Convening his first formal news conference Thursday, President Joe Biden stepped into a swirl of issues that have bubbled up at the two-month mark of his presidency, which has been almost exclusively focused until now on confronting the coronavirus pandemic.
He came prepared with a binder of talking points and a goal of staying on message, though at times he meandered and at moments grew defensive.
The President broke new ground on his views of the Senate filibuster, said he expected to run again in 2024, grew irate at the curtailing of voting rights and downplayed the prospect of withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan by the looming deadline.
At a broader level, however, he provided the American people their first extended look at how their president operates, his grasp of his own power and his views toward the future.
Filibuster reform and bipartisanship
It took three questions, but Biden acknowledged Thursday he was ready to look at reforming the Senate filibuster in a major way – including going beyond just reverting to the so-called “standing filibuster.”
“We’re going to have to go beyond what I’m talking about,” he concluded after a lengthy answer about his promises to the American people.
It was a step further than Biden has been willing to go in the past, and reflects the growing recognition that most items on the President’s list of priorities – gun control, immigration, climate change – have little chance of securing passage in an evenly split Senate.
Biden said he was open to making bigger changes to the Senate rule on issues he called “elemental” to democracy such as voting rights, the topic on which he seemed most impassioned.
“I’m convinced that we’ll be able to stop this, because it is the most pernicious thing,” Biden said of attempts by Republican state legislatures to impose new restrictions on voting. “This makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle. I mean, this is gigantic, what they’re trying to do. And it cannot be sustained.”
Later, pressed by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins if he believed with former President Barack Obama that the filibuster is a remnant of Jim Crow, he said he did.
Biden’s had previously sought to strike a delicate balance in weighing in on items like the filibuster, wary of alienating Republicans or coming off as breaking with tradition.
But he seemed less concerned with those matters on Thursday, declaring himself working for the American people and not some vague idea of bipartisanship. Asked about Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who griped on Wednesday he’d only spoken to Biden once since taking office, he shrugged: “I would expect him to say exactly what he said.”
Pressed later about his reelection plans, he openly wondered whether the Republican Party would even exist in three-and-a-half years.
At his back is polling showing many Republicans supportive of his Covid-19 relief bill, which no Republicans in Congress supported. Biden acknowledged that fact, and said it mattered more to him that Republicans in the country backed his agenda than Republicans in the Capitol.
“I’ve not been able to unite the Congress but I’ve been able to unite the country, based on the polling data,” he said.
People who have worked alongside Biden often note he has a temper that sometimes flares when he’s challenged, along with a penchant for long-windedness. Both were on display Thursday.
He asked one reporter “that’s a serious question?” when pressed on conditions at border facilities and chafed at questions about his political future.
“Look, I don’t know where you guys come from, man,” he said.
Biden eventually did say he planned to run for reelection in 2024 – something he hadn’t said before – but acknowledged that events may intervene.
“I’m a great respecter of fate. I’ve never been able to plan four and a half, three and a half years ahead for certain,” he said.
The question about his political plans put Biden’s age in sharper focus than it has been so far in his presidency, and at moments during his news conference it was clear the 78-year-old Biden was relying on scripted talking points.
At other moments he trailed off, abruptly ending answers when he seemed to be meandering.
“Am I giving you too long an answer?” he asked several minutes into an answer on immigration. “Maybe I should stop there.”
Still, Biden demonstrated a firm grasp on the wide array of issues confronting his presidency and seemed impassioned by topics ranging from voting rights to infrastructure. He was also self-deprecating at points and seemed to genuinely respect the assembled press corps, a sharp break from his predecessor.
At times he did grow defensive, particularly when pressed on his administration’s record in stemming the surge of migrants on the southern border. His advisers do not believe occasional flashes of anger are necessary a bad thing for Biden.
But his news conference was not marked by open hostility in the same way President Donald Trump’s were. Biden sarcastically mourned Trump’s absence.
“My predecessor,” he said. “Oh, God, I miss him.”
Biden has relentlessly focused on combating the coronavirus pandemic since taking office. One of the reasons a news conference was put off so long, according to White House officials, was that Biden’s time was overwhelmingly preoccupied by the response.
Yet the news conference came at a moment when other issues were swirling. Biden entered the event hoping to turn attention back to his Covid-19 response by naming a new goal on vaccinations – 200 million in his first 100 days. And later he sought to frame his entire early presidency around the pandemic response.
“When I took office I decided that it was a fairly basic, simple proposition. I got elected to solve problems,” he said.
It turned out his desire to insert his pandemic response back into the conversation was warranted; it did not arise in any of the questions posed by reporters.
Later, it was evident that Biden’s next priority – a package on infrastructure – is set to dominate his forthcoming legislative agenda. He was asked a question about gun control in the wake of two mass shootings that killed 18 people over the past week.
But he quickly acknowledged that wasn’t where he is headed in Congress.
“Successful presidents, better than me, have been successful in large part because they’ve know how to time what they’re doing,” he said, launching in a lengthy answer that went from improving drinking water to removing asbestos to making buildings more efficient.
For a president whose “first love” is foreign policy, according to aides, the issue has not been central to the early part of his presidency.
That seems due to change in the coming weeks as he faces decisions on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, punishing Russia for its role in a massive cyber attack, responding to provocations from North Korea and developing a strategy to deal with an emboldened China.
On Thursday, Biden provided some new insights into how he views his role on the global stage. He suggested a renewed focus on improving relationships with American allies after a tumultuous four years under Trump.
But he also acknowledged certain areas where he finds himself confronting the very same issues as his predecessor without a new approach.
He acknowledged that it would be “hard” to meet a May 1 deadline for withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan, but said he could not picture troops there next year.
He said Wednesday’s ballistic missile tests from North Korea violated UN Security Council resolutions, and vowed a response if the situation escalates, but said – like Trump – he was willing to give diplomacy a chance if conditioned “on the end result of denuclearization.”
And though he declined to answer specific questions about Trump-era tariffs on China, saying they “only touch a smidgen of what the relationship with China really is about,” his administration has left them in place for now, believing they provide leverage for future negotiations.
Asked if North Korea was still the top foreign policy issue he was currently facing – something Obama warned Trump would be the case when he entered office in 2016 – Biden said it was.
“Yes,” he said, without elaborating.
The most sustained line of questioning at Thursday’s news conference was around the issue of immigration at the southern border, which the administration has refused to define as a “crisis.”
Biden also sought to downplay the number of migrants crossing into the United States, saying it a seasonal increase that mapped with previous years. He sharply rejected suggestions that more migrants were coming to the United States because of a set of rule changes he enacted that allow some unaccompanied minors to remain in the country.
He said he would never tell migrant child arriving in the country along “we’re just gonna let him starve to death and stand on the other side.”
“No previous administrations did that either, except Trump,” he said. “I’m not going to do it.”
At its heart, Biden’s argument is that the current immigration situation was aggravated by policies enacted under his predecessor, which he said made it harder to house and process migrant children.
He said with more time to enact new policies and rebuild the processing system, the current situation will be alleviated. And he claimed he’d directed top officials to speed up the pace at which relatives of migrant children are contacted to move them from government shelters.
“It’s going to get a whole hell of a lot better real quick or we’re going to hear some people leaving,” he said. “We can get this done. We’re going to get it done.”