Biden meets the press and the pandemic disappears

Biden meets the press and the pandemic disappearsMarch 25, 2021


During the first news conference of his presidency, Joe Biden was never asked about the issue that likely got him elected and, in all likelihood, will be the defining crisis of his time in office.

Over the course of 62 minutes on Thursday, the Covid-19 pandemic never arose, except for in the president’s remarks at the start of the event, touting the accomplishments his administration has made in the U.S.’s year-long fight.

The absence of the issue from the news conference illustrates the degree to which a host of other challenges have begun to dominate Biden’s time in office: a surge of migrants crossing the southern border, back-to-back mass shootings and efforts to restrict voting in Republican statehouses.

Some Democrats were incensed that Covid never came up. But others, including Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, publicly pushed the notion that the lack of discussion was merely a reflection of Biden’s discipline in handling the pandemic. The president and his team have set expectations low and routinely cleared them, all the while trying to create a deliberate contrast with the chaos that defined the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency.

When Biden emerged in the ornate East Room to address the media, he announced that he was doubling his vaccination goal — from 100 million shots administered in 100 days to 200 million— because of that early success. “I know it’s ambitious, twice our original goal, but no other country in the world has come close … to what we are doing,” he said.

From there, the pandemic was not mentioned again.

As he ventured on to other topics, Biden tried to maintain that discipline he’d brought to the pandemic. He called on 10 reporters seated apart, mostly from high-profile, mainstream newspapers and networks, though conservative and liberal outlets were present, including Newsmax, Huffington Post and Sinclair Broadcasting.

They peppered him with question after question about the rush of migrants seeking refuge at the border, which has drawn criticism from Democrats complaining about the treatment of children in crammed shelters and Republicans who blame him for rescinding Trump policies, which they say caused the influx.

“I make no apologies for ending programs that did not exist before Trump became president that had an incredibly negative impact on the law, international law, as well as on human dignity,” Biden said.

They asked about whether he would support changes to the filibuster that could pave the way for the Senate to allow uncodumented immigrants to gain a legal path to citizenship, restrict firearms and expand voting access across the nation.

“If we have to, 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 replied.

They asked about U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan, to which Biden said that he “can’t picture” having them there next year, but acknowledged they will likely not all be out of the country by the May 1 deadline set by Trump.

And in answer to two questions about his political future, the nation’s oldest president said for the first time that he expects to run for reelection in 2024 with Kamala Harris on the ticket. “The answer is yes, my plan is to run for reelection,” Biden, 78, said. “That’s my expectation.”

During Trump’s last year in office, the pandemic dominated his interactions with the media. Biden had argued at the time that Trump had forfeited his right to be president because he failed to take coronavirus seriously, mismanaging the response by not quickly dispatching tests, vaccines and supplies across the country.

But two months into office, after Biden had prevailed on his message that he’d handle the pandemic differently than Trump, he received no questions about it or his $1.9 trillion package to address it, or the goal to get all Americans vaccinated for it.

Inside the room, which was limited to 30 seated reporters due to the coronavirus, Biden, clad in a dark suit, stood at a lectern, calling on reporters from a list in front of him. A self-proclaimed “gaffe machine,” he had no notable slip ups and filled his answers with some of his trademark phrases: “Here’s the deal” and “God willing.”

“Come on,” he responded to a reporter when he was asked if he found it acceptable that migrant children are sleeping on the floors in crowded shelters. He repeatedly used the word “folks” and referred to reporters as such before departing the room.

But he did stop his answers short at several junctures and notably flipped through notes as questions were being asked off him. “I’m giving you too long an answer,” he said at one point before saying, “Maybe I’ll stop there.”

Biden had waited more than two months to answer questions from reporters in a formal setting in a break from his most recent predecessors, who held one within a month. At this point, Trump had held one solo news conference and four alongside foreign leaders. Barack Obama had held two and George W. Bush had participated in three.

Biden’s answers were, at times, long-winded—a less professorial version of his former boss, Obama, who famously took his time in responding to questions. It was certainly different from Trump, who was notoriously unscripted, calling on reporters who his staff had not selected and announcing policies that his staff had not vetted or even known about.

In his first news conference, a 77-minute made for TV event, Trump attempted to deflect attention Russian interference in the election and questions about his ability to govern, criticizing the media exchanges with a group that he dubbed “the enemy of the people.”

By the time Biden had taken his last question, the critiques from fellow Democrats began pouring in over the lack of discussion about a pandemic that has claimed 540,000 lives to date.

For Team Biden, it all felt quite familiar.

“It’s the same persistent disconnect we saw between Twitter and newsrooms on the one hand and voters on the other,” said a former Biden campaign aide. “The questions are too often motivated by what personally entertains cable news panelists—like trying to predict the outcome of the 2024 GOP primary. When superficiality crowds out the top issue to the American people… that’s a real failure.”

With reporting by Chris Cadelago

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