President Joe Biden spent 90 minutes Thursday night answering questions from CNN’s Anderson Cooper as well as a town hall audience on a wide variety of topics from the fate of his domestic agenda to supply chain issues and the timeline of vaccine distribution for kids.
I watched it all. Below are six takeaways from the night that was.
Biden made news on several fronts when it came to direct questions as to whether he would support getting rid of the filibuster.
The President said he couldn’t push on overhauling the filibuster at the moment because it would cost him three votes that he needs to pass his domestic agenda. But, when pressed on whether – if and when those bills pass – he would support abolishing the 60-vote standard to end unlimited debate on a bill seeking to protect voting rights, Biden seemed to indicate he would, adding: “And maybe more.”
The political reality, of course, is that Biden’s support (or lack thereof) for getting rid of the legislative filibuster is not necessarily indicative of much. Both West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema have said they oppose getting rid of the filibuster – and Democrats can’t change the Senate rules with all 50 of their side’s votes.
Bipartisanship isn’t dead
Biden, as he has done throughout his presidency and dating back to his campaign, relentlessly defended the idea that not only can bipartisanship exist in this modern age of politics but something that has to exist.
“Bipartisanship and compromise still has to be possible,” Biden said early in the town hall.
Of course, the real challenge for Biden isn’t to recruit Republicans in the House or Senate – it’s to convince Manchin and Sinema to get on board. And Biden was very careful to only sing their praises. He called Sinema “smart as the devil” and said that Manchin was “not a bad guy. He’s a friend.”
What’s NOT in the infrastructure bills
Question after question from the audience centered on what was being stripped from the social safety net measure – Biden called it the “care economy” bill – currently being negotiated among Democrats in Congress.
There was a question of dental and hearing coverage not being covered in the bill. And one about free community college being stripped from the legislation. Over and over the focus was what wasn’t in the bill rather than what remains. And one on the climate change provisions on the verge of being taken out of the bill.
That is certainly not what Biden and his White House had hoped as he seeks to sell the twin pieces of legislation to the public.
Been there, done that
Biden opened the town hall joking that he had been in the Senate for “370 years” – emphasizing that he was “relatively good at putting together deals.” He then insisted – in a surprise to me at least – that the efforts to pass both a so-called hard infrastructure plan and a broader (and more expensive) social security net legislation was not the toughest deal he had ever negotiated.
What was that deal? The assault weapons ban, which Biden noted he negotiated and passed. He also repeatedly expressed optimism that he could make a deal happen, noting that they were “down to four or five issues. I think we can get there.”
Biden’s grace note on mental health
In a country in which mental health remains stigmatized to many, Biden took a moment to recognize that the pandemic has been extremely difficult not just on our physical health but our mental health too.
“A broken spirit is no different than a broken arm,” he said. “Seek the help.”
After four years of a president who seemed entirely without empathy, it was a moment of real humanity that stood out.
The walk back
Within an hour of the conclusion of the town hall, the White House was working to hedge on Biden’s pledges on using the National Guard to help address supply chain issues and to protect Taiwan in the event of a Chinese incursion. That walking back reflects Biden’s tendency to go beyond administration policy — only to have aides hedge.