President Joe Biden held his first official press conference at the White House on Thursday, 64 days into his presidency.
A White House press corps that has been waiting impatiently for its turn to question the president directly spent about an hour peppering Biden with questions about the surge of unaccompanied minors at the US-Mexico border, how to address the threat posed by China, his thoughts on the Senate filibuster, and whether he’d run for president in 2024. (It’s his “expectation” that he will.)
Though Biden has sat for broadcast interviews and answered shouted questions at pool sprays, Thursday marked the first time he took a battery of questions from the White House press corps as president.
But even though Biden came prepared with a new announcement his administration would double its original vaccination goal of 100 million vaccines in 100 days, there were zero questions from reporters about the Covid-19 pandemic or about Biden’s massive jobs and infrastructure bill that is slated to be introduced next week.
Unlike the freewheeling press conferences of Biden’s predecessor President Donald Trump, Thursday’s event was a pretty normal affair. There was no name-calling or insulting the press, and Biden’s answers — though at times long or a pivot — were informed by statistics.
Still, despite the downsides of his predecessor’s press engagements, the fact Biden took two months to hold a formal press conference turned into a mini-controversy of its own; the previous record for the longest amount of time a president went without holding a press conference was set by former President George W. Bush at 33 days. Washington, DC, reporters had been pressuring Biden to hold an open-ended press conference since his inauguration; Trump held his first after 27 days, and former President Barack Obama gave his after 20 days.
So far, Biden remains popular, with a 54 percent approval rating, per Gallup. In comparison, Trump took office with a 44 percent approval rating. Biden is clearly hoping to use the popularity of his first bill to go even bigger on the economy, pitching an approximately $3 trillion green infrastructure proposal next week — which he previewed on Thursday.
Biden spent much of the time at the press conference responding to questions on how he planned to work with Republicans on Capitol Hill who might use the filibuster to block his agenda. He received the most questions by far about the situation on the southern border, where ABC’s Cecilia Vega told Biden she had spoken to a 9-year-old who had walked to the US border all the way from his home in Honduras.
Biden said his administration would never “let them starve to death and stay on the other side. I’m not going to do it.”
The president also said he expected he’d run for reelection in 2024, although he declined to fully commit. Asked by CNN’s Kaitlin Collins if he expected a re-match against Trump, Biden demurred, joking about the unpredictability of the future.
“I have no idea if there will be a Republican Party, do you?” the president asked.
Here’s who won and who lost at Biden’s first major press conference.
Loser: The Senate filibuster
During the primary campaign, one of the biggest objections to Biden from progressive advocates was that he was too much of an institutionalist. A multi-decade veteran of the US Senate, Biden seemed committed to bipartisanship and working through normal congressional procedure — a tactical approach to legislation that progressives believed was totally naive, given the intransigent nature of the modern GOP.
The Biden presidency has, for these progressives, been something of a surprise. He wielded his slim Senate majority to pass a massive $1.9 trillion stimulus bill on strict party lines. In this press conference, it seems as though that taste of success has made him increasingly willing to take the next step necessary to passing more bills on a party line: eliminating the filibuster.
The question of what to do about the once-arcane Senate rule that creates a de facto 60-vote threshold for major legislation is arguably the most important topic in Washington right now. It is the main thing blocking Senate Democrats from approving Biden’s agenda; as such, it has become a subject of fierce partisan (and intraparty) dispute.
In the past, Biden had signaled support for what’s called a “talking filibuster” — a reform that would force senators who want to hold up a bill to actually talk the entire time the bill is held up. The basic idea is that they’ll eventually tire out and the bill can move forward.
Biden reiterated during this press conference that he doesn’t want to immediately do away with the filibuster, but he also suggested that if the reform he supports proves not to be enough — if Republicans are so willing to obstruct bills that even forcing them to speak for hours and hours wouldn’t stop them — that he might be willing to weaken it even further.
“I am a fairly practical guy,” the president said. “If there is a complete lockdown and chaos as a result of the filibuster then we have to go beyond what I’m talking about.”
This sure sounded like Biden leaving the door open to fully abolishing the filibuster, but this is something he can’t do on his own. The two biggest barriers are Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), moderates who have expressed clear and seemingly unshakeable opposition to filibuster abolition in recent weeks.
But inconsistency is normal when it comes to procedural reforms in the Senate. Biden shifting toward a more outright anti-filibuster stance makes it more likely that the archaic practice may be seriously altered, if not outright abolished. It’s also another piece of evidence that progressive fears about Biden are proving to be unfounded.
Winner: Advocates of prolonging the Afghanistan War
Biden has a big, looming decision to make by May 1: whether or not to withdraw all 3,500 US troops from Afghanistan and end America’s 20-year war in the country.
He very broadly has two paths to choose from. He can abide by former President Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban, which would require all American service members to leave Afghanistan by that deadline. Or Biden can extend the US military mission, either unilaterally or by negotiating an extension with the Taliban, as a way to pressure the insurgent group to strike a peace deal with the Afghan government.
During the press conference, Biden seemed to suggest that he’s taking Option 2.
“It’s going to be hard to meet the May 1 deadline,” he said, citing logistical hurdles to bringing all US troops and the military equipment they use home in time. But, he added, “It is not my intention to stay there a long time” and said he “can’t picture” US troops remaining in Afghanistan next year.
“We will leave,” Biden said. “The question is when we leave.”
That statement seems designed to make both those who want an immediate exit and those who want to remain in the country half happy.
But it’s advocates of withdrawal who will likely be the most skeptical. “Assurances that we will leave Afghanistan within a year are empty without a clear strategy to do that,” Adam Weinstein, a former Marine who served in Afghanistan and is now at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington-based think tank that advocates for military restraint in US foreign policy, told me after Biden’s comments.
Presidents Obama and Trump promised to end the war — as Biden has done — but maintained a military presence to mitigate terrorism concerns and to bolster Afghanistan’s government against a Taliban takeover. Plus, as vice president, Biden in 2012 said the US would be out of Afghanistan two years later, yet US troops remain.
VP on Afghanistan: "We will leave in 2014."— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) October 12, 2012
With his Afghanistan answer, then, Biden ensured his decision-making on the war will remain under a microscope for the coming months, possibly the coming year — if not more. For the moment, though, supporters of extending America’s involvement in the fight must be happiest.
Loser: Americans still worried about the Covid-19 pandemic
Biden opened his press conference ready to talk about the coronavirus, setting a new goal of delivering 200 million Covid-19 vaccine shots in his first 100 days in office — a doubling of his previous goal. That’s an acknowledgment of how much better the vaccine rollout has gotten in the past couple months, with a lot of experts now optimistic that life will go back to normal in the months ahead.
Even with that progress, the pandemic remains perhaps the most important issue facing the country. The country is still reporting more than 50,000 Covid-19 cases and 1,000 deaths a day. Everything about day-to-day life, from the economy to when we get to safely see all of our friends and family, hinges on the vaccine rollout.
But once Biden opened up the room to questions, none — zero — focused on Covid-19. The issue got no serious attention from the journalists in the room after Biden’s preamble.
That’s not because there aren’t any questions to ask. There are plenty: Is Biden worried about the vaccine rollout stalling at around 2.5 million shots a day in the past couple weeks? How quickly is the pandemic-focused money in the Covid-19 relief package going to be rolled out? Is Biden still confident in his goal of having enough vaccine supply for all adults by the end of May? What work is being done to improve the US’s Covid-19 testing infrastructure? What was up with the public dispute between the National Institutes of Health and AstraZeneca over the latter’s vaccine? What is the US changing to prepare for the possibility of new, dangerous coronavirus variants or future pandemics?
These are the kinds of questions that could decide whether Americans get to return to normal anytime soon. Journalists had a unique opportunity to put them to the president. None of them did.
Loser: Migrants arriving on the border
As of Wednesday, there were more than 15,000 unaccompanied migrant children and teens in government custody, including 4,962 staying in overcrowded, jail-like border patrol facilities, many beyond the 72-hour legal limit.
As more continue to arrive on the southern border, Biden reiterated his commitment on Thursday to ensuring that they are quickly transferred to suitable shelters and released to their relatives in the US or foster families. To do so, he outlined his administration’s plans to free up bed space in those shelters, open new temporary influx facilities, and reach out to the children’s family members in the US, if they have any, within 24 hours.
“We’re building back up the capacity that should have been maintained and built upon that Trump dismantled,” he said.
When asked whether that kind of rhetoric might encourage migrants to come, he said that he will not try to dissuade unaccompanied children from seeking refuge in the US as a moral matter.
“The idea that I’m going to say, which I would never do, that if an unaccompanied child ends up on the border, we’re just gonna let them starve to death and stay on the other side — no previous administrations did that either, except Trump. I’m not going to do it,” he said.
But otherwise, Biden had little good news to deliver to migrants seeking refuge in the US, many of whom have fled their homes in Central America’s “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Those countries have long suffered from high levels of violence and poverty — problems that have only intensified amid the pandemic and as the region recovers from back-to-back hurricanes that made landfall late last year.
Biden acknowledged that the US has yet to address those root causes of migration, but said that his administration intends to spend more than $700 million a year to improve the conditions that are driving people to flee. The Trump administration, by comparison, had slashed aid to the Northern Triangle.
In the meantime, however, the Biden administration is continuing to turn away the vast majority of migrants arriving on the border under Title 42, a section of the Public Health Safety Act that allows the US government to temporarily block noncitizens “when doing so is required in the interest of public health.” Since Trump implemented the policy last March, more than 514,000 migrants have been expelled.
Biden has chosen to keep the policy in place, but in the last month, the administration has begun accepting some families into the US because Mexico won’t take them back due to a change in its laws concerning the detention of children. Axios reported that only 13 percent of families encountered by border agents were expelled under Title 42 over the last week. Biden said Thursday that the US is currently in negotiations with Mexico to change that.
“They should all be going back,” he said. “The only people we are not going to let sit there on the other side of the Rio Grande with no help are children.”
Though Biden has promised to pursue a more humane border policy, it seems that he is essentially outsourcing the task of deporting or absorbing migrants to Mexico and other neighboring countries — just like his predecessor.
Winner: A return to normalcy
Biden’s first press conference could not have been more different from his predecessor.
When Trump took the lectern for his first press conference in 2017, it was a doozy, and a sharp reminder that things were about to be very different in Washington. Right off the bat, Trump announced, “I don’t think there’s ever been a president elected who in this short period of time has done what we’ve done.”
Pushing back on reports of infighting in his administration — which would later cycle through multiple chiefs of staff and cabinet secretaries — Trump insisted there was “zero chaos. This is a fine-tuned machine.”
He spent much of his press conference talking about his relationship with Russia and insisting that he had “nothing to do with Russia,” and hadn’t “made a phone call to Russia in years.” Two years later, Trump would be impeached on charges of abusing his power, for pressuring the Ukrainian president to start investigating Biden’s son Hunter Biden.
Trump’s relationship with the White House press corps was adversarial from the beginning. During his first press conference, he set the tone by calling CNN “very fake news,” and later saying, “I would be your biggest fan in the world if you treated me right.”
While Biden is no stranger to pivoting away from questions he didn’t want to field, there was nothing of the pointed and adversarial nature of Trump’s jousting with the DC press corps. Biden often consulted a thick binder, was able to cite statistics about where the US ranked globally in terms of our transportation infrastructure, and just generally seemed calm.
Biden promised to return a sense of normalcy to Washington, and he has, at least in this respect.