Joe Biden seemed to have a lot he wanted to get off his chest. Just over an hour into the second press conference of his presidency and the first since his approval ratings plummeted this fall, Biden stopped referring to his seating chart printed with reporters’ faces and names and started calling on anyone shouting questions. “How long are you guys ready to go?” Biden asked. “You want to go for another hour?”
For 111 minutes, Biden stood at the lectern under the crystal chandeliers of the White House East Room and defiantly touted his Administration’s accomplishments during a low moment in his presidency. Biden could have reset the tone and charted a new course for his second year, following months of bad news about another spike in COVID-19 infections, skyrocketing prices, the fallout from a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and Democratic party infighting that has stalled major pieces of legislation.
Instead, Biden doubled down. One day before the anniversary of his inauguration, Biden defended the record of his first year in office, pointing out that he pushed COVID-19 relief funding into American bank accounts, rolled out vaccines to 200 million Americans, saw record employment gains and passed a bipartisan, trillion-dollar investment in America’s infrastructure. On Afghanistan, Biden said he makes “no apologies” for his decision to withdraw, despite the country falling into the hands of the Taliban and the humanitarian disaster unfolding now.
“I didn’t over promise,” Biden declared about his first year in office. “And I have probably outperformed what anybody thought would happen.”
At the day of the press conference, Biden’s approval rating was just 41.9%, according to a polling average tracked by FiveThirtyEight. But the President deflected his low poll ratings and other challenges like the supply chain issues as the results of the lingering pandemic. “I know there’s a lot of frustration and fatigue in this country,” he said. “And we know why: COVID-19.”
Biden acknowledged a few missteps on taming the virus. He said he could have ramped up COVID-19 testing months before his Administration announced in January it would order a billion tests to be made available to the public. “Should we have done more testing earlier? Yes. But we’re doing more now,” Biden said. He has been criticized for focusing his COVID-19 strategy too much on vaccinations and not enough on bringing sufficient resources to making at-home test kits and high-quality masks cheaper and more widely available. But he said he’s going to stick with his Administration’s emphasis on vaccinations “because vaccinations work.” Being vaccinated and boosted greatly reduces the likelihood of dying or being hospitalized if infected with COVID-19.
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On legislation, Biden drew a stark contrast with the Republicans in Congress, who he depicted as obstructionists who stand for nothing. “One thing I haven’t been able to do is get my Republican friends to get in the game to make things better,” he said. “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 blamed a Republican blockade for stymieing him in Congress, despite the fact that the Build Back Better Bill—a cornerstone of his economic agenda—and voting rights bills have been held up by opposition from his own party.
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As Biden spoke, the voting rights bills he supports were on their way to an expected failure in the Senate. One of the main obstacles to his agenda, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, stood on the Senate floor during Biden’s press conference and he wouldn’t cave to Democrats’ scramble to change Senate rules to pass voting rights bills with 51 votes, instead of 60 needed to overcome a filibuster. Manchin, a Democrat, also torpedoed the Build Back Better bill at the end of 2021, and Biden vowed at his presser to try to carve the package into “big chunks” to pass with Manchin’s support in 2022, including measures on climate change and access to early childhood education.
He may not have much time. With an evenly-divided Senate and a narrow Democratic majority in the House, the midterm elections in November could flip control of Congress. Biden said that in his second year, he plans to get out of Washington more, seek more outside advice, and hit the road to campaign for Democrats. He said he planned to be “deeply involved” in midterm congressional races and to be “raising a lot of money” to try to prevent Democrats losing their hold on Congress.
The White House had to clarify some of Biden’s comments from the press conference Wednesday evening, after he implied that the U.S. response if Russia invades Ukraine might be less significant if it’s a “minor incursion.” Biden said: “I think what you’re going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades, and it depends on what it does. It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and we end up having to fight about what to do and not to do.” Afterwards, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki released a statement saying, “President Biden has been clear with the Russian President: If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our Allies.”
It was the first time Biden held a formal White House press conference since March 25. Biden has held fewer total news conferences during his first year in office than any modern president since Ronald Reagan, according to a tally kept by the American Presidency Project at the University of California Santa Barbara. He’s granted fewer sit down interviews while in office than any recent president.
Biden implored viewers to look at his record “on balance.” “What is the trajectory of the country? Is it moving in the right direction now?” Biden asked. “I don’t know how we can say it’s not.” The question facing his party is whether voters agree.
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