Biden Defends Record, Vows to Get Out and Talk to Americans Face to Face
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s second solo press conference since taking office turned into a marathon lasting one hour and 45 minutes on Wednesday as he was repeatedly pressed to defend his first year in office and lay out a vision for himself, his political party and the nation in this, his second year.
The president, almost always soft-spoken in public, appeared to grow stronger and more engaged as the back and forth continued, with many of his strongest remarks coming in his second hour at the podium.
As he entered the East Room of the White House with a modest “howdy folks” and a nod to the gathered reporters, Biden looked every bit the man who had just received the worst job approval of his presidency.
According to a Morning Consult/Politico poll released Wednesday morning, just 40% of voters approve of Biden’s job performance, while 56% disapprove, record lows and highs, respectively, the pollsters said, from nearly 50 Morning Consult/Politico surveys conducted since he took office.
A majority of Democratic voters (78%) still said they approve of how Biden is doing his job, but the pollsters said his support is weak, with only 34% saying “strongly approve” of his job performance, a number that’s fallen 6 percentage points over the past week and is down 15 points since the beginning of December.
Meanwhile, 91% of Republicans disapprove of Biden’s work in office, while 59% of independents disapprove.
Both figures are in line with the lack of support he’s received from both groups of voters over the past two months.
In the opening minutes of the press conference Biden laid blame for those perceptions on the coronavirus pandemic and the related rise in the nation’s inflation rate, acknowledging both have left many Americans burned out and frustrated.
Despite the current level of his approval numbers, Biden was unbowed by what he described as “a year of challenges” saying in his next breath that it was also a year “of enormous progress.”
“We went from 2 million people being vaccinated at the moment I was sworn into office to 210 million Americans being fully vaccinated today; we created 6 million new jobs, more jobs in one year than any time before; unemployment dropped to 3.9%; child poverty dropped by nearly 40% — the biggest drop ever in American history.
“Business applications grew by 30% … and for the first time in a long time, working people actually got raises,” the president said, adding, “We’ve seen record job creation, record economic growth and now thanks to the bipartisan infrastructure bill, we are about to make a record investment in rebuilding America and taking us to having the best infrastructure in the world.”
Still, for all this progress, Biden acknowledged, “there’s a lot of frustration out there and we know why: COVID-19.
“We’ve been doing everything we can, learning and adapting as fast as we can to prepare for the future … but after almost two years of physical, emotional and psychological impact of this pandemic, for many of us, it’s been too much to bear.”
“Some people may call what’s happening now ‘the new normal.’ I call it a job not yet finished. It will get better.”
“We are not there yet, but we will get there,” he added.
Biden also acknowledged how tricky managing a tenacious pandemic can be.
“I’m going to stick with our [strategy] of boosting the vaccination numbers because vaccinations work,” he said at one point. “Should we have done more testing earlier? Yes. But we’re doing more now … we’re in a better place than we have been thus far,” he said.
A More Productive Economy Will Tamp Down Inflation Woes
If COVID-19 has proven to have unwelcome staying power on the public health front, it is also “creating a lot of economic complications” not the least of which are “rapid price increases across the world,” the president said.
He went on to say a key player in making sure the elevated prices don’t become more entrenched will be the Federal Reserve, which he said has a dual mandate of creating conditions conducive to full employment and stable prices.
“The Federal Reserve provided extraordinary support to the economy during the crisis of the previous year,” Biden said, calling on the Senate to approve his pending nominees to the Federal Reserve board as quickly as possible.
“Here at the White House and for my friends in Congress, I say the best thing to tackle high prices is [creating conditions] for a more productive economy, including a greater capacity to deliver goods and services to the American people. … and I’ve laid out a three-part plan to do just that.”
He explained the first part of that plan was the recently passed bipartisan infrastructure bill, the second part is the Build Back Better plan currently stalled in the Senate which among many, many other things, aims to dramatically lower child care costs for most American families.
Finally, Biden said, it’s key that the nation’s leaders do all they can to promote competition in the economy.
“Capitalism without competition is not capitalism, it’s exploitation,” the president said.
No Over-Promising Here
The first question the president was asked is whether he over promised the American people in terms of what he could accomplish in his first year.
“I didn’t over promise, but I have probably out-performed just about anybody you could name, in terms of their first year,” Biden said. “And I think if you take a look at what we’ve done, you’d have to acknowledge we’ve made enormous progress.
“What I did not anticipate was that there would be such a stalwart effort to make sure the most important thing for the Republicans to do was to make sure Biden didn’t get anything done,” the president said. “Think about it. What are Republicans for? Name me one thing they’re for. … So I think what I have to do is change tactics and do more to make clear to the American people exactly what we have done. We’re passed a lot … and we’ve done a lot of [good] things that people don’t even understand.”
Biden said one of the big differences people will see this year as compared to the last is him being on the road “making the case around the country, with my colleagues running for reelection and others, about what we did do and what we want to do going forward.”
The president also rejected the suggestion that after apparent losses in regard to his Build Back Better plan and the failure to pass sweeping voting rights legislation, he needs to scale back his priorities.
“No. I don’t think so,” Biden said. “You all know the reality of politics in this country. People overwhelmingly agree with me when it comes to the cost of prescription drugs, they overwhelmingly agree with me when it comes to the cost of education, they overwhelmingly agree with me on the importance of early education … I can go right down the list. But we knew all along that a lot of this was going to be an uphill fight. So what we have to do now is go out and make our case and make sure the contrast between what we are for and [the Republicans] are for is as clear as we can.”
“Some suggest I need to scale back my priorities and be more realistic. But I’m not asking for castles in the sky … I’m trying to get important things done that we’ve needed for a long time and I think we can get it done,” he said.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, a Voting Rights Bill Dies
As the president continued to speak with reporters, just two miles away on Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats were growing ever closer to losing a vote to change the chamber’s filibuster rules, a critical “must do” in order for them to pass sweeping voting reform legislation.
The effort to tame the filibuster failed due to the opposition of Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
Manchin and Sinema also played a key role in blocking the Build Back Better plan.
Both pieces of legislation came up repeatedly during the press conference.
Of Build Back Better, the president conceded “It’s clear … we’re probably going to have to break it up.”
“I’ve talked to a number of my colleagues, and I think it’s clear that we would be able to get support for $500 billion for the energy and the environmental provisions in the bill.
“[In addition], the two people who’ve opposed the bill on the Democratic side do support a number of things that are in it … for example, Joe Manchin strongly supports early childhood education … So I think we could break the package up, get as much as we can now, and then come back and fight for the rest,” Biden said.
When it came to the voting rights bill, one reporter recalled asking Biden some 10 months ago whether there was anything he could do — beyond the passage of legislation — to protect voting rights from the onslaught of voting restrictions that had been adopted in Republican-led states.
At the time, she remembered, Biden said yes, but went to say “I’m not going to lay out a strategy for you and the world.”
“Now that the legislation appears to be hopelessly stalled,” she asked, “can you now lay out your strategy to protect voting?”
“I’m not prepared to do that in detail,” he said. “In terms of the executive orders I may do, things like that. I can tell you we have significantly beefed up the number of enforcers in the Justice Department, who are there to challenge what, in our view, are unconstitutional efforts to predetermine the outcome of elections.
“We have begun to organize in ways that we didn’t before in communities beyond the civil rights community to make the case to the rest of American people of what’s about to happen … What will happen if, in fact, these things fail,” Biden said. “If I talked to the public about this earlier … the whole idea of the subversion of elections … and people deciding who the electors are after the fact. … I think people would have looked at me like my students used to in the Separation of Powers class I taught for a few years on Saturday mornings when I was still in the Senate.
“If I had said, ‘What we’re talking about is state legislatures being able to choose their own slate of electors and have them say I didn’t win the election but the Republican candidate did’ I doubt anybody would have believed that could happen in 21st Century America.
“So I guess what I’m saying is, there are a number of things we can do, but I also think we still will be able to get significant pieces of this legislation passed,” Biden said.
Another reporter said she’d just been to South Carolina, where she spent a day interviewing voters who live in the congressional district of House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C. Her conclusion, she said, was that a majority of Blacks living in the district — a key Biden constituency — felt he hadn’t been fighting hard enough for them or their priorities.
“I’ve had their back for my entire career,” Biden said. “I have never not had their back.”
After pausing to consider what he wanted to say, Biden said part of the problem is “there’s a significant disagreement in every community on whether things that are important to them are being dealt with in the most timely way.
“So I’m sure that there are those who are saying, ‘Why didn’t Biden push the John Lewis bill as hard as he pushed it this past month? ‘Why didn’t he push it six months ago?’
“The fact of the matter is when you’re president, there’s the timing you wish to follow and the timing dictated by events that are happening in countries all around the world,” Biden said. “But a bigger part of the problem is that I have not been out in the community nearly enough. So I find myself in a situation where I don’t get a chance to look people in the eye because of COVID and things happening in Washington. That’s something I’ve always been very good about … going out and connecting with people and allowing them to take a measure of my sincerity. To take a measure of who I am.
“But I think that’s a problem of my own making – not communicating as much as I should,” the president said.
He was then asked whether he was satisfied with Vice President Kamala Harris’s work on the issue and whether he was ready to guarantee she’d be his running mate in 2024.
“I did put her in charge of voting rights and I think she’s doing a good job,” he said. And yes, he said, he fully expects her to be on his reelection ticket in three years.
One question during the extended press conference was about a statement he made during a fiery speech on voting rights in Atlanta earlier in January. Immediately after his speech, Republicans, including Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, D-Ky., seized on his words, claiming he compared them to Bull Connor, the ardent segregationist who for 22 years kept Birmingham, Alabama, the most segregated city in America, and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.
Biden did nothing of the kind. The exact passage of his Atlanta speech reads:
“So, I ask every elected official in America: How do you want to be remembered?
“At consequential moments in history, they present a choice: Do you want to sit on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?
“This is the moment to decide to defend our elections, to defend our democracy,” the president said to applause.
On Wednesday, a reporter asked Biden how he could square painting Republicans that way with his running on a platform largely based on a return to civility after four years of Donald Trump.
The president snapped back. “I didn’t say …” he began, obviously angry. “Go back and read what I said. And tell me if you think I said anyone who voted on the side of the position taken by Bull Connor was Bull Connor. That’s an interesting reading of the language. I assume you got into journalism because you like to write?”
The reporter didn’t back down. He asked the president whether he thought such rhetoric would work on Sens. Manchin or Sinema.
By now, Biden had his temper back in check.
“For certain things that are so consequential … you have to speak from your heart as well as your head,” the president said. “I was speaking out with force about what I thought was at stake. That’s what it is. And by the way, no one forgets who was on the side of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and who was on the side of Bull Connor. The history books record it.
“So I was making the case. Don’t think this is a freebie. You don’t get to vote this way and then somehow it goes away. This will stick with you the rest of your career. And long after you’re done.”
Perilous Times in Eastern Europe
The other big topic at the news conference was the rapidly intensifying situation in Eastern Europe, where, as White House Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said earlier this week “Russia could, at any point, launch an attack in Ukraine.”
After one reporter suggested sanctions have proven not to deter Russian provocations in the past, Biden responded by saying Russian President Vladimir Putin “has never seen sanctions like the ones I promised would be imposed if he moved in.”
Biden said after two “very frank discussions” he believes Putin will invade Ukraine at some point based in part on the strategic miscalculation that NATO will not come together as a united front to stop him.
“I think what you’re going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades and the extent of that punishment will depend on what it actually does,” Biden said. “If it’s a minor incursion, then you end up having to decide what to do and not do.”
The White House later clarified this remark, explaining the president’s use of the phrase “minor incursion” meant something other than Russian military forces moving across the Ukrainian border.
“But if they actually do what they are capable of doing with the massive force they’ve assembled at the border, it’s going to be a disaster for Russia,” he said. “Our allies and partners are ready to impose severe cost and significant harm on Russia, to the Russian economy. And you know, we’re going to fortify our NATO allies. We’ve already shipped over $600 billion worth of sophisticated equipment, fencing equipment to Ukrainians.
“So the cost of going into Ukraine, in terms of loss of life, for the Russians, is going to be heavy. It’s going to be real. It’s going to be consequential. So Putin has a stark choice, de-escalation and diplomacy, or confrontation and consequences.”
Later, in answer to another question, Biden said he believes the world is “going though one of those inflection points in history that occurs every several generations or so.”
“It’s one of the eras where things are changing almost regardless of any particular policy,” he said. “The world’s changing in big ways. I’ve said this before, but I believe we’re going to see more change in the next 10 years than we’ve seen in the last 50 years … because of technology, because of fundamental alterations in mindsets that are occurring, not because of any one individual, just because of the nature of things.
“And so I think you’re going to see an awful lot of transition. And the question is, ‘Can we keep up with it?’ ‘Can we maintain democratic institutions that we have, not just here, but around the world, to be able to generate democratic consensus on how to proceed?’ It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be very hard, but it requires leadership to do it. And I’m not giving up on the prospect of being able to do it.”