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This may seem like an odd conclusion after watching President Joe Biden answer reporters’ questions for nearly two hours on Wednesday, but the president should talk with journalists more often.
What began as a fairly routine press conference — with the president touting his achievements during his first year in office and then calling on journalists to ask questions — ended as an odd mixture of general venting and specific excoriation of Republicans.
While it was impressive that the president could banter with reporters for nearly two hours, Wednesday’s White House event felt like a dangerous highwire act that included many odd — and likely counterproductive — outbursts.
He doubled down on criticism of Republicans, for example. He appeared to give Russia tacit permission to make a “minor incursion” into Ukraine and he suggested that polling that shows him increasingly unpopular with voters, including Democrats, was wrong.
Biden on several occasions asked questions — not all of them rhetorical — of the reporters assembled in the East Room.
Overall, he came across as a president who was out of touch with reality, as frustrating as today’s political realities are.
Perhaps if he held press conferences more frequently — this is only the sixth since his inauguration a year ago — Biden wouldn’t be so quick to verbally spar with reporters and would be more focused in his responses. Plus, if he was more frequently available to the press, the questioning wouldn’t last for hours — and, to be fair, many journalists at the White House still didn’t get to ask questions on Wednesday.
We, and many others, recognize that Biden is president at a difficult time: The COVID pandemic rages on in the U.S. despite the availability of vaccines, although about 25 percent of American adults are not yet fully vaccinated. Inflation and supply-chain problems, exacerbated by the pandemic, have driven up prices on staples like groceries, gas and medications. Russia continues to threaten its neighbors, this time apparently on the verge of some type of invasion of Ukraine, and China extends its economic and political influence. Meanwhile, Biden oversaw a poorly executed withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
The American people, as Biden said, are feeling a lot of “frustration and fatigue.” What the president has failed to do — including again on Wednesday — is clearly explain what he is doing about this.
He’s right that his administration has overseen some big things: The national unemployment rate has dropped by more than a third, with 6 million jobs added since last January. Child poverty has been reduced by 40 percent — although it is likely to climb as temporary changes in the child tax credit have expired. Congress finally passed an infrastructure bill, pumping more than $1 trillion into local transportation, clean water, broadband, climate change adaptation and mitigation and other projects.
These are important steps forward. But other signature efforts, such as bills to expand the social safety net and to protect voting access, are stalled in Congress. It is true that Republicans, especially in the U.S. Senate, are almost entirely unified in their objections to these bills. But berating Republicans, as Biden did on Wednesday, especially after campaigning as someone who would unify the country, is not the way forward on these and other legislative priorities.
Instead, as he did a few times Wednesday, Biden needs to acknowledge what he and his administration have done wrong, and more clearly explain to the American people about his agenda and why it is important. He also needs to work more closely with the small number of Republican lawmakers who may support some of what Democrats have proposed in Congress. That probably means breaking big pieces of legislation, which are typically crammed with barely related wishlist items, into smaller bills that can gain enough support for passage.
Polling shows that the majority of Americans are disappointed with Biden’s performance so far. Like him, many of them probably had unrealistic expectations about what could be accomplished over the past 12 months.
There’s no doubt that this is an especially difficult time to be president, and that some people do want to see Biden fail at the job. But alternately complaining about the situation and insisting that you and your team are doing a good job isn’t a ticket to success in 2022.