with just 29 percent supporting a ban.
This may be the reason the White House is reluctant to join many members of Congress in calling for a ban. In fact, just last month, Biden joined boy-band One Direction’s lead singer Niall Horan on a TikTok video just after he publicly expressed national security concerns about the app. It was classic Biden, where his actions contradicted his words.
From a political perspective, TikTok apparently is seen as essential in getting more young people to vote. One journalist labeled the app “a necessary evil” for Democratic campaigns in general.
A Tufts University study found that turnout in the 2022 midterms was the second highest on record, with 31 percent of voters between 18 and 29 turning out in key battleground states. (Only 2018 saw higher numbers.) Historically, per the study, turnout among this age group has been around 20 percent, so we’re talking more than a 50 percent increase.
For now, two things are certain:
1) Joe Biden won’t be the leading voice of his own presidential campaign. Press conferences will be a rare occurrence, held only when
the news cycle is very favorable.
2) TikTok isn’t going anywhere, as a Democratic presidential campaign can benefit from it.
TikTok may be a national security nightmare for the U.S., but it’s a dream for Team Biden, who see it as a key to securing a second term.
Joe Concha is a media and politics columnist.