Joe Biden had some stumbles in his pre-Super Bowl interview with Lester Holt, segments of which aired Thursday: He came off as defensive at times, especially in discussing criticisms of the United States military withdrawal from Afghanistan, and he made headlines for ribbing the NBC News anchor as a “wise guy” during an uncomfortable line of questioning on rising inflation, which has now hit a 40-year high. But for the most part, the president projected a kind of ordinary competence. Which begs the question: Why not do this kind of thing more often?
Biden tends to avoid engaging with the press. In his first year in office, he has held fewer news conferences and fewer extended interviews than his predecessors, as the Associated Press noted last month. That’s probably not an accident: White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has acknowledged that her office often advises the president against taking questions from journalists at public appearances, an approach that reflects both the administration’s desire to stay on a strict message and a fear of Biden getting in his own way. That’s understandable, of course; Biden is prone to all manner of gaffes and asides, and even a minor blunder is sure to become grist for a right-wing media intent on portraying him as a doddering old fool incapable of leading the country. But his actual appearances tend to undercut that bad faith narrative, not feed it.
Biden’s “wise guy” remark to Holt is perhaps the kind of thing the White House communications shop hopes to avoid in limiting his engagements with the press. But part of the reason the moment generated so many headlines was because of how dry the rest of the interview was. Biden did make some news: He told Holt that he’d narrowed down his list of potential Supreme Court nominees, having done a “deep dive” on four candidates to replace the retiring Stephen Breyer. He urged Americans to leave Ukraine amid sky-high tensions with Russia, warning that “things could go crazy quickly” in the region. And he predicted that inflation, which spiked again in January, would begin to “taper off” over the course of the year. But nothing he said was especially remarkable: Even as he suggested moves by Democratic governors to remove COVID restrictions could prove “premature,” he acknowledged that “it’s a tough call.”
“It’s hard to say whether they’re wrong,” Biden told Holt.
It’s the media’s job to challenge officials, to test their narratives. Biden has shown himself perfectly capable of responding to those challenges. The question, then, isn’t just why he doesn’t do more interviews and pressers — it’s how things might be different if he did. The administration has been careful to stay on message. But, in his interview with Holt on Thursday, Biden acknowledged that the messaging hasn’t necessarily been great. “I haven’t sold it well,” Biden said of his Build Back Better plan, which remains stalled on Capitol Hill. Would a Biden media tour make Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema suddenly come around on filibuster reform? Maybe not. But perhaps it would give the president an opportunity to more effectively engage the American public, which appears in polls to be increasingly disapproving of his job performance. “The more formal the exchange with the press, the more the public is apt to learn about what’s on the man’s mind,” Steven Portnoy, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, told the AP last month. “The presidency has always been a predominantly rhetorical enterprise,” added Missouri State University professor Brian Ott, an expert on presidential rhetoric. “You can’t drive an agenda without vision casting and part of that has to go through the mainstream press.”
More Great Stories From Vanity Fair
— A First Look at Amazon’s Billion-Dollar TV Series
— Joe Rogan Drama Exposes the Drift of Spotify’s Other Mega Deals
— Inside Prince Andrew’s Misguided Bid to Explain Away Jeffrey Epstein
— Trump Lashes Out at Prosecutors Like a Man Soon to Be Held Accountable
— Is Chris Cuomo Behind Jeff Zucker’s Abrupt CNN Departure?
— Silicon Valley Is Ready for Robots to Kill Us All
— Lindsey Graham Spent Six Years With His Head Up Trump’s Ass for Nothing
— From the Archive: The 30-Year Odyssey of a Counterfeit Saudi Prince
— Not a subscriber? Join Vanity Fair to receive full access to VF.com and the complete online archive now.