Biden Has Held the Fewest News Conferences Since Reagan. Any Questions?

WASHINGTON — In the 100 years since Calvin Coolidge was first elected, only Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan held as few news conferences each year as the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Traveling in Ireland last week, President Biden abandoned the decades-old tradition of holding a news conference while abroad. On Thursday, President Gustavo Petro of Colombia met with Mr. Biden, but the two did not hold a news conference together, another practice of his predecessors that Mr. Biden has frequently chosen to skip. After the meeting, Mr. Petro took questions from reporters — alone — at microphones in front of the West Wing.

And despite his press secretary pledging that Mr. Biden would “bring transparency and truth back to the government,” the president has granted the fewest interviews since Mr. Reagan was president: only 54. (Donald J. Trump gave 202 during the first two years of his presidency; Barack Obama gave 275.)

More than any president in recent memory, Mr. Biden, 80, has taken steps to reduce opportunities for journalists to question him in forums where he can offer unscripted answers and they can follow up. The result, critics say, is a president who has fewer moments of public accountability for his comments, decisions and actions.

Mr. Biden has not accused the news media of being “the enemy of the people,” as his predecessor did during four years in which news organizations documented thousands of lies by Mr. Trump.

But as Mr. Biden prepares to announce his bid for a second term as soon as Tuesday, he is accelerating the demise of traditions that have underpinned the relationship with the news media for decades. The president’s strategy of keeping the press at arm’s length is a bet that he can sidestep those traditions in a new media environment. And it is public evidence that Mr. Biden’s political strategists want to protect him from the unscripted exchanges that have often resulted in missteps and criticism.

White House officials do not dispute their different approach. They say it is part of a deliberate strategy to go around the traditional news media to connect with audiences “where they are,” without being subjected to the filter of political or investigative journalists.

“Our ultimate goal is to reach the American people wherever and however they consume media, and that’s not just through the briefing room or Washington-based news outlets,” said Ben LaBolt, the White House communications director. “The fracturing of the media and the changing nature of information consumption requires a communications strategy that adapts to reach Americans where they get the news.”

That often means low-risk conversations with celebrities or supportive internet influencers as a regular means of generating publicity.

In the past few months, Mr. Biden has sat for separate, lengthy interviews with the actors Jason Bateman and Drew Barrymore, the weatherman Al Roker, and Manny MUA, a beauty blogger on YouTube. Ms. Barrymore’s opening question during her interview was about whether Mr. Biden was a good gift giver to his wife, prompting a long conversation about the poems that he writes for the first lady every year.

“All presidents chafe at people questioning what they think is the great policies that we’re enacting and the good things that we’re doing,” said Mike McCurry, who was President Bill Clinton’s press secretary. “But at some level, you’ve got to have a process in the White House that respects that.”

Mr. McCurry said presidents felt less pressure to submit to that kind of questioning from journalists in today’s news environment, where traditional organizations have lost the influence they used to have as their share of the public’s time has dwindled.

“That’s a real issue too, because we can sort of say, ‘Well, we don’t have to be as responsive to this group of journalists who are yapping at our knees every day,’” Mr. McCurry said. “And that’s too bad. Preparing for and giving press conferences forces the White House and other agencies to come up with better answers and sometimes better policies.”

Since taking office, Mr. Biden has communicated with the public in different ways. He has written opinion essays, given speeches, participated in several televised town hall meetings and engaged in an impromptu back-and-forth with Republicans about Social Security during his last State of the Union address.

White House officials note that they restored the tradition of a daily White House briefing by the press secretary after Mr. Trump suspended it for more than a year. And they cite what they call the president’s “informal and informative Q. and A. interactions with reporters,” as evidence that he is willing to engage with journalists who cover him regularly.

One official noted that during the president’s four-day Ireland trip, he responded to 40 questions from reporters in five different exchanges, including a brief tarmac session early in morning after Air Force One landed near Washington.

“President Biden has held nearly 400 question-and-answer sessions with reporters since he took office,” Mr. LaBolt said. That is more than Mr. Trump, Mr. Obama or George W. Bush did during similar periods in their presidencies, Mr. LaBolt noted.

But those interactions between Mr. Biden and reporters are usually very brief, with shouted questions that the president often chooses not to answer. When he does, it is sometimes with a clipped, one- or two-word response.

The White House transcript of the exchange after Air Force One returned from Ireland shows that Mr. Biden offered short answers to questions about the likelihood of Irish unification, the debt ceiling and the Supreme Court’s upcoming abortion decision. He started talking with reporters at 2:43 a.m. and concluded at 2:45 a.m.

Other sessions are similar.

When Mr. Biden returned to the White House on Jan. 2 from his vacation in the Virgin Islands, he stopped to talk to reporters at 4:35 p.m. after walking off Marine One. He answered a question about his relationship to Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and said “no” when asked whether the United States was discussing joint nuclear exercises with South Korea at the time. The exchange ended exactly one minute later, at 4:36 p.m., according to the White House transcript.

In September 2022, Mr. Biden stopped briefly to talk to reporters but said “no” when asked to comment on negotiations over a railroad strike. He answered a question on Ukraine and two questions on inflation. The exchange lasted two minutes.

Mr. Biden has not entirely abandoned news conferences. After Democrats did better than expected in midterm elections last year, Mr. Biden spent 53 minutes answering questions in a formal news conference at the White House. In January 2022, he marked one year in office by holding a marathon session with reporters, answering questions in the East Room for an hour and 51 minutes.

“Okay. Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Hang on, guys,” Mr. Biden said at one point during that news conference. “We’ve only gone an hour and 20 minutes. I’ll keep going. But I’m — let get something straight here: How long are you guys ready to go? You want to go for another hour or two?”

“Yes,” reporters yelled out, with one adding: “Until we all get called on, sir.”

The length of an interview or a news conference is not always everything. Mr. Trump was famous for dispensing falsehoods and misinformation during lengthy Q. and A. sessions. During the coronavirus pandemic, he once used a news conference to suggest that people inject bleach into their bodies.

But data compiled by professors studying the differences between presidents shows that exchanges with reporters are far less common than they used to be.

According to The American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Mr. Biden averaged 10 news conferences per year during his first two years in office, including 11 solo sessions and nine with foreign leaders. Mr. Trump averaged 19.5 during that same period. Mr. Obama averaged 23, and Mr. Clinton averaged 41.5. Herbert Hoover averaged 82 news conferences, while Mr. Coolidge held an average of 90 each year.

Mr. Nixon and Mr. Reagan both averaged seven news conferences in their first two years, though Mr. Reagan’s average was cut short by the assassination attempt in March of his first year in office.

The comparisons are similar when it comes to interviews, according to a tally by Martha Joynt Kumar, a longtime scholar of presidential communication. Compared with Mr. Biden’s 54 interviews since taking office (which include the ones with celebrities), Mr. Trump gave 202, Mr. Obama gave 275, Mr. Bush gave 89, Mr. Clinton gave 132, George H.W. Bush gave 96, and Mr. Reagan gave 106 — all during the first two years of their presidencies.

Mr. Biden has especially shunned interviews with major newspapers. Since taking office, he has not done a single interview with reporters from a major newspaper.

Every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, with one possible exception, has given interviews to the news side of The New York Times (historians could not locate one by Dwight D. Eisenhower, although they could not rule it out). Likewise, every president going back decades has spoken with The Washington Post.

(Mr. Biden has met with Times columnists, but never on the record. “President Biden invited me for lunch at the White House last Monday,” the Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote in May 2022. “But it was all off the record — so I can’t tell you anything he said.”)

News conferences and interviews always carry risks for politicians, who can perform badly or make gaffes. In the nearly two-hour session last year, Mr. Biden seemed to suggest that a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine would be acceptable, forcing the White House to clean up his comment. In an interview in 2021 with the ABC host George Stephanopoulos, Mr. Biden said there was no way to have avoided chaos during the evacuation from Afghanistan, drawing harsh criticism.

Tamara Keith, a White House reporter for NPR and the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, said she was pleased that Mr. Biden regularly responded to shouted questions at the end of meetings or events.

“But there’s just a qualitative difference between these informal gaggles and a formal press conference, where the press prepares, and the president prepares, and the public is able to gain insight into the president’s thinking and approach to policy,” she said.

Ms. Keith urged the White House to return to when the president regularly faced reporters in formal news conferences. That would give journalists a better chance to press him for answers.

“With shouted questions, he chooses the question,” she said. “With a press conference, he can choose the questioner but he can’t choose the question.”

David W. Dunlap and Peter Baker contributed reporting.

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