The breathless wait for the 46th president’s first news conference is over. How’d he do? USA TODAY Editorial Board members David Mastio, a libertarian conservative, and Jill Lawrence, a center-left liberal, have a few opinions on that.
Jill: There, that wasn’t so hard.
When is the best time to have your first press conference? Probably never, but in a forest full of trees on fire, from immigration and guns to voting, China, Afghanistan, North Korea, the filibuster and his plans for 2024, President Joe Biden managed to avoid going up in flames himself.
His triumphalism on COVID-19, while possibly justified, was less effective to me than statements like “I’ve been hired to solve problems” and “I’m a fairly practical guy” and “I want to get things done.” In other words, I’m trying to seem dull and boring and eventually you will notice that I’ve knocked your socks off.
I think we’ve now heard the overarching philosophy of the Biden presidency. And it gives him a lot of flexibility in terms of the means he uses to achieve his goals.
That includes making Senate filibusters painful (“talk and talk and talk and talk until you collapsed,” in his words) or even making some issues exempt like overriding the “sick” and “un-American” and “despicable” efforts by state-level Republicans to restrict the vote. If the talk-and-collapse route doesn’t work, “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.”
I know the filibuster is an eye-glazer for most Americans. But as Biden himself said, our preoccupation with it is completely legitimate. It’s kind of like infrastructure in its utter inability to generate excitement. Yet without infrastructure, we can’t get anywhere. With the filibuster, we can’t get anywhere. They’re both worth our time and attention.
President Joe Biden at a news conference in the East Room of the White House on March 25, 2021, in Washington. (Photo: Evan Vucci, AP)
David: For Republicans looking for a fall-down-on-the-floor laughing gaffe from a befuddled and overwhelmed 78-year-old president, that press conference was a disaster. There was nothing to grab on to. It makes me wonder why the White House waited so long to let Biden come out on his own to speak with the press.
That said, the message Biden delivered was a disaster for Democrats. Biden did a victory lap on his efforts to address the coronavirus that was well deserved, but then he punted on a series of issues that Democrats are crying to hear more on. Immigration reform, gun control, climate change and voting rights won’t be Biden’s next big issue, but rather he will turn to his “next major initiative,” the rebuilding of our physical and technological infrastructure.
I gotta say that for a guy who knows politics and leadership so intimately as a senator and vice president over five decades, and now president,he is wildly out of touch with what his own party is after and what Americans want. Nobody is desperately hoping for the return of Trump’s infamous infrastructure week writ larger, as he promised to announce at an event soon.
We’re not done with COVID-19 yet. Passing legislation and sending out checks is nice, but we’re now at the hard implementation part of COVID policy. The country is at the turning point, short of herd immunity, but ready to head out the door and back into normal life. Managing that is still a challenge that could go badly wrong.
Jill: You are right about COVID, but I do understand the desire to open the press conference by reminding people that “hey, I’m the guy who sent you that $1,400 check.” Especially since, unlike some presidents, he didn’t insist on putting his name on the checks.
But as a center-left person who finds myself in step these days with a number of progressive priorities, I must say I was not disappointed. Biden was emphatic about his determination to pass his party’s voting bills, and if he’s really planning to finance infrastructure by raising taxes on rich people and corporations, well, I call that a small step toward less income inequality and more fiscal responsibility.
It struck me as brilliant, intentional or not, for Biden to stop in mid-answer to an immigration question and say, “I don’t know how much detail you want about immigration.” Message: He’s paying attention and knows the fine points. Same when he started an answer by calling something an “important point to understand” then immediately added, “I know you understand it, I don’t mean to say it that way, an important point to focus on.” He was talking to Yamiche Alcindor, the Black PBS reporter who got so much grief from Donald Trump. I took his rephrasing as an on-the-fly realization that he sounded patronizing, and didn’t mean to.
I am happy to say that I was wrong when I warned in 2019 that the talky, unpredictable Biden would not be the boring, reassuring candidate or president of Democrats’ dreams. He seems to be in a honeymoon period. This press conference, an impressive display of lessons learned over a lifetime in politics and government, will not end it.
David: It was an impressive display of something, all right. Biden’s decades in office have given him time to practice a flip-flop disappearing act. Step 1, make what sounds like a bold promise — On Dec. 8 Biden announces that “my team will work to see that a majority of our schools can be opened by the end of my first 100 days.” Step 2, when it looks like you can’t come through on that promise, pretend you didn’t make it — On Feb. 9 his press secretary says, we mean schools would have to be open “at least one day a week.”
Step 3, when it turns out that schools are managing to open up on their own even before the Biden administration is able to do anything serious to help, pretend you didn’t flip-flop as he did at Thursday’s press conference saying, “I also set a goal before I took office of getting the majority of schools in K through eight fully open in the first 100 days. (A) survey shows that nearly half of the K-through-eight schools are open now full time, five days a week.”
The guy still has the political skills of a much younger man. But that display still doesn’t change the fact that he delivered precious little leadership for the Democratic Party in the House and the Senate.
Nancy Pelosi’s troops are delivering legislation to the Senate at a brisk clip, including on voting rights and immigration. But the Senate is backed up by the reality that a Republican filibuster threat can derail any efforts Majority Leader Chuck Schumer might make to put those House bills into law. Democrats are fuming, and an increasing number of them are ready to get rid of the filibuster, which allows only 40 senators to block legislation.
What does Joe Biden offer them when offered the opportunity to put pressure on Republicans to back off? Milquetoast support for reforms of the filibuster, sticking by his position as a senator in favor of the filibuster. His progressive supporters are going to be furious.
That’s another reason that this press conference will be regarded as a success in displaying Biden’s got all his faculties, but failed at advancing Democrats’ agenda.
David Mastio is the deputy editor of USA TODAY’s Editorial Page. Jill Lawrence is the commentary editor of USA TODAY. Follow them on Twitter: @DavidMastio and @JillDLawrence
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