Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Anyone hoping President Joe Biden’s first formal news conference Thursday would produce a series of gaffes and misstatements must be deeply disappointed. Americans who want a competent, coherent, focused President should feel reassured.
Biden made news by answering a question he had dodged before – the one about a second term (he is 78). “My plan,” he told reporters, “is to run for reelection in 2024.” He also made news on the pandemic, announcing he is doubling the initial goal of administering 100 million vaccines in his first 100 days, to 200 million doses.
And over roughly one hour, the President took tough questions from journalists without making any significant mistakes or verbal stumbles, defended his administration vigorously, and showed a deep and nuanced understanding of a wide range of issues – and the politics needed for results.
“I got elected to solve problems,” he declared at the outset, explaining why he has focused on the country’s most urgent – the pandemic and the economy – while preparing to address more long-term challenges, such as gun control, immigration, climate change and voting rights.
As it happens, crises on those fronts are not waiting for him to finish work on his top priorities. And neither were the reporters he faced.
But from America’s border crisis to China, from the federal budget to the global contests between democracy and autocracy, he avoided easy answers, articulating complexities and laying out reasonable approaches. He didn’t promise to solve it all, but vowed to make improvements.
Some of the toughest questioning centered on the surge of migrants at the southern border, where thousands of unaccompanied children await processing in overcrowded conditions. When asked if he found this acceptable, he looked almost offended by the question, and was defensive, saying his administration is working hard on rebuilding facilities that were dismantled by the previous presidency.
But he offered no apologies for not sending the children back across the border. “The idea that I’m going to say … if an unaccompanied child ends up at the border, we’re going to let him starve to death and stay on the other side,” he declared, “I’m not going to do it.”
In a remarkable display of compassion unlike any I recall hearing from another US president – and in striking contrast to his predecessor – he described the excruciating decision process that would lead a parent to send her child alone on a thousand-mile journey to an unknown fate. “What a desperate act to have to take,” he said. “The circumstances must be horrible.”
People leave, he said, because of earthquakes, floods, lack of food, gang violence. He plans, he said, to help address those problems inside Central America, and to make sure the funding for solutions bypasses corrupt governments.
Biden showed an interesting perspective on the filibuster, the rule requiring 60 votes to pass major legislation in the Senate, which is complicating his legislative goals. He said he’s inclined to go back to the old method in place when he came to the Senate – “120 years ago,” he joked. Back then, a filibuster required senators to speak until they couldn’t go any longer. When asked if he thought the filibuster is a relic of the racist Jim Crow era, he said yes, but explained he also understands what is possible in politics. Still, he said the rule is being “abused in a gigantic way,” showing openness to its repeal.
The President used some of his most passionate language to attack Republican efforts to restrict voting rights – as in a bill that passed the Georgia House Thursday. He called the strategy “un-American,” “sick,” saying even Republican voters find the move “despicable,” and vowing to do everything in his power to counter it.
He called out the hypocrisy of Republicans suddenly concerned about the size of the federal deficit after having expressed no qualms about massive tax cuts that so lavishly have benefited the rich. “When the federal budget is saving people’s lives, they don’t think it’s such a good idea,” he said, “when it’s feathering the nests of the wealthiest Americans,” they don’t object.
On foreign policy, Biden explained that the ongoing friction between China and even Russia is part of a larger challenge: a contest between democracy and autocracy. He laid out the multifaceted rivalry between China and the United States, noting that trade – the near-obsessive focus of former President Donald Trump – is only one area where the two countries are at odds.
Rebuilding relationships with allies will be a key element of Biden’s approach, especially after Trump frayed so many long-standing strategic ties. (Looking at his wristwatch, Biden told reporters that he was about to go on a virtual meeting with 27 heads of state.)
The President has expressed his wholehearted embrace of America as global leader, and on Thursday restated his plan to convene a summit of democracies in the United States, to “discuss the future.”
Biden’s first news conference was not just a startling departure from his predecessor’s – he never insulted anyone, didn’t praise himself, and spoke in full, coherent sentences. It was a strong performance by any standard. Anyone who watched after listening to the absurd claims in right-wing media that Biden suffers from cognitive troubles could see that the smear is patently false.
For most Americans, who approve of the job Biden is doing and want the country to do well, this was a most welcome and reassuring 60 minutes.