Biden's Solo News Conferences in Perspective

Biden's solo news conferences have not been out of line compared to his predecessors.

John T. Woolley

For some months, major media outlets[1] have published articles (or opinions) declaring the rarity of President Biden’s news conferences. A common observation is that Biden has had the fewest since Ronald Reagan. Quite often the cited source of this fact has been a statistics page in The American Presidency Project.

This Analysis takes a further look at Biden’s news conferences. In particular, the focus is on Biden’s “solo” conferences—that is, formal events at which the President alone responds to questions from the media. This is the classic news conference. There are no distracting questions about politics in a non-U. S. country or answers and statements by other officials.

The focus is also on the first three years in office—from inauguration day through January 19 at the end of the third year. The presidents covered in addition to Biden are George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. Many critical reports compare Biden’s first three years to the multi-year averages of prior presidents. That is not “apples to apples.”

Why Solo Conferences?

I believe that there is a broadly idealized conception of a “good” news conference: It is the President alone, solo. The President answers a lot of questions. He does so in some, but not excessive, detail. The media have opportunities to ask reasonably detailed, sophisticated questions longer than a handful of words. The tone on the part of both parties is respectful, but firm.

There are, of course, alternative views of the purpose or content of news conferences. One “presidential view” might be that the conference is like a classroom: The president (professor) holds forth at length, instructing the media (students) about current issues and demonstrating the depth and breadth of his knowledge. The president does a lot of talking.

A contemporary “media view” might be that the conference is a bit more like a courtroom. The media (clever lawyers), question a hostile witness (the president) to reveal inconsistencies, inaccuracies, evasions, or simple incompetence.

The Solo Conferences. Right off the bat, in Table 1, we discover that Biden is not at the bottom in terms of number of solo conferences in the first three years. Trump and George W. Bush had fewer. Biden is near the bottom, but he’s not an outlier.

TABLE 1. Number of Solo Conferences, First Three Years



GHW Bush













Questions and Answers

Questions. The White House transcript identifies any recorded statement by a reporter as a question (“Q. “). Sometimes there are not even words provided—presumably because they were not picked up by a microphone—but the President responds. Some “questions” are simply a reporter's attempt to get the President to call on them: “Q. Mr President. . . “. Others are interjections: “Q. But isn’t it true. . . “ or “Q. But don’t statistics show. . . “

One can readily compare the average number of questions asked and answered in a news conference. Any statement attributed to the President is counted as an “answer,” including his opening statement, if any. Presumably in that opening statement, the President is addressing some issue(s) of current significance.

In Table 2, we can see that Biden answered more questions than either Clinton or Obama, but fewer than either Bush, and far fewer than Trump. This may be surprising and require further inquiry. Perhaps it is obvious: not all questions are the same!

TABLE 2. Questions and Answers in Solo Conferences


Average # Media Questions per Conference

Average # of Presidential Answers per Conference

GHW Bush



















Length of Questions and Answers. Why so many more questions and answers for Trump? Primarily, this is because so many very short statements were recorded both from the President and the reporters. Often, Trump and reporters interrupted each other, sometimes with intensity. This is pretty far from the public interest conception of a solo news conference sketched above. Those conferences would be relatively calm, articulate, and mutually respectful—not involving a lot of interruptions.

A more relevant measure is of the proportion of reasonably long questions and answers in the news conferences. I have selected, arbitrarily, questions longer than 120 characters[2] and answers longer than 150 characters.[3] Neither standard is particularly lengthy. But both are easy to contrast to very short Presidential answers (e.g., “I understand that.”) or media questions (e.g., “What Federal laws?”).

Table 3 shows the frequency of terse questions and answers in news conferences. The champion in terms of being asked long questions was Clinton (median question length of 251 characters[4]), the champion in terms of long answers was Obama (median answer length of 1310 characters[5]). Biden provided relatively short answers compared to all of his predecessors except Trump. Among this group, Trump by far dominated in relying on short answers. Biden’s brevity was similar to that of George H. W. Bush who had many more solo news conferences.

These data cannot show whether a presidential answer was actually responsive to a question, or evasive, or filibustering. That’s a good topic for extended scholarly work.[6]

TABLE 3. Length of Questions and Answers in Solo Conferences


Share of Press Questions shorter than 120 characters.

Median Question length in characters

Share of Presidential Answers shorter than 150 characters

Median Answer length in characters

GHW Bush































What Grade Level?

Linguistic Sophistication. The idealized news conference would be intelligent, informed, sophisticated. As a first-order, very rough assessment of that standard, I have used the “Flesch-Kincade Grade Level[7]” of the language used in the totality of all Questions and Answers in the news conferences for each president.

The results for grade level are in Table 4. The low scores for Trump are, in part, another reflection of his high reliance on very short answers and the tendency of his conferences to be broken up with interruptions and interjections on the part of both President and the media.

It is striking, given the criticism of Biden, that his linguistic complexity is basically equivalent to both Presidents Bush—seventh grade. That lags somewhat behind Obama and Clinton, who provided long answers to a relatively small number of questions. These data suggest that the price of long answers with sophisticated language is that fewer questions are asked.

A striking observation is that the linguistic sophistication of media questions to Biden are far below the level observed for every other president examined except Trump. Why?

TABLE 4. Linguistic Sophistication of Questions and Answers


Flesch Kincade Grade Level of Reporter Questions

Flesch-Kincade Grade Level of Presidential Answers

GHW Bush


















Other openings for the press. The formal solo news conference is not the only avenue reporters have to question a president. For many years, the White House has provided transcripts of presidential “Exchanges with Reporters.” These are brief, informal exchanges undertaken at the President’s option. The informality is important because a President’s statements in those exchanges may be much less scripted—and more revealing— than what he says in a formal news conference.

Table 5 shows the number of exchanges with reporters we have coded at the APP. Of the six presidents examined here, in their first three years in office, Biden engaged in exchanges more than both Presidents Bush as well as President Obama. Only Trump and Clinton exceeded Biden’s frequency of exchanges.

Another official source of media information is the “press briefing.” Again, see Table 5. Briefings are relatively frequent (sometimes daily) meetings of the Press Secretary (or other officials) with the White House press corps. In the first three years in office, Biden’s press office had more press briefings than any other president beginning with Clinton (the White House did not provide transcripts of briefings before Clinton).

TABLE 5. Exchanges with Reporters, Press Briefings


Number of “Exchanges with Reporters” First Three Years

Number of Press Briefings, First Three Years

GHW Bush



















Ultimately the issues raised by complaints about Biden’s news conferences require that we define standards of performance that would apply to any president. Do reporters have access? Do they have sufficient opportunity to ask questions? Is the Administration sufficiently forthcoming with information about policy and strategy? And, not least, is the President using his time and resources in a way that best advances his goals and objectives?

In the first three years in office, all of the following are true concerning Biden's performance in solo news conferences starting with George H. W. Bush:

  • Presidents Trump and George W. Bush had fewer solo news conferences than Biden.
  • Biden answered more questions on average than either Clinton or Obama.
  • Media questions and Biden’s answers were shorter than for other Presidents except Trump.
  • Presidents Clinton and Obama exceeded Biden’s linguistic sophistication
  • Presidents Trump and Clinton exceeded Biden’s number of exchanges with reporters.
  • The Biden Administration had more press briefings than any other.

An additional factoid, not mentioned above, is that we believe that Biden's January 2022 solo news conference is the longest for any president.

Undoubtedly Biden has not measured up to media demands in various ways. In that respect, certainly, he is not unique among recent Presidents. But it is always important not to confuse the theatrics of the Presidency with the substance of policy and the realities of citizens’ lives. The ability to sway the public with graceful rhetoric is a great advantage for Presidents. In some circumstances, such rhetorical ability may be essential for effective leadership. Presidents with those abilities have been rare in American life.



[1] Including the New York Times, Washington Post, MSN, The Conversation, among “liberal” media.

[2] Using Clinton as an example, here is an example of a question that is exactly 120 characters long: “Q. Mr. President, do you see any danger to the economy if there is no budget deal this year at all, such as a recession?”

[3] Again using Clinton, this is an example of an answer that is exactly 150 characters long: “The President. They were not just practicing their religion. The Treasury Department believed that they had violated Federal laws, any number of them.”

[4] This Clinton question is 251 characters:  “Q. Mr. President, Roger Altman ran into a real buzz saw in the Whitewater hearings, and even some Democrats are questioning his truthfulness. Does he have the credibility to continue as number two at Treasury? Are you going to ask for his resignation?” Exactly half of the questions to Clinton were longer than that.

[5] The median is exactly halfway in the distribution ranked from low to high, with 50% below and 50% above. This Obama answer which includes him calling on the next questioner, is 1321 characters: “The President. I--look, I definitely feel folks' pain. Somebody is doing a book about the 10 letters that I get every day, and they came by to talk to me yesterday. And they said, what's the overwhelming impression that you get when you read these 10 letters a day? And what I told them is, I'm so inspired by the strength and resilience of the American people, but sometimes I'm also just frustrated by the number of people out there who are struggling, and you want to help every single one individually. You almost feel like you want to be a caseworker and just start picking up the phone and advocating for each of these people who are working hard, trying to do right by their families; oftentimes, through no fault of their own, they've had a tough time, particularly over these last couple of years. So yes, it's frustrating. But my job is to make sure that we're focused over the long term: Where is it that we need to go? And the most important thing I can do as President is make sure that we're living within our means, getting a budget that is sustainable, investing in the future, and growing the economy. If I do that, then that's probably the most help I can give to the most number of people. Jake Tapper [ABC News]. 2011 Federal Budget/Detention of U.S. Government Contractor Raymond A. Davis in Pakistan.” This illustrates how the transcripts include the language of the president calling on a reporter by name, and the White House characterizing the topic considered next. Exactly half of Obama’s answers were longer than this.  Many of the longest “answers” for all presidents are initial statements opening the conference.

[6] We have on the order of 6100 Q and A, so a lot of judgments would be called for.

[7] As calculated by Microsoft Word. Flesch-Kincade is a function of average sentence length and the average number of syllables per word.