When President Biden broke the record for the longest news conference in White House history on Wednesday, he was sending a message to his critics, the chattering class and the Republican Party: Come at me.
After a year of questions from Fox News anchors about his mental acuity, grumblings from Republicans about “Biden in Hiding” and even snide remarks from the press corps about his lack of news conferences and sit-down interviews, the president stood in the East Room for nearly 120 minutes and answered roughly 187 questions.
More than an hour into the news conference, Biden, who was settled in behind the lectern, quipped: “How long are you guys ready to go? You want to go for another hour or two?”
The 79-year-old president flashed a smile and, glancing at his watch, told reporters he would go for another 20 minutes.
“I watched and I knew he was having a good time,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during an interview with Fox News Thursday morning. “He actually likes engaging with reporters.”
The press conference took place at a perilous moment for the president.
After a strong start, Biden’s approval rating sat as high as 57 percent as recently as mid-April in Gallup’s poll. It was still at 50 percent in July but has fallen since to a new low of 40 percent this month.
Democrats are looking at a potentially brutal midterm election that could cost the party its majorities in the House and Senate, and Biden’s domestic agenda is on the rocks after centrists in his own party set up roadblocks to his voting rights and social spending and climate change bills.
Biden’s supporters have wanted to see a change in direction, and rhetorically, at least, they’ve gotten one from a president who has taken more shots at the GOP since the beginning of the year.
Democrats cheering the more liberated strategy liked what they saw.
“It definitely felt like a ‘Bring it on folks’ moment,” said Democratic strategist Eddie Vale. “It’s a great move for him and puts all the critics and Republican attacks in the same box they got stuck in during the campaign. Their caricatures of him completely fell apart.”
Or as another Democratic strategist put it: “It was like a big F-you to everyone who doubted him in the last year.”
The doubts have been growing as Biden’s poll numbers have slipped, and the GOP increasingly has sought to cast Biden as out of step with the public. Conservative media have also raised questions about Biden’s stamina and mental acuity — something Biden took on by holding court with the press for two hours.
That may have led to some unforced errors for Biden.
The White House was forced to clear up confusion around two of Biden’s comments, one about penalties for a Russian invasion of Ukraine and another about the 2022 elections possibly being illegitimate if voting rights bills are not passed.
Psaki told reporters during a briefing that Biden was not trying to cast doubt on the legitimacy of U.S. elections.
“He was also explaining that the results would be illegitimate if states do what the former president asked them to do in more than half a dozen states,” Psaki said, referring to former President Trump.
Biden himself sought to clean up his comments on Russia at the start of a meeting on infrastructure Thursday, saying that any movement of Russian troops across the border with Ukraine would constitute an “invasion” and trigger a “severe and coordinated response.”
On Wednesday, he had suggested that a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine would not trigger the forceful response the U.S. and its allies are preparing.
Colin Reed, a Republican strategist, argued that the long press conference was an answer to criticisms about lack of press access and that, while Biden would get credit for participating, he also “left his critics plenty of fodder to dig through.”
“Would you rather have the stories about lack of press conferences, lack of media availability, lack of access, or would you rather have the substantive, serious gaffes you have to clean up?” Reed said. “The rust showed yesterday, but I think they’re banking he gets points for showing up,”
Biden got feisty in some of his responses, a move that also pleased Democrats on Thursday. He repeatedly sought to rebut the narrative in the press that he had fallen short on his goals in his first year with elements of his domestic agenda stalled.
“Can you think of any other president that has done as much in one year? Name one for me,” Biden said when asked about his stalled agenda. “I’m serious. You guys talk about how nothing has happened. … The fact of the matter is, we’ve got an awful lot done.”
Biden did not adhere to a list of reporters, as he has during past press conferences, and instead resorted to calling on journalists at random — including right-leaning outlets — as the press conference wore on.
“Why don’t you just go down the row there,” he told an aide with a microphone at one point.
When a Newsmax reporter asked Biden about a new poll showing that 49 percent of voters disagree with the statement that he is “mentally fit,” Biden shot back, “I’ll let you all make the judgment of whether they’re correct.”
When Peter Doocy of Fox News claimed he had a whole binder full of questions, Biden egged him on, replying: ”Fire away. Come on.”
Reed, the Republican strategist, predicted that such performances wouldn’t have an impact on Biden’s political standing, arguing that Democrats would still face difficult headwinds in the midterm elections.
“It’s going to be a brutal midterm season for the Democrats, and there’s no amount of press conferences that can change that,” he said.
When Psaki was asked Thursday if Biden would do more press conferences, she told reporters to “stay tuned” and “bring snacks next time.”