Sixty days into his presidency, Joe Biden finally held his first live press conference. The presser was largely full of the administration’s classically vanilla rhetoric.
While he addressed the nation to mark the anniversary of the first coronavirus death, Biden has largely insulated himself from the public.
That stands out for a couple of reasons. In the first place, popular ideas about democratic accountability generally emphasize the idea that the president should be accessible to the people he represents. As the nation is rather a large constituency, press conferences and interviews are often the best way for the president to make himself accountable.
In the second place, Biden’s administration comes on the heels of one that followed in the footsteps of Franklin D. Roosevelt and used social media to sidestep a media that often seemed hostile to their messages and speak directly to the people.
Biden may be wise to avoid Twitter–Trump’s social media bombast often subsumed media coverage and distracted from the administration’s policy–but it seems odd that he wouldn’t seek other ways to emulate the relationship Trump had with his supporters, especially since Biden’s campaign adopted many of the same populist overtones.
In many ways, social media functions as a kind of political machine. It provides structure and organization to one’s followers and helps foster a sense of community. As a populist tool, social media works for the benefit of movement leaders and their constituent followers. By providing access to a movement’s leader, even after he or she has been swept up into the lofty heights of power that populism looks at so suspiciously, followers can feel not only that a sense of community remains–and their chosen leader won’t forget his or her roots–but that they have input and influence in unfolding political events. And efficacy is an incredibly important aspect of healthy democratic attitudes.
From the perspective of a political leader, social media interaction is a helpful way to disseminate messaging. Followers who feel heard by their leader are more likely to feel they have a personal stake in the success of a movement they believe in and therefore more likely to proactively take steps to ensure that message is being spread.
Rhetorical excesses aside, these are things Trump did well and that Biden, who has populist ambitions of his own, might be wise to attempt.
But the early actions of the presidency show Biden has a go-it-alone attitude. He’s eschewed working with Congress, instead opting to use executive actions to further his policy goals. And he’s insulated himself from any real criticism by avoiding the media.
The relationship between the media and the executive is a difficult one. Too often personal hostilities guide press reports. Politicians of various partisan stripes feel personal animus will lead to the twisting of their words; members of the media are aware that access to politicians may rely on not being overly hostile and aggressive.
If politicians seek to avoid press because of these tensions, that’s one thing. The idea that traditional media is the only way for the president to make himself available to the people and show he believes in democratic accountability is outdated. This first became clear when then-candidate Obama used social media and grassroots organization to mobilize demographic groups with spotty voting records and propel him to the presidency.
Obama and Trump have proven that social media is a viable tool in the executive’s back pocket, both for the purposes of mobilizing supporters and making oneself available to the American citizenry.
There’s no excuse for Biden not to use it for the same purposes, especially if he’s going to insulate himself from the questions of traditional media.
And using the controversy of Trump’s social media behavior as an excuse to avoid the platforms altogether is no excuse. Plenty of other politicians use social media just as effectively, if with a different rhetorical style. Biden’s own party member, Alexandria Occasio-Cortez is one such example.
If Biden fears the hostility of the media, he has no excuse not to turn to social media as a platform on which to explain his actions to the public and to field questions and concerns. That he continues to do so shows not just a contempt for criticism from media but for the criticism of the people he’s supposed to represent.