When Joe Biden finally gets around to holding the first news conference of his presidency — he told reporters on Thursday that he would take their questions “in the next couple days” — the White House press corps will almost inevitably blow it.
They’ll ask incremental, trivial questions; they’ll try to catch him in gotchas; they’ll smugly demand to know why he failed to rally Republicans; they’ll ask about the dog and Dr. Seuss and maybe even Mr. Potato Head. He’ll end up saying a lot of stuff he’s said a million times before.
What the reporters in that room really need to do, because they are the only ones who have the ability and the responsibility to do so, is dig deeper, hold him accountable and increase the public’s understanding of what’s going on inside his head — and his White House.
Some smart, clear questions about the news of the moment would be entirely appropriate. And let’s acknowledge that it’s a huge relief to have a functioning executive branch and officials who don’t lie all the time
But there’s a lot we still don’t know about the Biden administration, its intentions, its decision-making processes and its approach to power. So far, by limiting his statement to specific topics, Biden has left a wealth of others entirely unaddressed.
That’s why I’d like to see at least some questions that don’t have talking-point answers, and that will add to our understanding of how this presidency is going to work. Ideally, they would not only provide transparency, but encourage even more of it. So I’ll start with some of those:
Transparency, the public’s right to know, and increased visibility into the White House
Q. Some have argued that after the past four years, the best way to restore trust to the office of the presidency is with radical transparency — showing people the actual process of governing, warts and all. What are your instructions to your White House staff, to your Cabinet officials and to federal employees generally about transparency? Will you give them permission to speak publicly, on the record, without negative consequences, about the public’s business?
Q. You’ve committed to releasing logs of in-person visitors to the White House. Will you also divulge the names of attendees at virtual meetings, which are the primary mode of interaction for the moment?
Q. Will you proactively establish entire classes of documents that will be made public by federal agencies without reporters having to ask? That would include the calendars of agency heads, agency org charts, top contracts and grants, all unclassified correspondence with Congress and a summary of classified inspector general reports, for starters.
Q. So far, your White House has really failed to use new technology to engage with citizens — for instance. by seeking input or improving oversight. Similarly, your website doesn’t provide anything like a window into what’s going on inside the White House: Who works there, where they’re coming from, what they’re working on. Do you want that to change?
Q. Here are 10 requests that reporters made using the Freedom of Information Act in the previous administration that were refused despite their obvious public-interest value. Would you commit to looking at this list and getting back to us about why you think they should be made public, or why not?
Q. You’ve said you were always the last person in the room with Barack Obama when he was president. Who is the last person in the room with you? Who are the people you turn to the most?
Use of military force and abuse of intelligence
Q. Describe what you want the process to be before someone asks you to approve a targeted killing.
Q. Describe what you want the process to be before someone asks you to approve military action. Please explain when you feel that process requires congressional consultation or pre-approval.
Q. Will you dial back claims of unilateral presidential power by vowing to not use force abroad — beyond your Article II authority to respond to or prevent armed attacks, or to defend U.S. nationals in peril — absent congressional authorization?
Q. When did you realize that U.S. troops in Afghanistan were doing more harm than good? How and when does that finally end?
Q. Now that other countries are using armed drones, too, do you think the U.S. should establish rules for their use?
Q. When will the Guantanamo Bay prison be shut down? When will you reject the government’s use of indefinite detention without charge?
Q. How safe from government surveillance are the American people? To what extent is the government, on your watch, engaged in the mass collection of private communications involving Americans?
The Trump factor
Q. How do you explain what has happened to the leadership of the Republican Party? What happened to the Republican senators you used to consider friends, but who now spread lies and conspiracy theories and show no interest in actually governing?
Q. Do you think that political figures and others who are unwilling to acknowledge that you legitimately won the election should be part of the national discourse? Will you reach out to them on legislative issues?
Q. As your administration learns more about what happened inside the executive branch during the last four years, have you discovered abuses of power that the public still doesn’t know about?
Q. Are there any parts of the executive branch that you have found so badly damaged that they are effectively unable to enforce the law? Which ones need rebuilding the most?
The Biden factor
Q. During the campaign, you were able to avoid talking much about the bad choices you made in your political life. But now that you are here, wouldn’t it be helpful for everyone to learn more about your evolution, and how you have learned from your mistakes?
Q. For instance, when did you finally realize that your Iraq war vote had enabled a full-fledged disaster, and what did you learn from that?
Q. You certainly appear to have shifted away from being a deficit hawk. When did you realize that was a mistake?
Q. How do you feel today about the Bankruptcy Act you championed in 2005, which caused incredible damage to the middle class?
Q. You are obviously not the same person you were when you were younger. What abilities would you say you have lost and gained over time? Do you turn to others for help more than you used to? Do you feel the same command over a wide range of issues that you had when you were younger?
Q. When speaking extemporaneously, you occasionally interrupt yourself in mid-sentence and go on riffs that don’t seem directly related. Sometimes it’s not easy to figure out exactly what you mean. What are we to make of that?
Q. You criticized your predecessor for his overly broad interpretation of executive power. Give us some examples of how you interpret it less broadly.
Q. Trump denied the legitimacy of congressional oversight and asserted blanket immunity from congressional subpoenas. Will you commit to respecting congressional subpoenas?
Q. Will you continue to broadly assert that any communications with you directly are privileged? Why or why not?
Q. Here are 10 specific requests for information from Congress that Trump flatly rejected. Would you commit to looking at this list and getting back to us about why you think they should be made public, or why not?
Pardon power and criminal justice
Q. Are there any pardons that you believe are out of line for the president to grant? Will you rule out issuing any pardons to members of your administration, your friends and family?
Q. You have an opportunity to make a powerful statement about historic wrongs in the criminal justice system by enthusiastically using your pardon and commutation power. You’ve said you regret your votes to increase mandatory minimums for drug offenses; now you could act on that regret with a stroke of your pen. Do you have any plans along those lines?
Q. Isn’t it past time to remove marijuana from the federal schedule of controlled substances?
Q. What do you think is the maximum amount of time someone should spend behind bars for simple possession of marijuana in this country?
Q. People who are unable to afford bail are detained while they await trial for weeks or even months. In what circumstances do you think that’s fair?
Voting rights (and the filibuster)
Q. Making it harder to vote has become a major goal of the Republican Party in almost every state. What do you make of a political party that wants fewer people to vote? Should that make voters angry?
Q. How essential to the future of our democracy is H.R. 1, the For the People Act? Given that it will never get 60 votes in the Senate, what do you do about that?
Q. Do you think Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico should get statehood? What more could you possibly need to know before you decide?
The value of dissent
Q. Presidents live inside a bubble, isolated from real life and surrounded by people who agree with them and try to make them happy. What, if anything, are you doing to make sure that you keep in mind the views and needs of Americans unlike the ones in the White House?
Q. Do you hear dissent? Do you encourage it? Some good government groups have suggested that you “prioritize the institutionalization and protection of dissent across government.” Will you do that?
Q. What is your message to civil servants or federal contractors who have concerns about policies, corruption or inappropriate interference? Should they come forward? Should they go public? Will they be protected from retaliation?
Q. Could you give us a recent example of a time someone disagreed with you and it changed your mind?
Q. Let’s take the issue of canceling student debt as an example. Walk us through the views you are hearing as you consider the issue.
The state of the media
Q. One of the country’s major media outlets, Fox News, traffics in outright disinformation and far-right propaganda, arguably even incitement. Most other media outlets, by contrast, respect facts, to a greater or lesser degree. Do you personally see a gulf between Fox and the others? Would you encourage the public to consider them differently? Should the White House?
Q. Why is your administration still prosecuting Julian Assange? Did you approve the decision in February to continue seeking his extradition from the U.K.?
Q. Will you pledge not to use the Espionage Act of 1917 to pursue people who leak to journalists?
Q. How concerned are you about the decline of local journalism, and what do you think should be done about it?
Corporate power, regulation and antitrust
Q. You’ve appointed quite a number of people with serious credibility when it comes to regulating big corporations and breaking up monopolies. What do you hope you will have accomplished in those areas in four years?
Q. You have yet to identify nominees for three of the biggest potential chokepoints for a progressive regulatory and antitrust agenda: chair of the Federal Trade Commission, assistant attorney general for antitrust, and head of the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. What’s going on there?
Q. Some of your hires have a history of serving special interests — Big Tech, other large corporations, for-profit prisons and the like — rather than the public interest. As you fill the many remaining positions in your administration, how seriously will you take potential conflicts of interest? What do you consider disqualifying?
Q. Do you consider high-speed broadband internet service as a requirement for modern citizenship? If so, how do you see the government ensuring that it is accessible and affordable to all Americans?
Justice for Khashoggi
Q. Human rights and free-press advocates here and across the globe were outraged by your decision not to directly punish Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, even after identifying him as the man ultimately responsible for the ambush, murder and dismemberment of dissident journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. They feel this will only increase his sense of impunity. Is “stability” with an ally more important than anything else?
Q. Are there any penalties or plans involving MBS that we don’t know about yet? Will you ever be willing to meet with him in person?
Q. You released a very abbreviated report about the killing. Would you consider disclosing more? In particular, if U.S. intelligence agencies knew that the Saudi regime was planning to abduct or kill Khashoggi, they were required by law to warn him. Did they have any such advance knowledge?
Trade, China and manufacturing
(Thanks to Salon executive editor Andrew O’Hehir for these.)
Q. Trump’s trade war with China was a disaster — but so were the “free trade” policies of the last two Democratic presidents. Where does the balance lie for you between protecting American jobs, the economic reality of massive trade with China, and improving working conditions in China and other manufacturing and export nations?
Q. Major auto manufacturers now say they’re likely to phase out internal-combustion engines over the next 10 years. Does that need to be a federal standard? At what point do we get gas-guzzlers off the streets forever?
Immigration and the border
Q. Who should get a pathway to citizenship and who shouldn’t?
Q. Are you anticipating a surge at the border? What are you going to do about it?
Q. Please walk us through exactly what should happen when an unaccompanied minor arrives at the U.S border.
Q. Do you consider the facilities in which these children are currently being kept to be humane? How is this any better than what was happening under the previous administration?
Q. What is your response to the right-wing claims that you are opening up the country to an invasion?
Q. What do you say to the ICE officers who think you’re soft? What do you say to the immigrant-rights activists who say the ICE officers aren’t changing their attitudes?
There’s nothing magical about a news conference. As I wrote in 2004, in my first piece ever for Salon, they generally don’t make much news. Lou Cannon, who covered the Reagan White House for the Washington Post, told me: “News conferences have always been a forum for the president to say what he wants to say, not for us to get the information that we want to get.”
But as the late, great legendary White House press corps veteran Helen Thomas put it: “The presidential news conference is the only forum in our society in which the president can be questioned. If he doesn’t answer questions, there’s no accountability.”
It seems to me that a key to making presidential news conferences of value to the public is to establish, at the first one, that a reporter has the right and responsibility to follow up on their question. That doesn’t mean asking a second question; that means the reporter should listen to the answer (unfortunately a non-starter for some of them right there). If it wasn’t fully responsive, they should say so, and ask again. If it was responsive, they should try to pin down any ambiguities, or try to tease out a bit more information.
A news conference, unfortunately, is nothing like a sit-down interview for really drilling down on where a president is coming from. But the first news conference is a significant milestone. Will the new president answer questions or duck them? Will he be honest? Will he be clear? And will we learn anything new?