WASHINGTON — President Biden is unlikely to see many viral moments emanate from his first press conference as president, which he delivered from the East Room of the White House on Thursday. That will be just fine with his top advisers, who wanted to satisfy the clamor for a press conference — no president had gone so long without one — without giving his detractors the kinds of clips that could play to great effect on cable news shows.
“It’s amazing,” Biden said of the nearly hourlong affair, to the sparse row of masked journalists arrayed before him. “There’s so much we can do that’s good stuff.”
That was the message, more or less, that Biden sought to convey. Conservatives have said that the “good stuff” envisioned by the president amounts to a refashioning of America along socialist lines. So far, however, voters don’t see it that way, and have given Biden license to enact his surprisingly far-reaching agenda.
That, however, will be difficult to accomplish if the Senate filibuster remains in place. Progressives have urged him to push for a rule change that would allow a simple majority of Democrats in the chamber to move quickly on issues like gun control and the federal minimum wage.
On Thursday, Biden agreed with a reporter that the legislative filibuster was a practice rooted in denying rights to Black people, but he also said that instead of scrapping it, he would rather limit its scope, reverting to the kind of talking filibuster made famous by Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
As a former longtime member of the Senate, the president clearly warned Sen. Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Republican minority, that he would not allow himself to become stuck in legislative quicksand. "If there’s complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster, then we’ll have to go beyond what I’m talking about,” he said.
Although Biden opened the press conference by announcing that he was doubling his goal of vaccinating 100 million Americans in his first 100 days in office, there were no questions about the pandemic from the White House press corps. That may be a sign that Americans, who broadly approve of the president's handling of the pandemic, believe that his public health strategy has been clearly communicated.
There was also little discussion of gun control, despite mass shootings in recent days in Atlanta and Boulder, Colo. When he did finally field a question about gun control, Biden said his moves on that front would be “a matter of timing” before pivoting to talk about infrastructure. His administration is considering executive action on guns.
Legislative rules were one dominant theme; the other was the nation’s border with Mexico, where former President Donald Trump attempted to erect a wall to keep undocumented immigrants from entering the country. Images of migrants in detention facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border have forced the Biden administration into dealing immediately with one of the country’s most fraught political issues.
Biden made clear that, in his estimation, far from resolving the immigration debate, Trump had only exacerbated the problem.
“This new surge we’re dealing with now started with the last administration, but it’s our responsibility to deal with it humanely and to stop what’s happening,” Biden said.
He pushed back against the suggestion that his administration was somehow lax in its border enforcement. But where Trump preached toughness, Biden summoned a kind of moral outrage over the situation, saying he would never allow an unaccompanied minor to “starve to death” after having arrived at the border.
“No previous administration has done that, either, except Trump,” Biden said. “I’m not going to do it.” (The reference may have been to the deaths of several children in U.S. custody.)
Critics had framed Biden’s refusal to hold a press conference as a sign of declining mental acuity, a charge Trump frequently made on the campaign trail. That argument would have found little credibility on Thursday afternoon. Biden is not a natural orator in the mold of his former boss, Barack Obama. Nor is he a hurricane of extemporaneity like his predecessor, Trump. His speech is further marked by a stutter, which his detractors have sometimes mocked.
To be sure, it was nothing like the chaotic free-for-alls Trump would frequently hold, whether in the same East Room where Biden stood or, in the last year of his presidency, in the White House Briefing Room, as he argued about coronavirus policy with reporters.
Biden did say he planned to run for reelection in 2024, and that Vice President Kamala Harris would be on the ticket with him. Asked by a reporter why he had not formed a reelection committee, as Trump had soon after assuming the Oval Office, Biden allowed for a moment of barbed humor: “My predecessor needed to,” Biden chuckled.
“My predecessor,” he went on to muse. “Oh God, I miss him.”
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