With America poised on the knife's edge, Joe Biden's silence isn't helping

Biden has held two press conferences in two years. With midterms upon us, the hands-off approach makes no sense

By Brian Karem


Published October 27, 2022 9:20AM (EDT)

Cannabis activists carry a blow-up joint on 17th Street NW, outside of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building during a rally to call for the Biden administration to release prisoners convicted of federal marijuana crimes on Monday, October 24, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Cannabis activists carry a blow-up joint on 17th Street NW, outside of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building during a rally to call for the Biden administration to release prisoners convicted of federal marijuana crimes on Monday, October 24, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Longtime White House correspondent Brian Karem writes a weekly column for Salon.

"What the world needs is a little hope," I was told as I walked down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House Monday morning.

The bearded young gentleman telling me this was a marijuana protester. Dozens of protesters had gathered near 17th and Pennsylvania, just a block from the White House. Shutting down traffic, they were dancing and chanting, apparently intent on getting themselves arrested. A police officer I spoke with about them simply grinned: "They're very peaceful." He expected no arrests. Bummer, man. They so wanted some ink. 

I've covered many a protest outside the White House, but none as gentle-spirited as those happy, mellow few who blocked traffic with a 20-foot-long replica of a spliff and brought smiles — even to the faces of Secret Service agents who had them under their watchful eyes.

"Your generation needs to understand the weed," a young protester told me as he offered me a THC gummy. It wasn't the first time I've been told that. I gave my standard response as I declined his generous offering. "What your generation doesn't realize is my generation invented 'the weed,'" I explained. 

*  *  *

Hope is on everyone's mind as we come barreling into reality, face to face with a midterm election that threatens to redefine democracy — or eliminate it entirely. President Biden spoke about it at a Diwali celebration in the East Room on Monday afternoon. A sitar performance preceded Biden's remarks commemorating the most joyous day on the Hindu calendar, and I was having a strong sense of déjà vu. The weed protesters, the sitar and a piece of artwork from "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" sitting on NewsMax reporter James Rosen's desk in the White House basement had me looking for Ravi Shankar and George Harrison.

Neither was to be found, and as for hope, Joe Biden said he was looking for it too.

He said he was happy to host the largest Diwali celebration ever at the White House and that hate was something that "lived under rocks" until it was given oxygen to breathe. After he finished, he left the East Room, taking no questions.

Biden's plea for hope is not much different from the one I heard from a Trump supporter who told me Monday, at his one-man vigil outside Lafayette Park, that he won't vote in the midterms. "I've given up hope for this country," he said. He explained his disillusionment with the Republicans: "I had no idea how racist Trump was, how much he conned us and how little he cares." But he is also highly upset with the Democrats. "I'm not 'woke' and don't want to be canceled," he said. "I'm 33 years old. I'm white. Slavery wasn't my fault, but everyone wants to blame me for it. I'm a rural farmer from West Virginia. My dad was a coal miner. The Democrats want to take away my rights, blame me for something I didn't do and give the minorities everything they want. They want to replace me."

That Trumper's story, based on wild misinformation, showed a complete lack of hope and no faith that things will get better. But that story and those of many others like him explain many of the continuing problems this country faces. Democrats may rejoice that he and others who share his worldview will not cast a ballot this fall, but understanding and reaching out to those disenfranchised rural voters would seem important if, you know, we actually want to be the United States. 

Reaching some of those disenfranchised voters would be easier, of course, if salient facts were available at the voter's disposal.

Don't expect the media to help in that endeavor. We are far too busy doing a horrible job of covering this presidency while patting ourselves on the back for the "great job" we're definitely not doing.

Voters need salient facts — but don't expect the media to help in that endeavor. We're too busy doing a horrible job of covering this presidency while patting ourselves on the back.

Monday was particularly illustrative of just how poorly we cover Biden. John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, held a zoom call with reporters after news broke Monday that Russian President Vladimir Putin was claiming Ukraine would soon use a "dirty bomb" on their own soil to combat the Russian invasion. That is, honestly, the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. Who in the hell would use a dirty bomb in their own backyard? Anyway, for a half-hour Kirby fielded many questions about Russia's "false flag" episode and several other national security issues.

A short time later, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre answered some of the very same questions — albeit more briefly — during her daily press briefing. Why did we take up valuable time asking questions that had already been answered? When I asked one reporter that question afterward, he told me his outlet had not staffed Kirby's Zoom call. That speaks volumes not only to the quality of White House reporting, but in some cases to the quantity of reporters on the beat. It's hard to know what's going on if you aren't covering it. 

The only question worth its salt in Monday's briefing came from someone who asked if Biden would hold a press conference after the midterm election. Every president I've previously covered has had an open and frank discussion with the American people, via the press, after the midterm election. During Donald Trump's midterm press conference he got mad at both me and CNN's Jim Acosta, and Acosta got his press pass pulled. 

I'll hold out hope that we'll have one this time around. Biden has had more press conferences on foreign soil than he's had at the White House. Hell, there are more MCU movies than Biden press conferences held anywhere. Jean-Pierre said nothing definitive about that, and when I asked, "Don't you think the scarcity of presidential press conferences has added to some of the misinformation out there?", she didn't answer. 

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I tried again on Wednesday, noting that Biden hadn't had a press conference at the White House since January, and again asked if there was any concern that the scarcity of press conferences contributes to misinformation about the administration. "He takes questions all the time," Jean-Pierre answered. I invited the president to join us in the briefing room any time he wants. I'd love to see him there. I told Karine we need a more robust conversation.

For the most part, the press continues to let this slide. It is as if we've staffed the White House with high-schoolers afraid to upset their parents. We have left meaningful and important questions about presidential access and responsibility on the floor, simply not asking them. We all privately gripe about the Biden administration's horrible communications effort, while rarely engaging the administration publicly about it.

Tuesday offered another case in point. Biden showed up in front of dozens of cameras and reporters to get his latest COVID booster and stress the importance of getting boosted and the dangers still inherent with the slowly-fading pandemic. Biden said most of the deaths this winter will occur because people have stopped taking the virus seriously. So what was one of the first questions from the ever-attentive press corps? Someone asked whether the virus was still a danger. I guess the president getting his booster in front of the cameras and speaking directly about the problem wasn't definitive. Maybe a poster saying "Virus Still Dangerous" was needed.

Right now, the press corps is buried in covering the midterm elections the same way we have traditionally done: as a horserace. Most reporters at the White House spend time handicapping the races and pontificating on who will win and why. How will Biden deal with a divided Congress? Will the Jan. 6 committee be closed down? What about Hunter Biden's laptop — when will those investigations begin? Those questions are being asked almost daily — not to actual government officials, necessarily, but often among ourselves.

The horserace handicapping is hampered by inherent bias. The appearance of being even-handed hampers all reason. The fact that the Republican Party has abandoned any pretense of following the Constitution, has become a safe haven for antisemites, racists, misogynists and so-called patriots who claim to love America while hating actual Americans has driven reporters into violent seizures and paroxysms as they contort themselves into pretzels trying to keep on pretending there are two legitimate political parties in the U.S.

It appears that Biden himself is growing weary of this mindless battle. On Wednesday, he showed up at the South Court auditorium to talk about his latest efforts to give Americans more "breathing room" in their budget by trying to kill hidden "junk" fees in transportation and banking. He spoke for 13 minutes. His highlight statement was, "Capitalism without competition isn't capitalism, it's exploitation." The rest sounded much like a retread of a Biden 2020 stump speech. 

He walked off stage without taking questions, looking tired — which may have been the result of his COVID booster the day before. Biden had two other opportunities to answer questions on Wednesday and never did. Not even one. Why not?

President Isaac Herzog of Israel emerged from the White House and gaggled with the press Wednesday afternoon following his meeting with Biden. I asked him if he was concerned about the rise of antisemitism in the U.S. He said he was, and extended his hope that better attitudes would prevail. He didn't say whether he was a Kanye West fan — I'm betting that's a no.

Joe Biden has had two press conferences at the White House in nearly two years. With the midterms on top of us, the president — who has undeniably presided over positive changes in our country — remains muted, if not entirely mute.

Meanwhile, our own president has had but two press conferences at the White House since he rode into town on his white stallion nearly two years ago, preaching good government and claiming to be a champion for free speech and the press. His first came March 25, 2021. His last was Jan. 19, 2022. Both times, COVID restrictions meant he took questions before a small number of reporters.

On Wednesday, Biden didn't engage with the press in his public remarks, in his bilateral meeting with Herzog or in a pool spray. Nothing. The midterms are on top of us and this president, who has undeniably presided over positive changes in our country, delivered on necessary infrastructure and restored the rule of law to the White House, has been muted, if not entirely mute.

If the Democrats lose either or both the House and the Senate in the midterm elections then the Biden administration will have to reassess this curious, hands-off strategy it has employed up to now — or at least it definitely should.

We in the press, meanwhile, need to reassess our inability or unwillingness to speak truth to power, and our continuing unwillingness to press harder for greater access to the president.

Hope is still alive — but we had all better hope we have a democracy come the first of next year. If we don't, it won't feel good —no matter how many gummies you eat.

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

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2022 Midterms Commentary Democracy Elections Joe Biden Marijuana Media