Nodding to the large number of journalists assembled, he added, “I want to get this straight, man — I’m not going to get this many of you in the room again until I’m inaugurated.” The group laughed.
A week later, the scandal would push him out of the presidential race. But more than three decades later, he would — at last — be inaugurated. And on Thursday afternoon, he once again will face a comparable crowd of reporters.
Biden has surprised many longtime associates with the discipline and conciseness of his communications as president during his first two months in office. Thursday’s session will test whether Biden truly has grown more scripted, or whether the restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic — and the tight controls on the presidency — just make it seem that way.
“He certainly has been very disciplined,” said Mike McCurry, who was press secretary in the Clinton White House. “They’re working from more formal statements. He’s not mixing it up or being as impromptu as he was during previous parts of his career.”
But McCurry added, “Being in the basement in the campaign kind of forced a previous protocol that didn’t translate to give-and-take. It serves him pretty well.”
This time, Biden will be in a different room and at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue from his 1987 performance. Rather than trying to rescue his presidential candidacy, he will be attempting to build his presidential legacy. Instead of being a fresh-faced senator on the rise, at 78 he’s the oldest-ever U.S. president.
But some of the same garrulousness that caused him problems three decades ago is still prompting headaches. For all of their efforts to exert control, Biden’s White House aides have had to correct various statements during his two months in office.
Biden said on “CBS Evening News” that former president Donald Trump should not receive intelligence briefings, but the next day the White House clarified that it would be up to intelligence officials to make that determination. Biden said his administration was aiming for 1.5 million vaccinations per day rather than the 1 million he had earlier pledged — only to have the White House later say 1 million was still the goal.
As he faces his first presidential news conference, it puts potential pitfalls in front of the man who once confessed, “I am a gaffe machine.”
He has waited longer than any president in at least a century to hold his first formal session with the White House press corps. By this point, Barack Obama had already held two. George W. Bush had staged three, Bill Clinton five. Trump had held one solo news conference, but that accompanied four others that included foreign leaders.
And recent days have provided a reminder that even with his powerful megaphone, Biden is not in total control of the agenda. Ample issues have arisen that are likely to make for tough questions on Thursday.
As Biden launched a “Help Is Here” tour last week to showcase his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, it was overshadowed by a shooting rampage that killed eight people in the Atlanta area. Biden’s trip this week to Ohio took place hours after another mass shooting that killed 10 people in Boulder, Colo.
“Weeks like this are why in practice it’s so challenging for presidents to use the bully pulpit to ‘sell’ legislation like the covid relief bill,” tweeted Tommy Vietor, a former Obama spokesman. “Biden has to address the horrific violence in Atlanta & Colorado. He has to focus on the border. It’s not as simple as planning a tour.”
Another likely — and potentially uncomfortable — subject for a question could be Biden’s repeated stumbles last week while climbing the stairs to Air Force One.
White House officials declined to say exactly how Biden is readying for all of this. “How is he preparing for it? Looking at your Twitters and seeing what’s on your mind,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki jokingly told reporters on Tuesday.
She added, “He’s thinking about what he wants to say, what he wants to convey, where he can provide updates, and, you know, looking forward to the opportunity to engage with a free press.”
Biden’s press strategy has been far more targeted than Trump’s effort to make himself ubiquitous in U.S. culture and politics, tweeting about everything from the Oscars to National Football League games.
On many days, Biden makes just one public appearance, focusing on a single pre-announced topic. That has helped keep the White House on track and minimized Biden’s well-known tendency to wander down verbal byways or surprise staffers with unplanned announcements.
He did hold a CNN town hall and has sat for a handful of one-on-one interviews, including one last week with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos that seemed like a test run for the news conference. Biden also occasionally stops before or after a flight on Air Force One to answer a few questions.
But Thursday’s event will be different, with reporters from various outlets posing questions for an extended period. Biden has been known to lash out when his fitness or motives are questioned.
“It’ll be interesting to see if he’s more disciplined, or the settings have allowed him to be more disciplined,” said one former Biden adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment. “Candor is an absolute blessing. … It comes with the occasional cleanup job and needed clarifications, but it’s also what people love about him.”
The mishaps became frequent enough that the Biden campaign got in the habit of holding sessions with reporters the day after primary debates to clarify any mistakes that had been made the previous night.
But in the general election, especially as the pandemic ruled out traditional campaigning, Biden was generally able to avoid combative or wide-ranging news conferences. He often preferred talking to reporters on an airport tarmac, ambling over to answer a handful of questions and preferring the informality.
Over his decades of public life, Biden has generally seemed to enjoy the give-and-take with reporters. But his press handlers enjoy them less and often try to shut them down as quickly as possible.
It’s a long-running joke among Biden advisers how hard he can be to control. His time as a senator yielded endless jokes about his loquaciousness, his gaffes and the perils of coming between him and a TV camera.
But after nine weeks, White House advisers concluded they could not put off Biden’s first news conference any longer.
“From the White House’s point of view, it’s a necessary chore,” McCurry said. “There’s always potential to get something wrong or create a gaffe. But on balance presidents fuss and fume about doing them, and then when they come off, they say, ‘Well, that went better than I thought!’ ”
An upcoming news conference forces a president to behave like a student cramming for a test. The White House press office generally comes up with mock questions, prodding the president to develop crisp answers.
The level of preparation can depend on the individual. Trump was famously dismissive of preparation. In contrast, “Clinton would sometimes stop news conference preparations and call a Cabinet secretary and say, ‘We need an answer on this,’ ” McCurry recalled.
There has been a sharp drop-off in news conferences in recent years. Warren G. Harding often held them twice a week. Franklin D. Roosevelt enjoyed long informal sessions with reporters in the Oval Office. Harry S. Truman moved them to once a week.
As presidents have more ways to communicate at their disposal — from interviews with friendly cable television hosts to online messages to pithy tweets — they see formal news conferences as less important. Over the past 30 years, presidents have on average held about two news conferences per month, including short appearances with foreign leaders, according to data from the American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Trump used his sessions with the press in a new way, taking the opportunity to showcase his combativeness with reporters, which played to his base and produced dramatic exchanges with a group that he once called “the enemy of the people.”
Beyond that, among Trump’s most notable qualities was a drive to be constantly in the spotlight, to respond in often vulgar or aggressive terms to almost any development.
“The Trump presidency, if nothing else, was a public relations presidency,” said George C. Edwards III, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University and the author of “On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit.” “That’s what he spent his time doing — watching TV, responding to TV, sending out thousands of tweets, holding these rallies.”
In this as in other areas, Biden is seeking a return to traditional Washington ways.
“It’s hard to imagine Biden seeking a situation, preparing for the news conference moment, when he is going to do battle with some correspondent from Fox News or OAN,” said John T. Woolley, co-director of the American Presidency Project. “I just can’t imagine Biden looking forward to that as a stylized moment of confrontation.”
Yet now, as in 1987, questions arise over whether Biden can be concise, and whether his mouth moves before his mind.
“I feel very capable of using my mouth in sync with my mind,” he assured reporters in that long ago news conference. But he admitted, “As you’ve observed, it’s hard for me to say anything in two minutes.”
Even amid one of the most challenging moments of his political career, he frequently flashed smiles to defuse the tension and told the gathered group of journalists that they had every right to pick apart his record.
Then he addressed his opponents: “I want to tell them all, I’m in this race to stay. I’m in this race to win. And here I come.”
He would drop out of that presidential contest within days. But in many ways, he never left the race.