If you liked the basement campaign, you’re going to love the bunker presidency.
This year’s presidential election showed that slightly more than half of America no longer wants a president who speaks to them openly and often. They don’t want a chief executive who tweets, regularly takes contentious interviews, routinely answers questions from hostile reporters, and does freestyle stand-up at his boisterous rallies.
Reporters have been grumbling about Biden’s inaccessibility since the day he won the Democratic nomination.
Instead, they want a fragile, cosseted figurehead — a museum piece — who gives few speeches (all shopworn and canned), avoids tough questions from the press, and utters nothing without a teleprompter. They want T. S. Eliot’s hollow man, a headpiece filled with straw. They want a basement candidate who will be a bunker president. They want Joe Biden.
To paraphrase H. L. Mencken, it looks like the people will get what they want, good and hard.
The mainstream news industry is the group that worked the hardest to get Biden elected, all while rabidly tearing down Donald Trump for the last five years. The 78-year-old career politician would never have gotten within sniffing distance of the presidency without their tireless help. Even before COVID propelled him into his basement like a sack of Irish potatoes, Biden’s cognitive decline had deprived him of his once-famed ability to speak coherently and spontaneously. The Fourth Estate had to cash in all its moral and political capital to shield their man from scrutiny, especially about his past and present scandals. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter did their part, censoring or suppressing news stories that reflected badly on Biden and the Democrats.
The self-proclaimed president-elect is about to become the most protected, most scripted, most inaccessible man to hold the office since Woodrow Wilson, who suffered a debilitating stroke in the latter half of his second term.
Biden’s first appearance on November 9 — just after the news media had anointed him as president — gives us an idea of how he will handle the press going forward. He spoke for 10 minutes from a teleprompter, answered a few softball questions from pre-screened reporters about Trump’s refusal to concede, and then shuffled off the stage.
No journalist should be surprised if Biden and his team bring their basement strategy to the White House. After all, reporters have been grumbling about Biden’s inaccessibility since the day he won the Democratic nomination.
“Joe Biden hasn’t faced that kind of scrutiny, he hasn’t faced that kind of exposure, yet you’ve got to feel at some point he’s going to come out from the basement,” opined Chris Wallace in June.
“We’re not getting answers,” complained a CNN host, also in June. “We want to be able to ask more questions. This is an important part of the process of covering a candidate, right?”
“The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee has taken questions from the press twice in the past 48 days,” whined Chris Cillizza. “That’s not nearly enough.”
Even when Biden introduced Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential pick on August 12, he fielded no questions from the media, nor did he allow Harris to do so. Harris has continued to follow Joe’s lead, generally avoiding anything other than one-sided press “appearances.”
In stark contrast to Biden and Harris, Trump has been one of the most available and transparent presidents in history. Martha Joynt Kumar of the nonpartisan White House Transition Project reviews presidential interactions with the press over the last six presidencies, 30 months into their administrations. In her report, she observes that President Trump answers 50 percent more questions from the press than the average for the last five presidents. Between July 19 and September 19, 2020, Trump answered five times the number of questions that Biden did.
Despite Trump’s frequent and often harsh criticism of CNN, MSNBC, New York Times, and other left-wing news organizations, some in the news media have grudgingly acknowledged that this president is far more accessible than his predecessors.
“It’s not like we had a love-fest with the Obama administration,” protested the Washington Post’s Martin Baron to attendees at a journalism ethics conference in 2017. “We tried for two years to get an interview. We do better with the current president in terms of access than the last one. Trump is not shy about giving press access.”
Of course, the news industry did have a “love-fest” — a veritable orgy, in fact — with Obama for eight years, even if he was an unresponsive lover at times. Obama knew that the press would cover him positively, lovingly, no matter what he did. For eight years, the media rolled over on its back, eagerly serving the Lightbringer whenever he deigned to call on them.
And yet Obama’s abuse of the press was substantively much worse — and they know it.
The Obama administration booted or barred reporters from meetings and press conferences, subpoenaed the telephone records of Associated Press journalists, and surveilled reporters. It went after the New York Times’s James Risen, forcing him to testify to reveal a confidential source. More than 77 percent of Freedom of Information Act requests were denied by his administration, and Obama prosecuted more journalists under the Espionage Act than any other president. Risen called Obama “the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation.”
Biden will almost certainly follow his former boss’s example. He already has a reputation for being thin-skinned, even abusive, when it comes to journalists who don’t toe the line. Like Obama, he’ll heap praises upon his media allies in exchange for their fealty. Insufficiently “cooperative” reporters will simply be left off the list of people from whom his staff will entertain questions or grant interviews. Already, we’ve seen Biden staffers such as Andrew Bates, T. J. Ducklo, and others lash out at reporters who dare to report news that negatively affects their boss.
In general, though, there’s no reason to believe that journalists won’t be just as devoted to Biden as they were to Obama.
“I’m letting [world leaders] know that America is back,” declared Biden at his November 9 press conference. “We’re going to be back in the game.”
Which game? one is tempted ask. The better question is: Who exactly is back in the game? Americans and the rest of the world know that Biden will not be in charge. He’s a hollow man waiting to be filled. Who will really be on the phone with China? Who decides to inform the Iranian ambassador that the “peace deal” is back on the table? Who will actually call on the House to “expand” the Supreme Court? Who makes the decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel back to Tel Aviv?
“You can’t choreograph your way to the presidency and hide from the American people,” tweeted Kayleigh McEnany in July.
If you’re Joe Biden, you probably can.