President Biden is slated Thursday to hold his first full press conference since taking office, giving Washington scribes their first major crack at the commander-in-chief more than two months into his four-year term.
The stress test comes as Mr. Biden fights to promote his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package and suffers mounting outcry over the illegal immigration “crisis” at the southern border.
He’ll take the stage at the White House with at least five big questions the American people want to be answered. He’ll be scrutinized not just for his answers but also for how he handles the press’ white-hot spotlight.
“Everyone will be watching how Biden handles his press conferences,” said Darrell M. West, vice president and director of governance studies at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution. “A press conference raises the stakes because a wide variety of issues get raised there and it is hard to prepare for every eventuality.”
Mr. Biden, who has done some interviews and provided short press availabilities, so far has avoided major communications stumbles.
“But the press conference could be filled with landmines related to immigration, guns, foreign policy, and a whole host of other issues,” Mr. West said.
Indeed, the focus on the coronavirus rescue package is slowly giving way to other hot-button issues and opening up Mr. Biden to the sharp elbows of Washington.
“Day 63, and Joe Biden’s record for not holding his first press conference continues to grow,” Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel said on Twitter. “The communities he’s abandoned by opening the border, attacking energy, and slow-walking on schools deserve answers.”
For many Americans, their lives have been in crisis-mode for a year because of COVID-19 fears and restrictions. They want clarity from the White House about the future.
That includes questions about when life will return to normal and will taxes go up to pay for Mr. Biden’s expensive plans for infrastructure and climate change.
The illegal immigration and migrant crisis on the southern border is likely the thorniest question facing Mr. Biden, given his decision to unwind former President Donald Trump’s policies and the failure to prepare for the onslaught of border jumpers.
Recently leaked photographs of border facilities jam-packed with children and reports of inadequate living conditions at the facilities, including undrinkable water, only sharpen the questions aimed at Mr. Biden.
Polls showing support for Mr. Biden’s push to provide a pathway to citizenship for 12 million illegal immigrants is down and support for Mr. Trump’s border wall is up.
“Biden inherited a border that more or less worked and then broke it,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
Mr. Krikorian said he doesn’t have high hopes that Mr. Biden will use the press conference as a chance to be upfront with the public, because the goal is for the “president to not make a fool of himself.”
“If I had a question, I’d ask, ‘Mr. President, you halted construction on the [border] wall, but how can you justify not dismantling the entire wall since you said that it was driven by Trump’s racism and xenophobia,’” Mr. Krikorian said. “How can it be allowed to stay? How can you justify that?”
Taxpayers also want to hear why the Biden administration believes its plan to spend $4 billion to address the “root causes” of illegal immigration is any different from the billions in assistance the U.S. has been pouring into the region for generations, he said.
Mr. Biden’s limited interactions with the press are in stark contrast to Mr. Trump, who welcomed the chance to engage — and clash — with the “fake news” media in what at times became chaotic and pugilistic-style events.
Mr. Biden also took a below-the-radar approach to the 2020 presidential campaign, betting a less-is-more approach would keep the limelight on Mr. Trump’s unconventional and brash style.
Precautions for COVID-19 also have helped the Biden campaign and the Biden White House keep tight control of the news media’s access.
The press conference Thursday will feature a slimmed-down press corps because of coronavirus rules and comes 64 days into Mr. Biden’s watch.
Mr. Trump and former President Barack Obama both held their first press conference in their first month in office.
The holdup by Mr. Biden has fueled GOP criticism that he is hiding from the public to conceal his polarizing far-left vision for the nation and that he might not be fit for the job.
The 78-year-old overcame similar suspicion about his mental acuity during the 2020 presidential race and scoffed at the idea of taking a cognitive test.
But his age, sometimes halting gait at public appearances and a recent stumble on the stairs of Air Force One has added to the concerns.
Jenna Ellis, a former Trump lawyer, said this week that mainstream media is giving Mr. Biden a free pass after continuously questioning Mr. Trump’s mental health.
“They are ignoring completely Biden’s cognitive decline, and I think that really signals something even more dangerous here: We don’t know who is running the country and the American people deserve to know that because, clearly, it is not Joe Biden,” Ms. Ellis said on Newsmax.
One of the biggest questions hanging over Mr. Biden is when the pandemic crisis will end. At the press conference, he could tell voters when life will return to normal.
On the foreign policy front, the drama surrounding the U.S.-China meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, has renewed the focus on Mr. Biden’s approach to the Asian giant.
Mr. Biden could be asked how he is going to give the United States the edge in the emerging great power competition with China.
The stalled nuclear talks with North Korea also could be raised.
He also could put some meat on the bone of his plans to confront gun violence following shootings in Colorado and Atlanta.
Mr. Biden is exploring executive actions but has yet to provide any details on what sort of impact those ideas could have on law-abiding gun owners.
Tax experts, meanwhile, say voters should be eager for Mr. Biden to provide more details on how his plan to spend $3 trillion on new infrastructure could affect their bottom line.
Will McBride, vice president of federal tax and economic policy at the Tax Foundation, said Mr. Biden’s vision on taxes — including higher rates on high-earning individuals, capital gains and corporations — is “very concerning.”
“We have been raising the alarm bells here,” Mr. McBride said. “These taxes are going to be harmful to the overall economy — reduce employment and reduce wages.”
Mr. McBride said the Biden administration should be pressured on how they “intend to raise these taxes on income and avoid these well understood economic problems that come from that.
“How does it affect the economy and how does that come around and affect an individual’s and a household’s ability to make a living, have an opportunity for employment, start a business if they want, save for retirement — all these great things,” he said.