Is the honeymoon over? In recent weeks, the media has started criticizing Joe Biden over his administration’s attempt to stage-manage every aspect of his presidency. After going more than two months without holding a press conference—“the longest a new president has gone without meeting the press in the past 100 years,” according to The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi—Biden finally scheduled one for Thursday. Meanwhile, the administration is being criticized for lack of transparency regarding the tens of thousands of immigrants crowding the Southern border—a situation the Biden administration refuses to call a “crisis.”
Headlines like “Biden’s Border Blackout” are popping up, thanks to journalists being denied access and being restricted from showing images of the situation (including photos from inside detention facilities where children are being sheltered). “I respectfully ask US Customs and Border Protection to stop blocking media access to their border operations,” tweeted Getty Images Special Correspondent John Moore on Friday. “I have photographed CBP under Bush, Obama and Trump but now—zero access is granted to [the] media.” After a year of sympathetic coverage, Team Biden is treating the press the way you treat a mushroom: keep it in the dark and feed it bullshit.
Now, I understand why they are doing this. For one thing, it worked like a charm during the campaign. The COVID-19 pandemic gave Biden the perfect excuse to run a tightly scripted campaign. Think of the Democratic National Convention, which was conducted via… Zoom. There was zero chance of a rowdy delegate uprising—which is exactly what you want when you’re the presumptive nominee. Imagine enjoying four years of that!
“[F]rom a strategic standpoint, it makes perfect sense,” a veteran White House correspondent told The Daily Beast regarding the absence of press conferences, “because why would he want to get asked about his predecessor all the time? Or Hunter Biden? There are always going to be uncomfortable questions, no matter who’s in office. But there’s a responsibility issue here that he has just been completely ducking. It’s too cute by half. It seems they’re doing this because they think [taking questions] just throws them off message.”
By demonstrating a disciplined media operation, Team Biden knows they are implicitly showing a stark contrast with Trump’s “shoot-from-the-hip” mentality. We are always fighting the last war; in the case of presidential politics, this means overcorrecting for the last presidency. But as both Trump and COVID-19 start to take a back seat in the news cycle, so too will the media’s willingness to give Biden a pass.
This pattern first began with Team Biden’s attempts to get reporters’ questions in advance, and has spread to how they treat their own employees. Last week, the Beast reported that, “Dozens of young White House staffers have been suspended, asked to resign, or placed in a remote work program due to past marijuana use, frustrating staffers who were pleased by initial indications from the Biden administration that recreational use of cannabis would not be immediately disqualifying for would-be personnel, according to three people familiar with the situation.”
The motivations for this could have to do with an almost authoritarian, if irrational, anti-weed bias, or it could stem from an extreme desire to stage-manage and ruthlessly neutralize anything that might potentially damage Biden’s image. I suspect the latter.
Biden’s honeymoon was bound to end eventually. I see it as the first big test of whether Biden can overcome media skepticism and adversity the same way he overcame Donald Trump. The problem is, doing so will require him to unlearn a lesson: He will have to accept the fact that message discipline only gets you so far.
We are biased in our belief that we can control things—that we get to choose which issues get prioritized; admitting otherwise is horrifying, reactionary, and potentially paralyzing. But most of life requires us to play the hand we’ve been dealt. Remember when George W. Bush thought that his presidency would be about “compassionate conservatism” and “No Child Left Behind”? That was before the 9/11 attacks upended his best-laid plans.
Most presidencies rise and fall based on their reactions to some unplanned and uninvited event. Just ask Trump about COVID-19. Biden can and should try to proactively drive his agenda, but he should also recognize that the world has a way of inserting its will. Attempting to hide, cover up, or minimize inconvenient crises cannot, and should not, work in a thriving democracy. What is more, this penchant for subterfuge flies in the face of Joe Biden’s image as an authentic straight talker.
Now, it could very well be that Biden’s affable, if gaffe-prone, image contributed to his team’s desire to tamp down on his exposure. But Biden won, at least in part, because he was likable, avuncular, and almost impossible to demonize. While it would take a lot to undermine that almost-indelible image, doing so would spell disaster. The better move is to be open and transparent and authentic. Yes, you’ll take some lumps along the way, but it’s far better than looking secretive... looking like you have something to hide. The sooner Team Biden understands that they can’t hide the ball and still win the game, the better off they will be.