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Joe Biden has a communication problem. Jen Psaki isn’t helping

Biden’s press secretary has gained fans for her sarcastic responses to reporters’ questions. But the press isn’t the enemy.

By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON, DC – On 6 December, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, stood at the podium before the press corps and mocked the idea of sending Covid tests directly to people’s homes. 

NPR’s Mara Liasson asked why rapid tests were so much harder to find in the US than they were in the UK. “Why not just make ’em free and give ’em out, make them available everywhere?” Liasson asked. 

“Should we just send one to every American?” Psaki responded, sarcastically. When Liasson replied, “Maybe,” Psaki shot back: “Then every American would have one test.” 

Despite coming into the job promising transparency and truth, Psaki has perhaps become better known for her “clapbacks” – caustic responses to reporters’ questions – in the briefing room. Her supporters use the hashtag “#PsakiBomb”. Yet to many observers of the 6 December exchange, it was a needlessly sharp and ultimately evasive response to a reasonable question.

I will not begrudge people who find joy in rooting for the White House press secretary, hashtagging along as they would live-tweet a favourite television programme. But the White House press briefings are not, or at least shouldn’t be, primarily held for entertainment. They are a time for the press to hold the most powerful people in the country to account, and for those people to try to provide some clarity to the country. And Psaki is not a character on a television show: she is tasked with explaining on behalf of the White House what is happening during what is, in many ways, a confusing time.  

It’s worth pointing out that Psaki didn’t pioneer the combative dynamic. White House press briefings became, for some, appointment viewing during the Trump era: they were even parodied on late-night sketch-comedy show Saturday Night Live, and Trump’s press secretaries regularly scrapped with reporters. But there is a wide chasm between the ideal of providing truth and transparency and a press secretary scoffing at the idea of free tests. 

That’s a chasm that the Biden White House should want to close. The fault isn’t only with the press secretary, of course. The Biden administration is polling in the 30s, which suggests that it has a general communications problem. Namely, that the American public isn’t aware of the successes Biden has had. For example: Biden has the best economic indicators of any president since Jimmy Carter, and yet, at the same time, is suffering from the worst first-year economic polling of any president since – that’s right – Jimmy Carter.  

Still, with Biden plunging in the polls, every person who can help pull the administration out of crisis should do so. The nation is still in the throes of the pandemic. The more information that can be communicated clearly, directly, and respectfully to the public – without snark or sarcasm – the better. (The administration would be wise to also stop telling people who want information on the nation’s Covid testing resources to “google it”, as the vice-president Kamala Harris did in a televised interview).  

And, in the end, Psaki’s fateful 6 December comment was not for naught. After widespread outcry over her response, the White House announced that rapid tests would indeed be sent out to every American. As of this week, every household can request a set of four.  

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