The Missing Questions Showed That Biden Is Winning

The big news from President Joe Biden’s first press conference was about dogs that didn’t bark: the kind of news that’s important because of its absence.

Not a single question about the pandemic.

Not a single question about the economy.

Reporters tend to ask about controversies and problems. Two months into Biden’s presidency, neither the virus nor the economy appear to be seen as controversies or problems. (At least not by Washington journalists.)

The biggest topic on Thursday, drawing several questions, was the surge of migrants at the Mexican border. That seems to be what the press corps sees as the most pressing issue right now, and it was one where Biden agreed that things have to improve. The other topic that drew several questions was the filibuster rule in the Senate. That’s one where Biden has little control; senators, not the president, make decisions about Senate rules. 

Biden just signed a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill. No questions about that. Biden mentioned in his opening statement that new jobless claims dropped this week; nobody followed up to ask about unemployment rates that remain persistently high. Nothing about criticisms of the relief law. Nothing about budget deficits or threats of inflation. Nothing about the multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure plan that Biden is rolling out; the president managed to bring up the subject only in response to a question about gun control. Nothing about Covid-19 vaccines, or about opening schools, or when remaining restrictions can be dropped. Nor did anyone ask Biden if his newly announced goal of 200 million shots in his first 100 days is ambitious enough.

What should we make of this? For one thing, it’s an indication of the new administration’s success. Reporters don’t typically ask (nor should they) about things that are going well. 

It also tells us about what Republicans care about. Reporters ask about controversies, and Republican critiques are defining them. Republicans would have been angry had there been no questions about the border; I’m sure they’ll find something to criticize in what and how reporters did their jobs, but they really shouldn’t complain about the way the White House press corps reacted to their agenda.

I saw a few complaints on Twitter about the difference between the topics reporters chose for discussion and the questions most citizens would ask. That’s fair: Citizens would have asked about the virus and the economy, and probably about health care as well. They would not have asked whether Biden would run for re-election in 2024 (he said he expects to, of course), much less about whether Vice President Kamala Harris will remain on the ticket (surely, Biden said) or whether Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee (he sensibly said he had no idea and chided them for asking silly questions). But citizens would probably also skip important questions about troops in Afghanistan, relations with China and relations with North Korea. Professional journalists have weaknesses, and strengths, too. 

As for Biden? He did fine. He ducked the questions he didn’t want to answer, gave some solid and some dull answers to those he did — I thought he was especially good on China, human rights and autocracy — and remembered to pivot to the stuff he wanted to talk about when no one asked. The truth is that presidential press conferences, whatever their strengths as symbols of democracy and for their role in the policy-making process, have never been all that important in terms of helping or harming a president’s popularity and influence, and they’re even less likely to have significant impact in a marketplace saturated with news. 

I expect Biden will eventually wind up sticking fairly close to President Barack Obama’s average of about eight solo news conferences a year, or perhaps a few less. He has little to fear from these sessions and little to gain. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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