Joe Biden exhales as "red wave" runs dry: And he can't wait for Trump-DeSantis grudge match

In rare press conference, Biden admits it will be "fun to watch" GOP rip itself apart after midterm debacle

By Brian Karem


Published November 10, 2022 9:18AM (EST)

President Joe Biden takes questions from reporters in the State Dining Room at the White House on Nov. 9, 2022. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
President Joe Biden takes questions from reporters in the State Dining Room at the White House on Nov. 9, 2022. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Longtime White House correspondent Brian Karem writes a weekly column for Salon.

I begin with a simple question: Would you want to hold public office?

This year's elections make clear that the overwhelming majority of us say no. We all know why. Why do you think politicians suck so bad? Nobody worth a shit wants the job. Or at least few do. Of course, the opposite may be true: Maybe we're all full of shit and politicians do represent the best of us. 

I'm an optimist, however. I think there are people worth a shit who don't want to be involved in politics. 

The same can be said of the press. We attract the best and brightest, in a certain sense. We're a First Amendment necessity that makes democracy possible. It's a potentially exciting profession — being on the front lines, witnessing and reporting on history.

But there's no money in that, folks. So the modern press is nothing more than a money weathervane. Wherever we find the most money, we will be there. And since we're worried about budgets and bottom lines, we don't waste a lot of money hiring decent reporters. Posers? Yes. Ignorant? Yes. But if we get a good hire these days, it's usually by mistake.

In both cases, high-caliber people often avoid these arenas because of money. You have to grovel for it to run for office, and you don't get paid much of it if you're a member of the press. 

Both careers still attract people who are ambitious and committed. Committed to what? I have no idea. We can't field candidates better than high school reprobates and reporters can't report facts worth a damn, but can produce fiction at an alarming rate. You cannot have a functioning democracy without a well-informed electorate — and now you know why politicians don't want you well-informed.

As George Carlin famously pointed out, they want you just smart enough to run the machines.

Watching and reporting on this year's midterm elections — as I have every election since 1984 — was a unique experience for too many reasons to mention. But, underlying all of it is a sense of tiredness among an electorate that knows something is wrong, but because of our voting record in the last half-century, we haven't yet learned what that is.

As a result of our inability to grasp the obvious, we are now in the middle of several fights we thought were over. "The dark times are there. We're making life what it was again in the 1950s," Norm Ornstein said on Mary Trump's show Tuesday night. 

We're fighting for civil rights, women's rights, voters' rights and minority rights. Again? 

Meanwhile, Ron DeSantis announced from Florida Tuesday night that Florida is where wokeism goes to die. He said it with the zeal of a Christian zealot who claims he's a prophet from God. Or at least a prophet who's come to profit.

For you zealots out there, remember your gospel according to Matthew: "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves." Or in some cases, beware of the bully who wields power for his own benefit by exploiting you. Watching Donald Trump and DeSantis taking each other on in a potential race for the 2024 Republican nomination will be like watching two shoeless mud wrestlers beating each other in the head while rolling around in the muck. Can't say it won't be entertaining.

Either way, if it's a horse race, we'll cover it. With the lack of experience in today's press, that's about the only thing left that we can cover — and as this midterm election shows, we can't even get that right. The polls were wrong. The reporting was shallow and driven by politicians and issues were ignored. Issues should drive coverage, not polls. But we haven't figured that out yet. We're stuck "wallerin' in the mud," as my country cousin would say, with the politicians.

We're loving the horse race, baby — because we have devolved into being barely capable of anything else.

Steve Bannon said the media is the battleground. He's not wrong. He's a craven coward, but he's not wrong. And we continue to fail at doing the job, thereby making the battle more problematic and a greater threat to democracy than it reasonably ought to be.

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One thing abundantly clear from the midterm elections is we need better politicians and better reporters.  If Herschel Walker, Lauren Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Jim Jordan and Matt Gaetz can run for office, then the bar is low enough for anyone to do it. Give it a try. I'd trust a crack-dealing Wiccan before I'd trust Lauren Boebert.

The midterms, as it turns out, reflected what many of us already knew: We remain a divided nation. Few politicians are trying to resolve that particular problem and many in the press have no idea how we contribute to it.

No matter — and there's no time for reflection. Joe Biden, who hasn't had a press conference in the White House in 10 months, decided he'd address the midterms Wednesday. Tuesday had been a light day there, with staffers sitting around munching on pizza and furtively glancing about, anxiously speculating on the Democrats and their candidates. By Wednesday morning, the staff was ebullient and hopeful. Tim Ryan's loss in Ohio, along with Sarah Huckabee Sanders' win in Arkansas, gave them cause for concern, but everyone seemed to be enraptured with the possible defeat of Boebert (who as of Thursday morning trails her Democratic opponent by fewer than 100 votes) and the slowly dawning realization that there had been no "red wave." In short, the West Wing was in far better spirits.

The question of which party will lead Congress probably won't be settled for days, but the current administration decided, even with things undecided, that the fact Democrats hadn't gotten slaughtered in the midterms made a presidential victory lap inevitable. Early in the morning, it was obvious the White House staffers were as giddy as a teen on nitrous oxide, but it became obvious the president joined his staff in that elation when he agreed to meet with reporters in a press conference from the State Dining Room. 

Biden's first press conference in 10 months revealed both the best and worst of his administration — and the White House press corps. He was relaxed and funny — and said almost nothing meaningful.

Standing near the infamous brooding portrait of Abraham Lincoln, Biden spoke for about an hour. He wasn't exactly high-energy, but he wasn't boring either. Biden's press conference exposed the best and the worst of both his administration and the White House press corps. Just 10 people were hand-picked to ask him questions. I encouraged him, when I interrupted his reading of the card of hand-picked reporters, to stick around and take a few more from the rest of us who weren't chosen. He smiled and laughed, and then declined, saying he had to make some phone calls. 

Biden's first press conference in 10 months was restricted, shallow and, with few exceptions, devoid of meaning. He reread his stump speech. He acted presidential. He smiled. He made a few jokes. The press played along, for the most part. Part of it was that we've been so starved for direct information from the president that those few reporters who got the chance to ask a question had to cover a lot of ground.

But the differences between Biden and Trump were never more apparent than in his answer to one question. After Trump's midterm losses in 2018, I asked him whether, knowing that impeachment was likely coming, he could put that aside and work with a hostile Congress for the good of the country. He declared he would be at war with Congress. When asked by a reporter nearly the same question on Wednesday — about the prospect of endless GOP investigations into his administration — Biden said he would work with Congress, and that he had no control over what Republicans did. He was there to serve the country.

But follow-ups were tough, because those chosen reporters made sure they took up as much time as possible with their questions. Unfortunately, some of them were inane or insipid (Steve Holland from Reuters being a notable exception). More than 90 other reporters in the room had no input. Biden criticized the press for crucial reporting errors in the run-up to the midterm elections and clearly enjoyed the banter with those who had made those errors, feeding their egos while subtly making fun of them as he did so. He is not Donald Trump. Biden has a sense of humor and a deft touch I've seen him employ many times over the years as he eviscerates those who put him off. He did that on at least two occasions Wednesday.

The highlight of the afternoon was when Biden was asked if he had any plans to investigate Elon Musk after his acquisition of Twitter. Without directly saying yes, Biden said he would definitely support examining Musk, his multiple business interests and his interaction with other countries. I couldn't help but ask, "How?" Although I wasn't on the favored list, he took that one. "Oh, there are a lot of ways," he responded with a hint of glee.

I wonder if Musk soiled himself when he heard that response.

Biden admitted he might enjoy the spectacle of Trump and DeSantis beating each other up if they both vie for the Republican nomination in 2024. As will I! He described the potential wrestling match as "fun to watch."

Biden suggested he'd support examining Elon Musk's multiple business interests and his interactions with other countries. How exactly, I inquired. "Oh, there are a lot of ways."

No kidding. Someone will sell tickets — probably Trump. He's already selling greeting cards, T-shirts, hats, wine glasses, footballs, placemats and Christmas ornaments, along with raffling off tickets to see him perform. He's a regular sideshow with a fascist dog whistle, who makes his followers howl.

The one question Biden faced that truly mattered for American politics — other than the implied threat dropped on Musk's doorstep — was when Holland asked whether he intended to run for a second term. 

Biden said yes, he did intend to, but — looking at his wife, who sat in the first row watching the press conference — added that he'd like to get a week off during the holidays and make a final decision, with the aim of announcing his intentions in the early part of 2023.

As it turns out, Biden is seriously considering the question I posed at the beginning of this column. The bottom line is that no, the Democrats didn't get slaughtered, but they had a tough time fielding decent candidates against misanthropic and fascist competitors who openly defied the Constitution and campaigned on destroying Medicare and Social Security.

You have to wonder how tired Biden is of all of this and how much he's got left for a second term. Then again, when a reporter pointed out that a good two-thirds of the country are not in favor of his policies, he doubled down and said he was still intent on running. 

"Watch me," he said. 

We are.

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East, and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

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Commentary Democrats Donald Trump Elections Joe Biden Republicans Ron Desantis