President Joe Biden held a rare news conference Wednesday afternoon, using the platform to call on Americans to be patient in the fight against Covid-19 and defend his record of success despite middling poll numbers.
Biden spoke – on and off – for 112 minutes. I pulled out the seven most important lines from what he said. They’re below.
1. “I didn’t overpromise. I have probably outperformed what anybody thought would happen.”
Biden took umbrage at the suggestion that he had bitten off more than he could chew, legislatively speaking. And he took a page from his predecessor’s playbook by bragging that he had done better than anyone expected. That’s a debatable contention. He was able to get a Covid stimulus bill and an infrastructure package through Congress and into law. But his Build Back Better Act is languishing and any major voting rights legislation seems a far way off.
2. “We’re not going back to shutting down schools. Schools should stay open.”
Biden spent the first 15 minutes of the presser delivering a speech – much of it centered on his administration’s response to the Covid pandemic. The fundamental message was this: We are not going back to where we were when he took office – and we don’t need to. His assertion that schools need to stay open was the newsiest bit of that promise – and one that should have appeal across party lines.
3. “I am confident we can get big chunks, big pieces, of Build Back Better signed into law.”
There are two important things happening here: a) Biden admitting that his BBB bill isn’t going to pass and b) endorsing the carving up of the legislation to get some of the more popular pieces of it approved. That’s a strategy that acknowledges the political reality that Democrats badly need a legislative win on his domestic agenda and that his long-held hopes for BBB to pass in its entirety are now dashed. “It’s clear to me that we are going to have to, probably, break it up,” Biden said later of the bill.
4. “I’m not so sure [Russian President Vladimir Putin] is certain what he is going to do. My guess is he will move in [to Ukraine]. He has to do something.”
This was a WOW moment for anyone with even a passing knowledge of the current situation on the Ukraine border. Biden, repeatedly questioned in follow-ups about this initial pronouncement, seemed to walk it back – insisting that he didn’t know Putin’s plan in terms of an invasion of eastern Ukraine (and his belief that Putin hasn’t made up his mind). Still, the initial claim is going to draw lots and lots of attention and scrutiny.
5. “One thing I haven’t been able to do so far is get my Republican friends to get in the game at making things better in this country. … What are they for? Name one thing they are for.”
This will be the Biden message in the coming midterm elections: that he has reached across the aisle to try to get Republicans on board with various policies and they have been unwilling to do so. That the only Republican policy is that of obstruction of his agenda. That they don’t have a proactive agenda. Which, well, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell is probably fine with. “This midterm election will be a report card on the performance of this entire Democratic government, the President, the House and the Senate,” the Kentucky Republican said Wednesday.
6. “I’m happy to have a referendum on how I handled the economy.”
Biden is very, very likely to get his wish, as Republicans have made clear that they believe they can win House and Senate majorities by focusing on inflation and supply chain issues impacting the country. Biden (and other Democrats) will point to the shrinking unemployment rate as a sign that things are moving in the right direction. Where does the public land on the question? In a December CNN poll, just 44% approved of how he was handling the economy, while 55% disapproved. As CNN’s Harry Enten has noted, that’s the “lowest net economic rating of any president at this point through their first term since at least Jimmy Carter in 1977.”
7. “It could easily be illegitimate. … The increase in the prospect of [the 2022 election] being illegitimate is in proportion to not being able to get these reforms passed.”
That’s how Biden answered a question about whether he harbored concerns about the next election’s results being something less than aboveboard. The connection between that prospect and the passage of voting rights reforms – which, at the moment, appear severely stalled – is a striking one. If, one has to ask, major voting rights legislation is not passed before the 2022 midterms, does that mean the results – especially if Republicans win – are illegitimate?
The Point: How Biden did during the presser depends, largely, on where you stand about him generally speaking. There’s no question, however, that his insistence that he is comfortable with the 2022 midterms being a referendum on the economy will give party strategists some heartburn.