Biden resets his own Covid goalposts at CNN town hallFebruary 17, 2021
MILWAUKEE — President Joe Biden touched down in Middle America on Tuesday and started laying down markers.
People who want a vaccine will be able to get one by the end of July, he promised.
Within 100 days, close to every schoolchild in America will be able to go back five days a week.
A pathway to citizenship would be essential to any immigration reform bill.
They were the type of pledges that could come back to haunt a politician. But Biden is, if nothing else, a seasoned politician. And often, during his CNN town hall, the pledges came with caveats.
That end of July deadline? It was about vaccine availability.
Those school reopenings? Five days a week was aspirational.
Immigration reform? Even a piecemeal bill dealing with refugees would be an accomplishment.
Biden’s town hall on Tuesday night went like that: a dash of news, a nuance to boot, and a general attempt to not get bogged down too much on any one thing, only to fixate on it.
“I’m tired of talking about Donald Trump,” Biden declared at one point, referring to his predecessor as “the former guy.”
“I don’t want to talk about him anymore,” he added. He then, subsequently, talked about Trump a bit more, hinting heavily that the 45th president hadn’t called him since his election, blaming Trump for not doing more on vaccines, and criticizing him for not condemning white nationalist groups.
The White House can be an insular place — which is especially true during the pandemic, when even the brief amount of time that a president can venture outside the doors is further limited and when the premises themselves are less crowded for public health purposes. At times, Biden seemed like someone craving basic interaction with humans beyond family members and those who count politics as their vocation.
He was, throughout the night, long-winded, self-referential, and apologetic for talking too long. He took time to linger over each question and to ask about each questioner, pressing for personal details and attempting to convey empathy over their concerns.
He asked a second-grader who accompanied her mom to the town hall if she had been in school, then told her he realizes the Covid pandemic is probably scary to her.
“Don’t be scared, you’re going to be fine,” Biden told the girl. “We’ll make sure mommy is fine, too.”
When a Kenosha County public defender asked about repercussions for law enforcement after the Jacob Blake shooting — a Black man who was later paralyzed after he was shot in the back by a police officer — Biden noted that he, too, was once a public defender and by the way, they deserve to be paid the same as prosecutors.
He was careful to pick the spots where he tacked left. He defended a $15 minimum wage hike, but not executive action to wipe away $50,000 in student debt relief. He insisted that people shouldn’t be locked up for drug use offenses, but took great pains to emphasize that he had no plans to defund the police.
The White House considers the town hall format as a favorable one for Biden, whose tactile style of retail politicking has been largely sidelined for nearly a year because of the pandemic. During the campaign, some of his brightest moments came at town halls, one Biden adviser noted, describing him as comfortable in the settings because of the back and forth with “real people.”
Indeed, he flashed warmth, inviting a woman to stay after so he could help her chronically ill son, and joshed with the audience. “President Hu,” he said of the former Chinese leader. “Not a joke,” though it could have been.
That he chose Wisconsin was both practical and political. The state represents a microcosm of the country. It is just about equally divided politically, where rural Trump-loving counties have resisted mask mandates while large urban centers like Milwaukee overwhelmingly voted for Biden.
His presence in the state on Tuesday — along with a visit to Michigan later this week — are an acknowledgment that the 2020 map is not all that different from 2022, during which both Sen. Ron Johnson’s seat and the governorship will be contested.
“There’s no denying that Wisconsin is kind of the ultimate battleground state. People often say that the road to the White House, the road to the Senate, the road to the House, goes through Wisconsin,” said Melissa Baldauff, a Democratic strategist and former senior aide to Gov. Tony Evers. “I think we’ve seen that rolling out, over many election cycles.”
Choosing Wisconsin, and specifically Milwaukee, was also an unmistakable gesture to the pivotal role the swing state will play in Biden’s own political future. Biden was supposed to deliver his Democratic National Convention speech in the city before moving it to his home in Wilmington, Del., citing limitations due to the pandemic. The move was viewed as robbing Milwaukee of what was left of an already stripped-down convention. The Biden campaign had privately vowed to make it up to the city, according to several Wisconsin Democrats.
Initially, however, there were local concerns that the event would be a problem more than a favor. The town hall was scheduled at the same time Evers was to deliver his budget address. Biden’s event was later moved back an hour so that Evers could personally accompany him to the airport in Milwaukee.
Asked for insight into the state choice, John Anzalone, a Biden adviser and campaign pollster, shared a screenshot of the numbers behind the president’s narrow victory.
“20,108 insights,” he deadpanned — the exact margin by which Biden beat “the former guy.”