Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
President Biden held a wide-ranging, nearly two-hour press conference on Wednesday that, for all its headlines, underscored how outside forces are shaping his presidency as it enters its second year — nothing more than the pandemic in Classes.
He touted his first year’s accomplishments, from millions of vaccinations to passing massive COVID relief and infrastructure bills.
Biden also reflected on his struggles, painted a relatively optimistic view of the country, talked about how he wants to be president differently in the future, and even admitted mistakes.
“Should we have done more tests sooner? Yes,” Biden said of the lack of widespread availability of coronavirus testing.
The news he made – admitting his Build Back Better bill would have to be scrapped to pass Congress – and his gaffes about Ukraine and the legitimacy of the US election, which the White House had to clean up later , also stood out.
But it’s also important to remember that most Americans probably didn’t watch Biden’s appearance as a whole. What they got were sound bites in the media coverage — and in addition to his comments about Ukraine, much of what was replayed is Biden pointing the finger at Republicans.
“I say, what are they for?” Biden asked rhetorically what has the makings of a line that will be repeated in 2022 before the midterms. “What is their program? »
“What are they for?” is a phrase Biden repeated three times during his press conference.
The sheer length said something
Biden’s press conference lasted one hour and 51 minutes. This length was important for several reasons:
- Transparency: He answered nearly every question in the room, from mainstream media to right-wing fringe media.
- Endurance: He was responding to one of the Conservatives’ criticisms of his age and faculties.
But because some of Biden’s responses were meandering and the White House had to issue clarifications later, there are likely some in the West Wing who think it might be best not to let them last. so long in the future.
Ukraine: blurred lines
The president scrambled the message from the West about what NATO allies would do to punish Russia for a “minor incursion” into Ukraine, something he did not spell out clearly.
“It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and we end up arguing about what to do and what not to do, etc.,” Biden said.
In one sentence, Biden appeared to suggest that some degree of Russian aggression would be tolerable and that NATO allies are not united on what their response should be.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki released a statement shortly after the press conference, trying to set the record straight: “President Biden has been clear with the Russian President: If Russian military forces cross the Ukrainian border is another invasion, and it will receive a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our allies. »
However, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted the next day: “We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and no small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties….”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken flew to Geneva and met his Russian counterpart after the press conference and also delivered the cleansed message.
The legitimacy of elections
Although he had two opportunities to do so, Biden refused to explicitly say that the election this fall would be legitimate. He seemed to imply they would — only if the Democrats’ suffrage legislation passes.
A reporter asked directly if he thought that as a result of certain actions by Republican-controlled state legislatures, some elections might be “illegitimate.”
“Oh, yeah, I think that could easily be — be illegitimate,” Biden said.
Biden later added that “the increase and the prospect of being illegitimate is directly proportional to the fact that we can’t get them – those reforms have been passed.”
The Democrats’ legislation failed this week.
So where does that leave Biden’s position on the legitimacy of the election then?
Psaki clarified during a White House press briefing the next day, saying the president “did not intend to question the legitimacy of the 2020 election. He was actually trying to argue the opposite, to know that in 2020, despite COVID, despite many attempts to suppress voting, a record number of voters… turned out to be in the face of a pandemic. And election officials made sure they could vote and that those votes be counted.
“He also explained that the results would be illegitimate if the states did what the former president had asked them to do in more than half a dozen states in 2020 – after the 2020 elections: reject the ballots and cancel the results afterwards.
But Biden’s reluctance to give his full endorsement to this fall’s election may well be due to the pressure he feels from the left.
And politically, he is in a bit of a vice. An NBC poll this week showed that the percentage of independents who see him as less willing to compromise has increased significantly since he came to power, while those in his own party have increased slightly in the opposite direction.
The path to follow
Biden said he was going to do things differently in the future, specifically three things:
- He will come out of Washington more often. “I’m going to get out of here more often,” he said. “I’m going to go out and talk to the public.”
- Bring in more experts for advice and reviews.
- Get “deeply” involved in the midterm elections. The president said he would be on the road campaigning, fundraising for the candidates and trying to articulate a message “in plain and simple language about what we have done, what we want to do and why we believe that is important.”
Given that he’ll be hitting the road some more — in a year when Republicans are favored to take over the House — he said he would step back from being so involved on Capitol Hill.
“[T]The public does not want me to be the President-Senator,” he said. “They want me to be the president and senators to be senators. … If I made a mistake, I usually negotiate to get things done… . But I think this role of president is a different role.”
How is COVID…
Karen Ducey/Getty Images
Biden tried to make the case that the country was heading in the right direction.
“I don’t know how we can say that’s not the case,” he argued. “I understand the overwhelming frustration, fear and worry about inflation and COVID. I get it.”
The problem is that despite the economic gains – in terms of jobs, wages and the stock market – significant majorities of Americans say the country is going in the wrong direction.
A big part of the reason is the pandemic and inflation, which are COVID-related.
Look at the data: On July 4 of last year, when Biden was set to declare independence from the coronavirus, his approval rating averaged 52%.
Today it’s 10 points less.
Undoubtedly, the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan has undermined his argument that he can competently run the government.
And his struggles to push through his national agenda, along with the very public Democratic infighting, have deflated many in Biden’s base. Major Democratic campaign groups softened their approval and independents soured on him.
These have all contributed to the sagging views of Biden. But without Americans feeling like they’re seeing a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, it’s very hard to see Biden’s political stance turning around.
Regardless of all the other glitches and mistakes, successes or failures detailed and reworked in his exhaustive press conference, as COVID wants, the same is likely true for the Biden presidency.
James Carville, when he was a strategist for former President Bill Clinton, coined a quarter century ago the phrase that has now become a cliché in politics: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
But Carville says it might need updating — right now it’s COVID, stupid.
“One of the most important parts of the economy is health care,” Carville told me, adding, “It has a suppressive effect on the economy, there’s no doubt about it. … COVID is a giant wet blanket Across the country.”