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Covering Obama, then Trump, now Biden: What’s changed?


We’re now more than a week out of the Trump era and a week into the Biden era.

CNN’s What Matters newsletter talked to CNN reporter Kevin Liptak, who has covered the White House since the Obama administration, about what’s changed so far — and what effect we’ve seen the presidency take on the man who just took the oath of office.

You can read all of Kevin’s stories, which are some of the best-written in the business, here.

The conversation, conducted by email, is below.

Immediate differences

WHAT MATTERS: We’ve all read about how President Joe Biden is essentially trying to undo what President Donald Trump did — or at least to appear to be doing so. What are the immediate changes for journalists under a Biden administration?

LIPTAK: The return of the daily White House briefing, which began hours after Biden was sworn into office, is the most concrete change and seemed to have been done to overtly signal a return to a more “normal” relationship with the press corps.

That has extended to the hours of briefing calls and reams of fact sheets the White House has distributed on its daily executive actions. It’s all a return to how press relations was done under administrations before Trump, whose era in the White House was defined by open hostility to reporters.

Of course, it was also marked by rampant leaking and almost radical insight into the presidential psyche, via Twitter and his unguarded press conferences. So for what we’ve gained in civility and professionalism I think we probably have lost in knowing what the President is thinking at any given moment.

Obama vs. Trump vs. Biden?

WHAT MATTERS: You also covered Barack Obama as President. How has the day to day has been different under these three men?

LIPTAK: Covering the start of any administration is busier and more exciting than the middle or end. So covering Biden has been busy. But it’s far more predictable than covering Trump when late-night firings became regular, and his tweets could end up taking over a weekend or holiday.

Biden’s aides have developed a pretty regular routine where they brief on his actions ahead of time, he unveils them midday and then there’s another briefing thrown in there. The evenings are quiet, unlike Trump, who enjoyed tweeting along to his television shows at night. Biden’s pattern is more similar to the Obama administration, which also briefed during the day.

The one difference so far is the lack of travel; Obama was on the road every week, but so far Biden has remained in Washington.

A changed Biden?

WHAT MATTERS: Have you already noticed anything different about how Biden acts as President compared to how he acted as vice president? He seems less “Uncle Joe” to me.

LIPTAK: The nature of Biden’s appearances so far has been much less conducive to the avuncular style he once was known for. That seemed to start on the campaign trail, maybe to give voters the impression he could adopt a more commanding attitude if elected President.

Now we see him for a few minutes every day, usually standing at a podium announcing new executive actions and then signing them. It’s all very stage-managed. He has answered a few tossed questions and my colleague Kaitlan Collins was able to catch him in a West Wing hallway.

But the side of Biden we’re more familiar with — the backslapping guy who knows your grandma — seems for now to be kept under wraps.

Who is most accessible?

WHAT MATTERS: Has Biden been more or less accessible than Obama so far? Trump?

LIPTAK: I don’t think any president will be as accessible as Trump. The unfiltered window into what he was feeling or doing — whether on Twitter, his press availabilities or leaks — was unparalleled. Much of it was dishonest, he lied rampantly and used his platform to incite violence. But there was rarely a moment when we didn’t know where he stood.

Whether that hurt or helped him I guess is debatable, but he lost the election in part because voters didn’t believe he was up to managing a crisis, an impression fueled by his many unguarded appearances.

Biden so far has been much more calculating in how he interacts with the press, which follows the pattern set by Obama. He does seem willing to answer shouted questions, even jokingly, which Obama didn’t always do.

The permanent effect of Trump

WHAT MATTERS: We’ve all read stories about how Trump changed the presidency forever. I think I might have written some of those stories, even. What’s the assessment a week in of the new guy?

LIPTAK: If anything, Biden and his team are trying to demonstrate the presidency can return to what it was before Trump. I think that’s an active goal of theirs rather than just a side effect of how they’re approaching the job. But it’s going to take a lot more than a return to regular order at the White House to restore the faith in institutions that Trump actively sought to erode during his presidency.

Biden inherited a job that became smaller under Trump — people no longer looked to the Oval Office for a role model or a leadership figure — and in a country so polarized it remains to be seen whether, once it’s gone, that’s something that can be easily restored.

What kind of President will Biden be?

WHAT MATTERS: Obama was transformative as the first Black President. Trump was reflexive, promising to restore what Obama ended. What does Biden represent so far?

LIPTAK: Biden has been unashamed to frame his presidency around undoing what Trump did during his four years in office. That was his pitch to voters, even as other candidates offered something more visionary. And that has animated his first week in office, which is all about dismantling Trump’s agenda.

But I also think he sees himself as a bridge to the next generation of political leaders. He’s tried to stock his Cabinet and staff with diverse picks who he believes can be propelled to bigger things by serving under him. So I think it’s a combination of repairing Trump’s damage and ushering in a new era — both items he’s been explicit about — which makes him something of a transitional figure.

Fitting the presidency around Covid safety

WHAT MATTERS: You ask questions for a living. What should I have asked but didn’t?

LIPTAK: One thing that’s struck me in covering Biden is the way his team is approaching Covid at the White House itself. Trump’s team famously downplayed the pandemic and most of them caught it (including Trump himself). Biden’s aides have gone in the complete opposite direction, limiting numbers of people in the West Wing and mandating testing and masks.

It will be the first chance we see whether the presidency can operate effectively without much traveling or meeting in person. Trump seemed to think it couldn’t and determined his work was too important to shut down. But Biden’s entire stock-in-trade is his personal relationships and I wonder how that will work going forward.

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