President Biden held a nearly two-hour, wide-ranging news conference on Wednesday that, for all of its headlines, outlined how external forces shape his presidency as it enters its second year — none more so than the ongoing pandemic.
He told people about his first year’s accomplishments, which ranged from millions of vaccinations to the passage of massive COVID-19 relief and infrastructure bills.
Biden, too, reflected on his struggles, painted a relatively optimistic outlook of the country, explained how he wants to be president differently in the future, and even admitted mistakes.
“Should we have done more testing earlier? Yes,” Biden said of the lack of widespread availability of coronavirus tests.
The news he made — admitting that his Build Back Better bill would have to be broken up in order to pass Congress — as well as his gaffes on Ukraine and the legitimacy of US elections, both of which the White House had to clean up later, stood out.
But it’s also important to note that most Americans probably didn’t watch Biden’s whole appearance. What they got were sound bites in news coverage, and a lot of what’s been replayed is Biden pointing the finger at Republicans, in addition to his comments about Ukraine.
“I’m saying, what are they for?” Biden asked rhetorically three times in the news conference in what has the makings of a line that will be repeated in 2022 ahead of the midterms. “What is their agenda?”
The sheer length said something
The news conference with Biden lasted an hour and 51 minutes. This was significant for a couple of reasons:
Transparency: He replied to almost every question in the room, from mainstream media to fringe right-wing outlets.
Stamina: It discussed one of the conservative criticisms about his age and faculties.
However, because some of Biden’s answers meandered and the White House was forced to issue clarifications later, some in the West Wing are probably thinking it might be better not to let these go on for so long in the future.
Ukraine: blurred lines
The president muddled the Western message about what NATO allies would do to punish Russia for a “minor incursion” into Ukraine, which he did not define.
“It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do, et cetera,” Biden said.
In one sentence, Biden seemed to suggest that some Russian aggression is tolerable and that NATO allies are divided on how to respond to it.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki issued a statement shortly after the news conference, trying to set things straight: “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.”
Still, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted the next day: “We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties.”
After the news conference, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with his Russian counterpart in Geneva and delivered the cleaned-up message.
Elections and their legitimacy
Despite being given two chances, Biden denied explicitly stating that the elections this fall would be legitimate. He seemed to imply that they would be — but only if Democrats’ voting rights legislation is passed.
A reporter directly asked him if he believed that some elections could be deemed “illegitimate” as a result of actions taken by Republican-controlled state legislatures.
“Oh, yeah, I think it easily could be — be illegitimate,” Biden said.
Biden added later that “the increase and the prospect of being illegitimate is in direct proportion to us not being able to get these — these reforms passed.”
Democrats’ legislation failed this week.
So where does that leave Biden’s position on the legitimacy of the election?
Psaki clarified in a White House press briefing the next day, saying the president “was not intending to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 election. He was actually attempting to make the opposite point, which is that in 2020, despite COVID, despite many attempts to suppress the vote, a record number of voters … turned out in the face of a pandemic. And election officials made sure they could vote and have those votes counted.
“He was also explaining that the results would be illegitimate if states do what the former president asked them to do in more than half a dozen states in 2020 — after the 2020 election: toss out ballots and overturn results after the fact.”
However, Biden’s hesitancy to give a full-throated endorsement of this fall’s elections could be due to pressure from the left.
And he’s caught in a political bind. According to an NBC poll released this week, the percentage of independents who see him as less willing to compromise has increased significantly since his election, while those in his own party have increased marginally in the opposite direction.
The path forward
Biden said he’s going to do things differently going forward, specifically three things:
He will get out of Washington more often. “I’m going to get out of this place more often,” he said. “I’m going to go out and talk to the public.”
Bring in more experts for advice and criticism.
Get “deeply involved” in the midterm elections. The president said he’ll be on the road campaigning, raising money for candidates, and trying to formulate a message “in plain, simple language as to what it is we’ve done, what we want to do and why we think it’s important.”
Given that he’ll be on the road more this year — in a year when Republicans are expected to take back the House — he’ll be a little less involved on Capitol Hill.
“[T]he public doesn’t want me to be the president-senator,” he said. “They want me to be the president and let senators be senators. … If I made a mistake, I’m used to negotiating to get things done … But I think that role as president is a different role.”
Biden tries to convince the crowd that the country is on the right path.
“I don’t know how we can say it’s not,” he contended. “I understand the overwhelming frustration, fear, and concern with regard to inflation and COVID. I get it.”
The problem is that, despite economic gains in jobs, wages, and the stock market, significant majorities of Americans believe that the country is heading in the wrong direction.
The pandemic and inflation, both of which are linked to COVID-19, are significant contributors.
Take a look at the data: On July 4th of last year, when Biden was on the verge of declaring independence from the coronavirus, his approval rating was averaging 52%.
It is now 10 points lower.
Without a doubt, his argument that he can run the government competently was weakened by the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
And his struggles to push through his domestic agenda, combined with the very public Democratic infighting, have deflated many in Biden’s base. Key Democratic voting blocs have softened their support for him, while independents have soured on him.
All of these factors have contributed to Biden’s dwindling viewership. However, without Americans seeing a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, it’s difficult to see Biden’s political standing improving significantly.
Irrespective of all the other problems and mistakes, successes and failures that were detailed and debated in his extended press conference, COVID -19 is likely to be the end of the Biden presidency.
James Carville, when he was a strategist to Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, coined the phrase a quarter-century ago that’s now become cliché in politics: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
But Carville says that might need be updated — for now, it’s COVID, stupid.
“One of the biggest parts of the economy is health care,” Carville told me, adding: “It’s having a suppressing effect on the economy, there’s no doubt about it. … COVID is a giant wet blanket across the country.”