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WASHINGTON — By turns defiant, reflective and hopeful, President Biden used just the second press conference of his presidency on U.S. soil to argue that his administration has hardly been the moribund and aimless affair depicted by Republicans and in some media reports.
While acknowledging that his first year was marked by a number of challenges, both foreseen and not, the president offered an optimistic vision of the crucial months ahead, in which both parties will prepare for November’s midterm elections.
He described his agenda as realistic and achievable, despite a Republican opposition that he admitted caught him off guard. “I'm not asking for castles in the sky,” he said at one point of his embattled domestic proposals. “I’m asking for practical things the American people have been asking for for a long time. A long time. And I think we can get it done.”
Lasting nearly two hours, Biden’s press conference was nearly 30 minutes longer than the longest press conferences of either presidents Obama or Trump. As such, it was a demonstration that Biden is not the enfeebled senior portrayed nightly by Fox News pundits.
“I am still standing,” he joked as the press conference approached the two-hour mark and darkness fell over Washington.
Here are the key developments, revelations and unanswered questions from the press conference:
On COVID, Biden admits to testing miscalculation
Having declared near independence from the coronavirus in July, the president has spent the fall and winter battling the Delta and Omicron variants, which together have deprived him of the broad national reopening he had hoped for.
Biden acknowledged that his administration didn’t ramp up production of rapid tests during a critical pandemic lull throughout the spring and early summer, when the nation's thin stockpile could have been bolstered.
“Should we have done more testing earlier? Yes. But we’re doing more now,” he said. The administration has begun offering free rapid tests through a website this week, but critics say the effort comes too late and is not large enough in scope.
The president acknowledged the difficulties of the present moment and tenuously pointed to life beyond the coronavirus. “After almost two years of physical, emotional and psychological impact of this pandemic, for many of us, it’s been too much to bear,” Biden said, describing an exasperation with the pandemic that his own poll numbers reflect.
“Some people may call what’s happening now a ‘new normal.’ I call it a job not yet finished,” Biden said to the masked journalists seated before him in the East Room of the White House. “It will get better, we’re moving toward a time when COVID-19 won’t disrupt our daily lives.”
Reframing school closures
School closures have presented a persistent problem for Biden, a longtime ally of the same unions who, earlier in the pandemic, resisted having their members return to in-person instruction. Schools are now open, but not everywhere and not quite as consistently as many parents would like.
“Very few schools are closing, 95 percent are still open,” the president said. While that may be statistically correct, it does not entirely acknowledge how politically charged the issue has become. He later alluded to that reality, pointing out that when schools closed, they were “always going to be the top of the news.”
In response to a question from Yahoo News, Biden acknowledged that Republicans would likely use school closures as a wedge issue in the congressional midterms, even if school closures were no longer an issue by that time.
“I think it could be,” Biden said. Democrats are increasingly concerned about that prospect.
Republicans are to blame for…well, everything
Biden was vice president to Barack Obama, whom then-Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell determined to make a one-term president. He didn’t succeed, but did stifle his agenda at every turn.
Now Biden is discovering a similar scenario. "I did not anticipate that there'd be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn't get anything done,” he said on Wednesday.
Republicans have stymied passage of his massive Build Back Better domestic spending plan, as well as his proposal to enshrine broader voting rights protections in the face of state-level Republican efforts that experts and activists say could discourage election participation. Asked by a reporter if both measures were stuck at the moment, the usually expansive Biden was blunt, responding, “That’s true.”
Nevertheless, he predicted that aspects of the Build Back Better agenda — which includes provisions on climate change and childhood poverty, among other measures popular with progressives — would pass in “large chunks,” if not as the single showstopper legislation he had hoped for. And he described his recent voting rights effort as earnest, not merely an attempt to show activists he was on their side. “I’ve had their back,” Biden said at one point of the African American voters whose participation in the electoral process Republican efforts appear to be targeting.
At times growing indignant, Biden wondered rhetorically if Republicans had any agenda other than stopping his own: “What are they for?”
Asked by Yahoo News why he thought he would receive better treatment than Obama, Biden said that the party that has effectively endorsed the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol as a justifiable response to his own election was not the same one he had encountered as vice president, when he was regularly dispatched to Capitol Hill.
“They weren’t nearly as obstructionist as they are now,” Biden told Yahoo News, citing Republicans who at that time were willing to work with Democrats, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Lindsey Graham, who years later would become one of Trump’s staunchest supporters.
“They had an agenda” back then, Biden said, “but I don’t know what their agenda is now.”
Questioning the integrity of the 2022 elections
A recent report from the States United Democracy Center found Republicans in 41 states introducing 262 different bills to “subvert free and fair election administration.”
It was with that reality in mind that Biden told reporters that he could not be sure that the 2022 midterms would be conducted with integrity. The remark came as he compared legislators unwilling to back his electoral reforms as being in league with notorious segregationists like Bull Connor and George Wallace — a comparison he defended, sometimes angrily, on Wednesday.
His remarks about 2022 represented a further evolution of that argument. “I’m not saying it’s going to be legit,” the president said of the congressional midterms, arguing that without broader federal protections, state-level efforts by Republicans would deprive of the democratic process of fundamental credibility. “The increase in the prospect of being illegitimate is in direct proportion to us not being able to get these reforms passed.”
As the president spoke from the White House, the Senate prepared to vote on a voting rights bill whose demise was a foregone conclusion, given the public opposition of Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, both of whom are Democrats.
Biden argued that his concerns about 2022 justified new voting rights protections. “It all depends on whether or not we’re able to make the case to the American people that some of this is being set up to try to alter the outcome of the election,” the president said.
‘My guess is’ Putin will invade Ukraine
Although Biden faces no shortage of challenges at home, Russia’s deployment of troops to the Ukrainian border signals a growing rupture in Europe’s postwar order. Biden has threatened tough sanctions on Russia, but his response on Wednesday to questions about the looming conflict in Eastern Europe only revealed just how much about the volatile situation remains unclear, including what the United States is — and is not — willing to do to help a longtime ally.
A former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden prides himself on an experience with international affairs that both Trump and Obama notably lacked. Along with Iran, Russia presents the greatest challenge to his conception of the United States as the leader of the global community.
Perhaps most noteworthy was Biden’s admission that he believed that Vladimir Putin would “move in” to sovereign Ukraine territory, much as Russian forces did when they invaded their much smaller and less powerful neighbor in 2014. At the same time, he predicted that the campaign would amount to a “minor incursion,” which only raised questions about what kind of response that would merit from the White House.
An outright invasion, Biden said, would result in heavy penalties for Putin. “He's never seen sanctions like the ones I promised to impose if he moves," he warned. At the same time, he held out hope that Putin would understand that outright war would not benefit the Kremlin in the long run. He suggested that the Russian leader was “trying to find his place in the world.”