Can the White House press briefing be saved?
This administration seems well organized and disciplined. His first dates are filled with familiar Beltway hands, most of whom have decades of experience. There are no Kayleigh McEnanys or Omarosas or Johnny McEntees. There are no bomb throwers; no one sees administrative experience as a path to a lucrative post-political career in partisan media; the west wing isn’t crawling with hunted paranoids locked in a terrible battle for survival, looking to drop a pungent anonymous quote in a constant war of one-upmanship. Sean Spicer is not hidden in the bushes; the dude who runs the far-right pillow factory does not obscure the threshold. Instead, the press will be dealing with familiar faces and a press strategy that appears to be very similar to that deployed by the Obama administration: “Hey, we don’t need to be in the headlines every days.”
It’s a huge improvement, but we don’t need to honor it with long applause. Let us remember that while these Obama-era press briefings were relatively drama-free, these Obama-era briefers had a higher opinion of their commitment to transparency that they had no right to demand. The Obama administration’s own record on press freedom was appalling and helped pave the way for some of the excesses of the Trump administration, particularly its war on leaks. Obama’s second press secretary, Jay Carney, had similar praise to PSAKI’s (he listen to Guided by Voices!) but has been nobody’s idea of a friend of the press since his time in the White House ended. Now installed at Amazon, he went to war with journalists who uncovered the secrets the company would rather hide from the public. The revolving door between Democratic administrations and Silicon Valley monopolies is hardly a sign of well-oiled democracy, much less a commitment to speaking out with journalists.
Holding the Biden administration accountable will take a dexterity and finesse that few in Beltway’s press corps have had to practice in recent years. Too often, holding power in Washington to account revolves around anything that feeds the news cycle – and as Press Run’s Eric Boehlert likes to point out, it’s usually no matter what the GOP is crazy about that day, whether it’s questions about deficits or non-scandals percolating on Fox News. (The critical psychotic cover of Obama’s beige suit is still traumatic for normal human beings to remember.) To hold the Biden administration accountable, you have to be more than a mouthpiece for Republican flack; it means rigorously testing administration policies and promises, with a keen eye to separate legitimate partisan criticism from bad faith pamphlets.