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There were no stunts or name calling. “Fake News” was never hurled around, nor were personal insults the flavor of the day. The closest thing we got to a cliff-hanger at President Joe Biden’s first full press conference on Thursday was that he would have more details about his infrastructure plans when he visits Pittsburgh. The most glaring error of fact was on that last point: Biden said he’d be traveling to Pittsburgh on Friday when the White House had it on the schedule for Wednesday.
It was, to be plain, a complete 180 from what we collectively weathered for the four years when President Donald Trump would turn the East Room of the White House into a studio set for a fact-challenged reality show. Gone were the pettiness and self-victimhood, the attempts to divide Americans and nurse grievances. Even in criticizing his Republican opposition for blocking popular pieces of his agenda, Biden seemed like an apologist for the jam Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell finds himself in with the GOP. “I know Mitch well; Mitch knows me well. I would expect Mitch to say exactly what he said,” Biden said.
Where Trump glossed over details and promised plans that never materialized, Biden had a command of the facts and, at times, excused himself for going into too much detail. Trump would hold forth for hours, jousting with reporters and ordering aides to take away their microphones. “How much longer should we stay here folks?” Trump asked at the end of his first press conference, which lasted an hour and 18 minutes.
Biden took follow-up questions, asked if reporters were getting what they needed. He checked his watch so as not to keep his audience too long. He was at the podium for an hour and two minutes.
Trump would sneer at female correspondents in a way he seldom would dare with their male colleagues; Biden took the majority of his questions from women on the White House beat. Trump told an ABC News correspondent that “I know you’re not thinking, you never do” and admonished her for not talking about the headlines he wanted to discuss. To the same reporter, Biden answered two follow-up questions.
Trump famously asked a veteran Black reporter to set up a meeting for him with the Congressional Black Caucus. He told another she should “be nice” and “don’t be threatening.” Biden was having trouble hearing a reporter from Univision, so he stepped out from behind the podium to get closer to hear her.
It was, in short, a return to what has become expected of Presidents. I didn’t feel the need to watch it a second time — although I did, just to make sure I wasn’t missing something under the surface — because it was a linear proceeding with clear rules and norms that were respected. No one would accuse that hour of being entertaining, but it was informative.
Biden has never been an improvising showman and he never will be. A speech impediment from childhood forces him to speak with intentionality; when he starts every sentence, he knows where he wants it to end. In prepared remarks, he notates where he wants to catch his breath and reset for the next phrase. His raw notes look like someone is analyzing a poem’s meter. Although he does not match President Barack Obama in his uncanny and sometimes unsettling ability to answer questions and even make small-talk in paragraph formatting as though filing a legal brief, Biden does apply the same logical argument that he has argued his proof. Unlike Trump, Biden doesn’t make it up as he goes. “I’ll get back to you” is a sincere show of respect.
Veterans of all White House — save Trump, of course — and from both parties share the common complaint that reporters judge their bosses by qualities that have nothing to do with the job the American people hired them to do. Communication is a key tool of the presidency, one that those like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton used to great effect. But you cannot argue that George W. Bush and his often imprecise communication skills didn’t change the course of history. Candidates are judged by how well they can convince donors to give them money to run campaigns while actual Presidents are judged by how they spend the tax dollars that Congress approves. And if a President does the job right, he or she spends no more than three evenings of the four-year term locked in a back-and-forth public debate spectacle with an opponent. And if they win a second term — and most do — they metaphorically burn the debate-prep books.
Trump stood to change all that. For a while, he did. He turned the East Room into The Apprentice’s new Board Room. He would send assignment editors spiraling when he would take questions on the South Lawn before boarding Marine One. His rallies required teams of fact-checkers. And late-night tweets reset morning shows’ line-ups.
Biden made a pitch to America to give him the keys to the family station wagon during his campaign against Trump. Trump did his best to bulldoze Biden and his family while Biden simply appealed to the idealism of America’s soul. As this newsletter argued earlier this week, both candidates used their superpowers: Trump bullied while Biden comforted. Voters sided with Biden on an expectation that there would be fewer push-alerts to our phones about insane assertions and irresponsible rhetoric.
Biden is Trump’s opposite, although he still has to exist in an ecosystem Trump understood if not mutated. A byproduct of television news is that on the biggest topic of the day — immigration, as was the case on Thursday — the networks each wanted to have the President on-camera answering their correspondent’s question. That led to some repetition that Biden rolled with. Critics noted Biden didn’t get a single question on the pandemic, but it’s worth also noting Biden spoke about the successes so far at the top of the event and most questions to him on it would have been a set for his spike, to employ a volleyball reference. To be sure, Biden’s press conference performance wasn’t one for the history books. But few of them should be to a typical President’s mind.
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