Wednesday at the White House, press secretary Jen Psaki briefed the press after the Covid response team, led by scientists, delivered one of their three times per week sessions. At the State Department, spokesperson Ned Price briefed. And at the Pentagon, reporters got the chance to speak with the NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, the best title in government after President, from Brussels via a telephonic briefing.
Actually, if you can manage to put the last four years out of your mind, it’s not really that unusual to see this many briefings. Before Donald Trump, the White House, State Department and Department of Defense held regularly scheduled briefings. The Trump administration quickly moved away from this tradition by holding sporadic White House briefings, at one point 400 days passed between briefings, while the State Department and Pentagon virtually abandoned the exercise.
For sure, there is symbolic value in holding regular briefings at the White House and national security agencies. The Biden administration is sending a strong symbol that transparency and accountability, two things lacking in the previous administration, will be central to how the government will work moving forward.
But it goes well beyond symbolism. Reporters now can depend on regular access to senior officials and spokespeople. The public also has the ability to watch the briefings live or read a transcript later to stay in touch with what their government is doing. And it’s not just being responsive to all questions from the media. We can all learn as much from the questions that are avoided or evaded to fully appreciate what the government is doing right and, what the government is doing wrong.
Briefings makes for better government as a whole. Regularly scheduled ones impose discipline and accountability. The discipline comes from having to make decisions in a timely way — namely, in time for the briefing. Staffers know explicitly that there is a ticking clock on all decisions, forcing them to come to one. It also forces coordination between agencies. The worst of all worlds is the White House briefing at odds with either the State Department or the Department of Defense.
Most importantly, it enforces accountability. Staffers know that the administration’s spokespeople will be held accountable for everything they do. It’s a powerful and practical reminder of the value of doing the right thing.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the new briefings is not what gets said on a regular calendar, it’s what isn’t said. Two full weeks in, there has not been a single attack on the press as the “enemy of the people.” There’s been no time trying to explain away late-night and early-morning tweets.
There have been no gratuitous attacks on the opposite party or on those in your own party that you disagree with. And, most of all, there has not been the kind of political theater, posturing and aggressive diatribes that became the trademark of Kayleigh McEnany.
Most of all, Jen Psaki at the White House, John Kirby at the Pentagon and Ned Price at State are using decades of experience and credibility built up by being straight with reporters even when the news is not good. Psaki spent years at both the White House and State Department and has earned the benefit of the doubt through that service. Kirby is returning to his old job at the Pentagon and Price moves to State after working in the Central Intelligence Agency (Both Psaki and Kirby were CNN commentators until recently).
Each of President Biden’s picks sends a strong message about how important he sees accountability and transparency in government. Remember, it took less than a day for Sean Spicer, Trump’s first press secretary, to squander any credibility he had built up over his years in Washington to back on the President’s bizarre claims about inaugural crowd size.
Time will tell if this commitment to keep the press and public informed will be honored in the long term. But the early results are in — both from a symbolic scheduling perspective and the performance of each of these communicators. Things are very different under Biden and that’s good for the government, the media and, most importantly, the American public.