President Biden has remained out of public view this week as he prepares for just his second solo White House press conference on Wednesday amid slipping support in polls, as inflation hits a 40-year high and while COVID-19 cases stay near all-time records.
Biden will host the forum on the final day of his first year in office as his once-ambitious pushes to create new social spending initiatives and federalize election policy stall out due to pushback from centrist Senate Democrats.
Biden returned to the White House on Monday without stopping to speak with reporters as he ended a long Martin Luther King Jr. weekend at home in Delaware. On Tuesday, he wasn’t seen by reporters, but attended an economic briefing and called Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö to discuss tensions between Ukraine and Russia.
Biden was elected with the largest number of votes in US history after campaigning largely from his basement against the COVID-19 management of President Donald Trump, but the honeymoon period in office ended swiftly over the summer as his touted “summer of freedom” from the coronavirus ended with the Delta variant wave.
Vice President Kamala Harris recently admitted that “there is a level of malaise” in the country, with social activities sharply still curtained and illness surging after two years of pandemic policies.
Biden’s handling of the pandemic is expected to be sharply questioned at the press conference after the Omicron variant sent case counts and hospitalization rates to all-time highs this month.
A record-smashing 1.35 million-plus US residents tested positive for COVID-19 last Monday, according to CDC data — versus last winter’s peak of just 294,000 cases on Jan. 8, 2021. And about 150,000 US hospital patients have COVID-19 — compared to the pre-Omicron variant US record of 133,000 last January.
The White House launched a website Tuesday for people to direct-order at-home coronavirus tests — after retailers sold out and official testing sites experienced hours-long lines — but the first deliveries could take another two weeks and there are signs that COVID-19 cases already are beginning to drop, meaning the initiative may come too late to make a significant dent in transmission.
The White House reportedly rejected an expert plan to mass-distribute tests in October. But White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday pointedly refused to say which Biden aides participated in a reported Oct. 22 Zoom meeting with health experts from Harvard, the Rockefeller Foundation and other groups or if Biden was consulted before their idea was spiked three days later.
Biden is expected to read from a prepared list of reporters, but press conferences allow for more in-depth exchanges than the generally brief Q&As on the White House lawn or after Biden delivers a speech.
The format also allows for a significant number of individual reporters to question Biden and to follow up on substantive exchanges that precede their turn. The Post is one of 30 news outlets that was granted a seat through a selection process set up by the White House Correspondents’ Association, but Biden is unlikely to call on all 30 reporters.
Despite mounting woes going into the November midterm elections, Biden is expected to put his best foot forward and argue that the country has made strides toward returning to normal. The White House has pointed to a 3.9 percent unemployment rate, though total employment remains lower than before the pandemic, and last year’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law.
But there are many challenging topics for the 79-year-old president. In addition to annual inflation reaching 7 percent, which helped kill Biden’s $2.2 trillion Build Back Better Act last month in the Senate, Biden faces a range of other setbacks, including a US-Mexico border crisis with illegal border crossings hitting an at least 35-year high and fallout from the chaotic US departure from Afghanistan following two decades of war.
Biden’s first year in office featured fewer than half as many press conferences as hosted by former President Donald Trump during the same period of time.
As of Dec. 31, Biden hosted nine press conferences, including two forums with visiting world leaders, where two reporters of each nationality are traditionally called on, and events while he traveled overseas. His first White House press conference was in March 2020.
In the same period of time, Trump gave 22 press conferences, Barack Obama did 27, George W. Bush did 19 and Bill Clinton did 38, according to records kept by political scientist Martha Kumar, who leads the White House Transition Project.
Biden’s relatively few interviews, particularly with print publications, is even more noticeable. As of Dec. 31, Biden sat for just 22 interviews, nearly all of them with TV outlets. Trump gave 92 interviews during the same period of time, Barack Obama did 156 and George W. Bush, whose first year was upended by 9/11, gave 49.
In one category Biden exceeds his recent predecessors — doing 216 informal Q&As in 2021 versus 120 by Trump in 2017 and 46 by Obama in 2009. But those are generally short exchanges as Biden prepares to board aircraft or exit a speaking venue.
Biden agreed to do a news conference after pressure from leading press advocates.
“Eisenhower — who championed democracy versus totalitarian communism, built the interstates, and sent troops to integrate schools — made a point of holding news conferences 2x a month,” White House Correspondents’ Association President Steven Portnoy tweeted Jan. 9. “The historical record of a presidency requires more than fleeting Q&A,” added Portnoy, a reporter for CBS News Radio.
On Thursday, the association’s president-elect Kelly O’Donnell of NBC News, whose one-year term begins in 2023, personally urged Biden to host a press conference as reporters were hustled out of an event on COVID-19, where Biden took no questions.
“Maybe a press conference soon, Mr. President? We’d look forward to that,” O’Donnell said.
Biden smiled and said, “Me too.”