President Biden is facing reporters in his first formal news conference, using the stately backdrop of the White House East Room to sell the benefits of his economic recovery efforts to the American people, tout progress in vaccinations and likely respond to criticism about his handling of the migrant surge at the U.S. border with Mexico.
The news conference is Mr. Biden’s first high-stakes grilling by journalists since taking office more than two months ago. Since then, his advisers have carefully controlled his interactions with the press, which have included one-on-one interviews and some limited opportunities for reporters to ask questions during brief appearances.
A veteran politician with a long history of verbal gaffes during unscripted moments, Mr. Biden has entered the presidency with more than his usual amount of discipline about his message. But his decision to finally face reporters in a more formal way — a White House tradition for decades — is a test of his ability to maintain that discipline under pressure.
The president is expected to follow the routines established by previous presidents in both parties, picking the reporters he wants to call on. But he will have no control over the questions they ask, and his answers will be broadcast live, with little room for error as his adversaries — and the country — are watching.
Advisers to the president had delayed the president’s first news conference until after passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, hoping to use the highly-anticipated event as part of a victory lap for Mr. Biden as he promotes the benefits of the economic stimulus measure and tries to build support for even more spending.
But Mr. Biden’s appearance comes at a moment of national mourning over the mass shootings in Colorado and Georgia, and just hours after North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast — both of which serve as reminders that a president’s agenda can often be derailed or shifted by national or global events.
The president is also certain to face difficult questions about his administration’s policies on the surge of migrants at the U.S. border with Mexico which have generated intense criticism, especially from Republicans. Mr. Biden campaigned on reversing former President Donald J. Trump’s immigration agenda, and he moved quickly to do so during his first hours in office.
But critics say his efforts to create a more “humane” immigration system than his predecessor is responsible for encouraging migrants to leave Central America for the United States, filling border facilities with children in jail-like conditions. That has raised new doubts about his legislative proposal to legalize 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
He is also likely to get foreign policy questions, including one about his suggestion that it may be hard for the United States to meet the promise made by his predecessor to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by May 1. Mr. Trump largely abandoned the idea of infrequent, formal news conferences, preferring to engage more informally and repeatedly with reporters before meetings or as he boarded Marine One to leave the White House.
But for most presidents, news conferences can be important tools to build large audiences that have the chance of breaking through a media environment that has been fragmented by Twitter, Facebook and other social media companies. Mr. Biden’s aides are hoping to tap into that same dynamic.
There is also risk, however. Off-script remarks made by the president during news conferences can become dominating or derailing issues for the White House. During a 2009 news conference, former President Barack Obama said, “Cambridge police acted stupidly” in arresting a Black Harvard University professor, prompting weeks of follow-on coverage.