What We Learned, at the Town Hall
The press keeps asking about the 'how' of politics. Citizens ask about the 'what' of governance.
This post is on what we learned about the presidency, about this president, and about the press, in the “Town Hall” session that Joe Biden had this past week in Baltimore with Anderson Cooper, of CNN.
I’ll argue that this form of public exposure is a lot harder than it looks; that Biden handled most of it well, with one important exception; and that the public gave the professional press an example of a different way to hold public officials to account.
Bonus history feature: Biden held this session as a first-year president. Forty-four years ago, another first-year president held a notable similar event. That was Jimmy Carter, with his Town Hall in Clinton, Mass. The event gave rise to one of the few genuine-classic segments from Saturday Night Live, then only in its second season. The episode, featuring Dan Aykroyd as Carter and Bill Murray as Walter Cronkite, is the one you can see on YouTube above. (For the record, I was on Carter’s staff at the time and helped prep him for that appearance. Update: my friend from those days Barry Jagoda points out that the SNL segment was based on a real White House call-in program, rather than the Town Hall.)
What’s easy about being president: not much, except one thing
A few parts of being president are easier than you might think. Actually, only one thing: travel. Other people always wait for you. You never wait for them.
—I had a real-time reminder of this three days ago in Washington. I was driving across town, when what should have been a fifteen-minute journey turned into ninety minutes of gridlock, with downtown thoroughfares all blocked off at once.
An emergency? Just an event. Joe Biden was delivering remarks at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, on the 10th anniversary of its dedication. The straight-line distance from the White House to the memorial is just over a mile, but that mile goes right across several major avenues. Biden was able to go to and from without holdup or peril—as serving presidents obviously should. And the rest of the town lived, as it does, with side effects of being the seat of government.
—I had a distant-past reminder of this same principle, from the years I worked for Jimmy Carter in the White House. Through the campaign, Carter and his staff were subject to the normal rigors of travel. The photo you see above was of Carter lugging his own briefcase and suit bag onto a commuter flight during the primaries. Carrying his own luggage became one of Carter’s ordinary-citizen trademarks.
Once Carter was president, of course, he traveled on Air Force One. Other people carried everything for him, from briefing books to the “nuclear football” containing attack codes. But the biggest travel difference was the disappearance of “waiting.”
For a presidential trip, everyone else—staff, reporters, whoever—would get to the airport hours in advance. Usually this was Andrews, and usually that meant a long van trip from downtown DC. All these other travelers would be cleared and vetted, and would take their seats on the main plane or any backups.
After everyone else was in place, eventually you’d hear the whoop-whoop-whoop of the helicopter blades of Marine One, inbound from the White House south lawn. Marine One would alight; Carter would go down its stairs and up those for Air Force One; and virtually the instant he was in his seat, the plane would begin taxiing for takeoff.
That was great! But that was also about it for the “easy” part of a president’s life.
Why everything else is hard
Everything else about being president is hard—and harder than most people would think. (As John Dickerson has described in a book and this Atlantic article, and as I once argued here.)
Your day is parceled out in little slices. You have no privacy, except within the “residence” portion of the White House or at Camp David. Everyone wants something from you. Most of the answers you have to give are No. The only choices you get to make are the impossible ones—the lose-lose dilemmas, the options between “bad” and “even worse.” The easier decisions all get made by someone else. If you as president know anything of political history, you’re aware that every passing minute, every passing day, is that much less time you have to do anything. The “honeymoon” is a quaint concept. The mid-terms seem to start as soon as you are sworn in.
And so on. It’s why most presidents look decades older when they leave the office than when they arrived.
Prominent in this list of “things that are harder than you think” is the reality that everything you say is on the record, on video, certain to be parsed and scrutinized. You’ll have to rephrase or explain anything you get wrong. (I am talking about everyone who has held this office, except one.) Any instant in which you fumble, stumble, or freeze, could be seen by millions in real time and go worldwide within minutes.
This leads us to Joe Biden’s Town Hall.
What presidents have to answer from the public
Town Hall gatherings play to a strength that most politicians share. Generally they’re at ease talking back-and-forth with strangers and having some basic answer on a wide range of topics. These skills are part of getting elected in the first place.
But Town Halls can be trickier than formal press conferences, because there’s a much broader and less predictable range of topics that might come up.
This could sound surprising. Surely the veteran political press corps will be the world’s experts in knowing how to probe! And, yes, White House press regulars know how to sound tough—about a narrow range of political questions. “What are you hearing from Senator Manchin?” “Are you concerned about the latest poll results?” “Isn’t your party in disarray?”
Watch any daily White House press briefing, and you’ll get the idea.
Every president grows exasperated by these “process” grillings. But (almost) every one of them knows what to say in response. Some are better at answering, some are worse, but all are operating on familiar terrain. It’s the equivalent of watching pro tennis players hitting crosscourt warmup shots. The balls come across the net really fast, but you can guess where they will land.
The questions that come in from the public are different. Overwhelmingly they are about the broader what of governance and public life, not about the political how or who.
Twenty-five years ago, in my book Breaking the News, I contrasted the questions that first-term president Bill Clinton got from a group of teenagers at a Town Hall-type session in Boston, with those at a normal press conference. I’m giving the full list of student questions here, which you can quickly scan through to get two impressions. One is how different these queries are from what you hear at a standard press briefing. The other is how similar they are to what people at Biden’s Town Hall asked.
The Clinton-era list:
"We need stronger laws to punish those people who are caught selling guns to our youth. Basically, what can you do about that?"
"I notice that often it's the media that is responsible for the negative portrayal of young people in our society." What can political leaders do to persuade the media that there is good news about youth?
Apprenticeship programs and other ways to provide job training have been valuable for students not going to college. Can the Administration promote more of these programs?
Programs designed to keep teenagers away from drugs and gangs often emphasize sports and seem geared mainly to boys. How can such programs be made more attractive to teenage girls?
What is it like at Oxford? (This was from a student who was completing a new alternative-school curriculum in the Boston public schools, and who had been accepted at Oxford.)
"We need more police officers who are trained to deal with all the other different cultures in our cities." What can the government do about that?
"In Boston, Northeastern University has created a model of scholarships and other supports to help inner-city kids get to and stay in college. ... As President, can you urge colleges across the country to do what Northeastern has done?"
With those as a guide, you can scan through the transcript of the latest Biden Town Hall questions, to see how similar in spirit they are.
I’ll add just one example, the very first question, from Nicholas Vaught, of Morgan State:
Q So, my wife and I have two young boys, Arthur and Teddy. However, the cost of childcare is nearly double our mortgage. We want to have more children, but even though we earn a good salary now, childcare is so expensive. So how will this new infrastructure plan help middle-class families pay for childcare?
The point, then and now, was that generally the public cares about how governance works, across a wide range of topics matching the real variety of life, and asks about topics that rarely if ever come up from the professional press. And therefore:
—To perform well at a press conference, a president needs to be prepared on politics, and a (usually predictable) range of “gotcha” questions.
—To perform well at a Town Hall, a president needs to know broadly about governance, and how public institutions affect family and community lives.
The summary of how Biden did:
1) On most topics, he knew enough, and showed it
Another audience questioner, Anna Hirsch, asked Biden about the current supply-chain squeeze, and how it’s hurting small businesses like her family’s.
Biden answered this way, which I think was a good summary of how global supply-chain linkages had evolved to remove every possible bit of slack, spare time, and margin-for-error from their systems. Biden said:
We have a significant supply chain problem. In the Obama-Biden administration, all of American business—and it made sense—it was just on time. You wanted to make sure that you didn’t waste any money and/or time between producing whatever you’re producing and having it done.
You didn’t — so that’s how you saved money. You didn’t buy the material six months ahead of time and then keep it in your inventory and then move it. It was on time.
Now, that’s a big problem. You can’t — people can’t do it.
On the range of other topics, Biden showed similar with-it familiarity with the issues and the stakes. (I’ll mention the exception, below.) Feel free to write in with examples if you disagree—not with his policies but with his grasp of issues.
2) A ‘gaffe’ that wasn’t
What we see above was the first part of Biden’s answer on supply chains. Here was the rest of it, which I saw featured in right-wing media as proof of his supposedly declining mental state:
THE PRESIDENT: Forty percent of all products coming into the United States of America on the West Coast go through Los Angeles and — and — oh, what am I doing here?
MR. COOPER: Is it Long Beach or —
THE PRESIDENT: Long Beach. Thank you.
“Oh, what am I doing here?” That sounded bad. And in context it was not merely a verbal hang, from the Biden who has spent decades mastering a childhood stutter—as John Hendrickson so memorably and movingly described in The Atlantic.
But I also contend, contrary to the immediate right-wing narrative, that it was not an embarrassing “tell” of deeper cognitive problems.
“Anomic aphasia”—a difficulty in recalling names—gets worse with age, and Biden is the oldest person ever to hold this job. But even when he was a 30-year-old newly elected Senator, Biden was not known for Bill-Clinton-style (or Jeopardy-style, or Jimmy-Carter-style) rapid recall of arbitrary data points. And if it were now a broader cognitive syndrome, presumably something similar would have occurred in Biden’s other 90 minutes on stage. I didn’t notice any. Again, please let me know if you disagree.
Instead I contend this was a momentary spot-knowledge brain freeze, of the kind every one of us, at every age, has experienced.
“Every one of us?” Every one.
—At a campaign stop in 2008, Barack Obama claimed that he had held events in “57 states.” He was then in his mid 40s.
—At the 1980 Democratic Convention, before a live TV audience of millions, then-president Jimmy Carter referred to former vice president Hubert H. (for Horatio) Humphrey as “Hubert Horatio Hornblower.” Carter was then in his mid 50s.
—Three days ago, while stuck in that DC gridlock, I listened to a Fresh Air interview with the actor Oscar Isaac, who said that a book had made a huge impression on him. But: “the author, I can’t remember his name at the moment.” Isaac is 42. (The book was The Body Keeps the Score; the author is Bessel van der Kolk. The exchange is at time 4:30 of this excellent interview.)
These happen to all of us. (As noted above, I mixed up a call-in program with a Town Hall.) It happened to Biden once, by my count, in this long, live session.
3) A gaffe that was—probably
I won’t go into all the details now. But an exchange about Taiwan was either a mistake by Biden, or a surprisingly casual way to introduce a major change in policy.
The Town Hall question came from Glenn Niblo, a student at Loyola University. I’ve added emphasis like this.
Q China just tested a hypersonic missile. What will you do to keep up with them militarily? And can you vow to protect Taiwan?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes and yes….
You hear people saying, “Biden wants to start a new Cold War with China.” I don’t want a Cold War with China. I just want to make China understand that we are not going to step back. We are not going to change any of our views.
MR. COOPER: So, are you saying that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if —
THE PRESIDENT: Yes.
MR. COOPER: — China attacked?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, we have a commitment to do that.
As David Sanger has explained in the New York Times, this is not what U.S. presidents have said over the past 40-plus years. Since the reopening of U.S.-China relations in the 1970s, the American policy has been one of studious non-commitment about exactly what it would do militarily to protect Taiwan.
The official term for this is “strategic ambiguity.” The logic behind it is that the United States, the People’s Republic of China (Beijing), and the Republic of China (on Taiwan) are all better off if no one is spelling out exact plans or drawing red lines.
Whether that logic still makes sense, I’ll get to in another post. For now the point is: What Biden said either was not accurate, or was a big change in policy. His modern predecessors have been careful not to say that the U.S. “has a commitment to do that.”
That is enough for now. But these are the kinds of things you notice, if you’ve been on the planning side of such events.
The president says we defend Taiwan, and immediately the White House says policy has not changed. How confusing. Maybe even strategically ambiguous.
This is the most thoughtful – and thought provoking – analysis of the Townhall I have seen anywhere in the media in the last few days. Even CNN’s wrap afterwards was just a bunch of pundits bloviating about their pre-determined conclusions.
It is obvious your years on the other side of the fence in the Carter White House have given you a unique perspective on the presidency. I have a long wondered why it aged holders of the office so markedly in a mere eight years; you’ve answered that question admirably.
It was entirely predictable that Biden critics would jump on his one stumble, which wasn't really a stumble at all, but more like a verbal tic. The word “commitment” is wide open to multiple interpretations, but the press corps chose the worst possible one.
Thanks for this enlightening behind-the-scenes account.