White House Correspondents Reflect On Covering Joe Biden One Year In: “It’s Full Circle”

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President Joe Biden holds a solo press conference at the White House on Wednesday, one of the few such events he’s had in the 12 months since he took office.

Reporters will likely pepper him with questions about Omicron, the situation with Russia and Ukraine, the status of voting rights and the future of Build Back Better. It would not be at all surprising if he’s asked simply how he thinks he’s done in his first year, the kind of self-assessment the can be telling in and of itself.

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What viewers will see are far fewer reporters than normal as social distancing limits the number allowed in the East Room to just 42, this for an event that normally packs in as many journalists as possible.

That’s a reflection of the surprises and setbacks for Biden as his presidency reaches the one-year mark on Thursday. His administration has been hit with a variety of crises but most of all by the ongoing Covid pandemic, with a share of the public intransigent about vaccinations, and many others just wanting a return to normal — or at least some indication of when that will happen.

Deadline spoke separately with six network correspondents about covering a Biden White House that is far different than his predecessor’s, with fewer leaks, less combat with the “fake news media” and a return to some past journalistic norms. All of this is playing out as personal safety during Covid continues to be an issue, as the White House Correspondents’ Association has again limited the White House briefing room to just 14 seats as a way to socially distance in the tiny space.

But that has still has its challenges, particularly as the White House has limited the number of formal presidential press conferences, with reporters relying on more fleeting moments for access, whether after Biden gives remarks or on his way to and from Marine One. Kelly O’Donnell, NBC News’ senior White House correspondent, last week took to holding up a sign, reading “Russia talks,” to get Biden’s attention. It didn’t work, but perhaps it is the shape of things to come.

O’Donnell, CBS News chief White House correspondent Nancy Cordes, ABC News chief White House correspondent Cecilia Vega, CNN chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins, Fox News White House correspondent Peter Doocy and PBS NewsHour chief Washington correspondent Geoff Bennett shared their thoughts of moments and themes of the past year. Their responses have been edited for length.

Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States - Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States - Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

A YEAR OF COVID

KELLY O’DONNELL: If you go back to day one, the inauguration itself, there is a jubilance on that day that is almost unmatched for any president, and I could feel it covering the inauguration, being along the parade route. That’s when presidents feel all the sense of possibility. Possibilities — one of the president’s favorite words. I think he enjoyed that day, even though it wasn’t a typical inauguration without all the parties and without all the other things. When you look at this presidency that has had to be different because of the pandemic. He has not done the kind of travel other presidents do internationally and even domestically. He has not been able to have the kind of social part of the White House, with state dinners and special concerts. He has not been able to do a number of things, and neither have Americans. It’s been a unique experience, and one that I’m sure is not the presidency that he envisioned when he ran a few different times.

CECILIA VEGA: The first story on the list of priorities right now continues to be Covid. We are still asking the question, “When can every American who wants an easily accessible, affordable test be able to get one?” We’re still asking questions about masking. We’re still talking about a surging, raging virus. We’re still talking about how that virus is impacting the president’s poll numbers. It’s full circle. In some ways it feels like we’re kind of back to where we started, with the exception of I think this time it feels like personal safety is being put first.

PETER DOOCY: I think I was the first one to go in there and ask questions about Covid policy as someone who just had Covid. [Doocy quarantined after testing positive and returned to the briefing last week]. And I think it changes the briefing-room dynamic in that it makes it feel like we’re not necessarily a year in, because we started last year with 14 people in the briefing room, in masks, and then we got away from that for a while, but we’re right back where we started. And I think just in terms of the way that it looks and the way that it feels sitting there, it is a little bit of déjá vu to January 2021. … I tried to make the point when I first got back, as the variants change, their language stays the same. And so, I am somebody that has done everything the administration has asked. Social distancing, masking, triple vaxxed, and still got it. So I’m just curious why the language has not changed with that.

GEOFF BENNETT: Masks and vaccines and certainly all things Covid have been politicized, and that was true from the very start. I was actually in the press briefing room the day that the Trump Covid Response Team encouraged people to wear a mask, and then President Trump held up the mask and said something to the effect of, ‘But I won’t be doing it.’ And in that moment, the simple act of wearing a mask became politicized. And so there is this asymmetry. The [current] administration has tried to do what they believe is the right thing to do in terms of public health and in sound science. But in a certain regard, there’s only so much they can do when there are vast swaths of the population who either don’t want to hear the message, or are getting counter messaging from from conservative media

KAITLAN COLLINS: I don’t think it’s always just politics. I think that the White House has tried to do the education aspect of vaccinations and try to reach out to the communities that are stubbornly refusing to be vaccinated, but I think it has so much more to do than just Biden versus Trump supporters, and what they do. It also has so much to do with misinformation and disinformation online, and what people believe. It has to do with addressing the concerns of minorities who have been vaccine hesitant and maybe did not have their concerns addressed. I’m from Alabama, I’m from the South. I know a lot of people who refuse to get vaccinated. And it’s not always a sense of like, “Well, I don’t want to do it because Biden’s pushing it or Trump didn’t push it that much.” It’s sometimes about issues that have nothing to do with politics.

“A PAIN IN THE NECK”

O’DONNELL: The experience of the presidency for President Trump very much included the TV aspect. He would talk to reporters daily, he would invite cameras in, even when that was not on the schedule. I can even remember times when we would be in a briefing where the president himself was taking questions, and it would be going long for how these sessions typically would go and he would say, “I have time. Do you have more time?” But that’s rare. President Biden works in a different way. He is much more focused on the governing behind the scenes. … My sense is that he views his presidency as happening in the corridors of decision making and the press is a part of that. But he is not conducting his presidency in front of the cameras in the same way.

DOOCY: [The first week of the Biden presidency] I realized that kind of like on the campaign trail, at the White House Biden officials don’t ever put Fox on their list of reporters that they hand to the president to call on at events. But I was surprised and delighted that that first week, he found me in the auditorium and he said, “Okay, you know, hold on, I want to hear this guy. He always asks a question that has an edge to it, but I like him anyway.” And he has made a point over the first year to always listen for a shouted question or for something even if somebody’s not on the list.

On June 16, following his Geneva summit with Vladimir Putin, Biden lashed out at Collins after she asked him about how, given Putin’s ongoing downplaying of human rights issues, the meeting could have been constructive. “If you don’t understand that, you’re in the wrong business,” Biden said. He later apologized.

COLLINS: It definitely caught me off guard, not just in the nature that he didn’t like my question, because I’m used to people not liking my questions. That’s fine, that’s part of the job. You have to have thick skin to cover the White House. But I think it was the nature in which he responded. … I think it was a personal nature of it that surprised me a little bit. But I do think it’s worth highlighting that he apologized moments later when he arrived at the airport, which was something that never happened when the former president yelled at me. So I do think that was a change, one that I did not expect, and he did not have to do that. … I did hear from a lot of White House officials who called to apologize for what happened, because they said, “You know this isn’t like him. He feels really badly about what happened.”

On July 27, after Biden’s Oval Office remarks with the prime minister of Iraq, he snapped, in a bit of a humorous way, at O’Donnell as she asked him an off-topic question about a vaccine mandate at the Department of Veterans Affairs. “You are such a pain in the neck, but I am going to answer your question because we’ve known each other for so long.”

O’DONNELL: He did not want to take that question. And I persisted. And he was a bit perhaps irritated, and then he smiled, and then he answered the question, which we appreciate it. But he did it because he recognized that it was of interest to the public, and that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to get information that matters to the public on a subject as big and dominant in his presidency as Covid. And it was the first time a federal mandate was being enacted, and it was at an agency of the government involving veterans. I think that was one of those instances where our persistence, respectful, polite persistence, paid off because we needed that answer. … And I believe as I walked out, I smiled and nodded at the president. He understood that this was a respectful exchange. And that’s what I always tried to do, and we’ve known each other many years, and I think we have a good rapport from having worked in this sort of public official, reporter, adversarial relationship over time, and that’s a good thing.

Geoff Bennett, PBS NewsHour“I always say if you want to know what President Biden is thinking, ask him and he’ll tell you, because it’s true. And it’s one of reasons why I think his press shop has made him less available to us…”

DOOCY: When we see him frustrated, it’s usually momentary. And then you might ask him something that he just dismisses. I asked him a question once and he said that he thought it was based on a “garbage” report, which turned out to be true. But when he responds like that and expresses frustration, it’s always momentary, and then he moves on.

MESSAGE DISCIPLINE

NANCY CORDES: This is a White House, like many White Houses before it, that likes to control the message. They think that they can do that better if rather than having a big press conference where the president takes dozens of questions, if they instead have him sort of answer questions off the cuff here or there after an event or when he’s traveling from a smaller group of reporters. … It isn’t all the same when when he’s taking questions off the cuff. He can ignore questions he doesn’t like. He can choose to walk away. So it’s a lot different than when he’s holding a formal press conference and [you can] ask questions and ask follow-up questions …. Clearly they think that that is a riskier proposition, and that’s why they’ve done it so infrequently, but hopefully as his presidency goes on, that’ll change.

DOOCY: My approach at the White House is very similar to what I was trying to do on the campaign trail, which is if we’re not going to be on a on a formal list, I’ve got to get creative to figure out how to get the president’s attention anyway. After his first call as president with Vladimir Putin, I shouted out to him just asked him, “What did you talk to Vladimir Putin about?” He made a joke and he said, “You! And he sends his best.” That was funny because we got his attention, but sometimes what’s what you have to do.

VEGA: Every president has not wanted to answer questions from the White House press corps. … So this is nothing new. But certainly President Biden has taken fewer questions than former President Trump. Is it frustrating for us as a press corps? Absolutely. Because that’s our jobs. Every press corps wants to be able to ask more questions. The elbows get a little bit sharp sometimes when you’re out there on the lawn. The vocal cords get stretched. I certainly tend to stand on my tiptoes and tower above others if I have to to get my voice heard. We are very good at letting a little silent pause of his be a great opening for a shouted question. He often chooses not to answer.

BENNETT: The Trump administration was known for having officials, both in the White House and in the broader administration, who would leak to the press all the time. And so the flip side of having an administration that is traditional, professional and buttoned up is that that doesn’t happen. And so it it really lessens the routes that one has as a reporter to get different avenues of information. But it’s also true that I think one of the hallmarks of the Biden administration, certainly President Biden himself, is that he says so much of what he’s thinking on the record. I always say if you want to know what President Biden is thinking, ask him and he’ll tell you, because it’s true. And it’s one of reasons why I think his press shop has made him less available to us reporters in sort of spontaneous moments and certainly in press conferences as compared to previous administrations.

CORDES: The fact that we get daily briefings from not just the White House press secretary, but other top White House officials, economic officials, Covid officials, national security officials …. they make an effort to bring those individuals into the briefing as well. I think it makes a big difference, and reporters are very comfortable asking tough questions, and certainly we don’t always get as many answers as we want, but it is night and day from the previous administration. There’s no question.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s daily interactions with Fox News’ Doocy have drawn perhaps the most social media attention, for the bite of his questions and the sound byte of her answers.

DOOCY: I did not expect [the attention] because coming from campaign reporting, you’re never really in a briefing room. I didn’t know if we would get called on. I didn’t know we will get called on every day. And I first realized the first week that there was going to be a lot of attention on the interactions, but that Jen and her staff are always going to play ball. … I don’t approach White House briefings with any kind of an opinion in mind. I’m usually just looking for the most interesting story. And I’m trying to find stories that by the time it gets to me in the briefing room have not already been asked.

Joe Biden listens to a question about the bombings at the Kabul airport in August - Credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Joe Biden listens to a question about the bombings at the Kabul airport in August - Credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

TRAGEDY AND TRIUMPHS

O’DONNELL: I was in the [East Room] on the day of the assault at the airport in Kabul, when the service members were killed, and asked the first question at that news conference. And I would imagine that is the hardest day of his presidency, the darkest, most difficult day to be commander in chief, and to have an attack that kills that many American service members has to be very deep wound. And I think combining that with the fact he believed he was doing the right policy, he argued forcefully for that, but he was also criticized for that policy, I think that was a very difficult day and I think his emotions were very much palpable.

COLLINS: It was a moment where it was incredibly sobering for everyone you talked to who worked in the White House. And it became this moment of a big inflection point for them. They came under fire in a way they had not been yet.

CORDES: It was a terrible day for the White House. This was a team that had made the argument during the campaign and coming into office that they were technocrats, that they could get things done and that they were organized, and that they had plans and that they didn’t just sort of jump into things, but they are going to carefully think through their moves before they made them, looking to create as much of a contract as possible with the previous administration. And yet here was, I think, what many would acknowledge a situation where more careful planning probably would have made a difference in many ways.

O’DONNELL: It’s been a rough year, and I think that certainly when infrastructure was passed, that was a high point, because that was bipartisan. I think the president felt that reflected his promise to reach across the aisle and bring unity, and that is something that many Americans believe is good for the country. So that was a legitimate victory that they will tout and can and that was a sense of the president being able to deliver on something. There have been times when, in Covid, they had moments where vaccines were creeping up in terms of people being able to take them you know, the early rollout where vaccine numbers were going up, when they felt that was good. So it’s been a very up-and-down experience, but I think there were some high points for that. I think Covid relief, they felt very strongly that there was help in those packages that was making an immediate difference in people’s lives.

CORDES: The fact that he was able to sign a piece of legislation that not only dedicated hundreds of billions of dollars to badly needed road repairs and bridge repairs, and ports and airports and tunnels and all the rest … not only that he was able to sign that bill, but that he could lay claim to a big bipartisan victory, which is something that’s fairly rare in Washington. … I think he could point to that and say, “This is why my experience matters.”

DOOCY: I would say the most jubilant that I have seen him was here at the White House, when they were doing an electric car event. And he got into an electric Jeep and just took off and did a big lap. I didn’t even know that they had a driveway that went on the right all the way around that South Lawn, but he kind of just took off by himself. No Secret Service in the car, and he disappeared behind some trees and bushes for like two minutes, and then he came back. And while the cameras were getting into position, I was as close as I could get to him, and I shouted out, “When is the last time you even drove?” And he had a big smile and he said it was when he was at a different electric car event in Detroit.

READ: 5 Key Moments From Biden’s Long Press Conference

VEGA: Right after his meeting with Pope Francis … he was very emotional and almost seemed like he was on the verge of tears. And I had asked him about what that meeting was like personally as a Catholic, but also he had had this meeting with the Pope at a time when many conservative American bishops here at home obviously were trying to pass this measure internally that would have allowed priests to deny communion to Catholic politicians who are in favor of abortion rights, of which Biden is one. I had asked him something along lines of like, “What does that mean for you personally as a Catholic to know that your church at home is trying to deny you the most sacred sacrament as a Catholic?” And he started talking about his son Beau, and also what the meeting the Pope meant to him. And I’d never seen him like that before. And even though he didn’t want to talk about the politics of it, you could see how much that debate was hurting him as a man, as a Catholic. He couldn’t hide that.

DOOCY: When you listen to him, when he talks about things that are informing his opinions, and that he’s drawing upon to make decisions, it’s a lot of stuff from being a senator. It’s a lot of stuff from growing up in Delaware or being a young kid in Scranton. And he still spends a ton of time every week in Delaware. And so I don’t think that Joe Biden, the man, or Joe Biden, the politician has changed very much at all.

Joe Biden met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in October - Credit: Vatican Media via AP
Joe Biden met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in October - Credit: Vatican Media via AP

Vatican Media via AP

THE COMING YEAR

CORDES: There is genuine surprise at how quickly his approval ratings have fallen. They came in with such goodwill because of the administration that they were replacing, and the fact that so many Americans were ready for a change. And so he really enjoyed this extended presidential honeymoon, and there’s no question that as we approach the one-year mark, he’s really in the thick of it. Covid cases are hitting global records here in the United States. Inflation is at a 40-year high. The centerpiece of his domestic agenda, Build Back Better, is stalled. … It is a tough time, and it reflects the fact that it is a tough time for a lot of Americans.

O’DONNELL: While they have levers of power, they are seeing how thin that power is, and so there’s a lot of frustration that they’re experiencing right now, which means they’re setting out to do some things and they’re having roadblocks. In terms of us covering it, we are trying to get more access to the president. We’re trying to understand his thoughts, his plans, and be able to do that in a way with as much transparency as possible.

BENNETT: Here you have President Biden, someone who’s had a half-century in public life, creature of the Senate, who basically is making the swing-for-the-fences move here to push voting rights and to draw all this attention to it, knowing full well that it effectively won’t work. And that to me is interesting, and the question I come away with is, does he emerge from this whole episode damaged? Because this will be yet another part of his domestic agenda on which there’s no significant action potentially, or does he get credit for showing some political courage, for taking a stand on the merits, knowing that, at least in the short term, that all of the efforts would fall short. And that, to me, has been fairly remarkable watching someone, a politician of his caliber in the sense that he’s been at this for so long, really taking this huge political risk on an issue that he truly believes is an existential threat to the democracy.

VEGA: Certainly Democrats would like [the White House] do a reset, that’s for sure. You’re hearing that outright from people like Bernie Sanders. And I’ll tell you, increasingly, when I talk to Democrats in Washington, they are not just concerned about losing across the board in the midterms. Privately, they’re increasingly concerned about their prospects for 2024. The poll numbers are shaking out in a very real way right now for Democrats. I think it remains to be seen, at this point, what the White House can and will do to get a reset.

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