WASHINGTON — On the 65th day of his presidency, President Joe Biden appeared before the White House press corps for his first formal press conference. He took questions from more than a dozen reporters on issues that included America’s forever wars, U.S.-China relations, the southern border with Mexico, and voting rights.
As president-elect, Biden had set a target of giving out 100 million shots of Covid-19 vaccines by his 100th day in office, a mark his administration hit after just 58 days. In brief opening remarks on Thursday, Biden announced a new iteration of that goal: By his 100th day in office, the U.S. will have administered 200 million shots.
Biden announced another goal before he took office: by day 100 of the Biden administration, a majority of schools would be open full-time, five days a week, for in-person learning for kindergarten through 8th grade. Biden said that as of Thursday “nearly half” of the K-8 schools had met that threshold, short of a majority. But he said he expected public-school systems nationwide would reach that target in the 35 days left before his 100th day.
He told one reporter in response to a hilariously prematurely timed question that he planned to seek reelection in 2024 and expected Vice President Kamala Harris to be his running mate. He did not face any questions specifically about the pandemic.
Here are the highlights.
FUZZY ON FOREVER WARS: When he took office, Biden inherited a deadline set by his predecessor, Donald Trump, to pull all American forces out of Afghanistan by May 1. The Trump administration had negotiated the deadline as part of its efforts to make good on Trump’s campaign promise to “avoid the endless wars we are caught in now.”
The war in Afghanistan, which began in 2001, is now the longest military conflict in U.S. history. An American born after the war’s opening battles is now old enough to enlist. According to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, the U.S. government has appropriated nearly $1 trillion from 2001 to 2020 for the war in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. More than 2,300 U.S. service members have died in Afghanistan since the war began, and tens of thousands more have been wounded, according to Stars and Stripes. Tens of thousands Afghani and Pakistani civilians have been killed as well.
Biden had already cast doubt on whether he would meet the May 1 deadline, and his answers on Thursday were noncommittal, citing “tactical reasons” for why it would be “hard” to meet the deadline. “We will leave, he said. “The question is when we leave.”
Asked if there would still be American troops in Afghanistan a year from now, he replied: “I can’t imagine that being the case.”
‘NO APOLOGIES’ ON THE BORDER: Biden faced several tough questions about how his administration was handling of 100,000-plus undocumented people who had crossed into the U.S. via its southern border.
He blamed policies implemented by the Trump administration to explain the insufficient capacity for receiving, processing, and in many cases deporting immigrants. He said his administration was sending back “the vast majority” of the families coming into the U.S., while also working on an agreement with Mexico’s president to receive some of those families. Biden also vowed to accelerate the process by which children who crossed the border alone were united with family members in the U.S. if possible.
Republicans, as well as some news outlets, have faulted Biden’s new policies for an increase of migrants (also known as “human beings in distress who could be helped by the world’s most prosperous nation”) at the southern border. The cause of the increased numbers of such human beings is a complicated matter of debate, but either way, Biden isn’t apologizing for quickly reversing Trump policies that relied on cruelty as a deterrence. “All the policies that were underway were not helping at all, did not slow up the amount of immigration and as many people coming,” Biden said, adding that he had “no apologies” for the changes he had made to the Trump regime.
One reporter told Biden the story of a 9-year-old whose mother had sent him on foot from to the U.S. from Honduras after Biden became president. When pressed for specifics about what kinds of solutions could help a boy like that, Biden had little to say by way of specifics: “The question here is how we go ahead and do this. What we do. There’s no easy answer.”
CRACKS IN THE FILIBUSTER: Multiple journalists pressed Biden on his position on reforming or abolishing the filibuster, the legislative tactic used throughout the 20th century by segregationist senators to block civil rights legislation. More recently, both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have relied on the filibuster to thwart the other party’s legislation, with then-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell deploying it repeatedly to prevent former President Obama from filling judicial openings and passing domestic legislation.
A 40-year member of the Senate, Biden is often described as an institutionalist, someone with deep respect for the rules and procedures of Congress’s upper chamber. But since taking office, Biden has said he’s open to reforming the filibuster if McConnell and the Republicans block policies on voting rights, climate change, and immigration reform.
In Thursday’s press conference, he gave his most extensive comments yet on the filibuster’s fate. He said he believed the Senate should restore the so-called talking filibuster, which would require senators to physically hold the floor in order to block a bill. “It used to be you had to stand there and talk and talk and talk,” he said. Right now, senators can merely inform their colleagues of their intent to obstruct without being present. The result, Biden said, was that the filibuster was being “abused in a gigantic way.”
But Biden went further. He said he had “an open mind” about still more changes to the filibuster on issues “that are just elemental to the functioning of our democracy like the right to vote.” Some Senate Democrats have suggested creating a carve-out in the Senate’s filibuster rules for voting rights or other democratic-reform issues. Biden’s comments about such a move give those Democrats the clearest sign yet that, should they run into a brick wall of Republican obstruction, they will have the president in their corner.
NO MORE ROPE-A-DOPE: A frequent critique of Barack Obama’s presidency goes something like this: He and his aides were duped by a Republican Party that claimed to value compromise but really wanted, as McConnell famously put it, to make Obama a one-term president and deny him legislative accomplishments. In this telling of events, the Obama team brought talking points to a knife fight.
Judging by comments he made on Thursday, Joe Biden seems to have learned from his and Obama’s mistakes.
Biden repeatedly made the point that his proposals and his signature legislative achievement so far, the $1.9-trillion American Rescue Plan, enjoyed bipartisan support among voters. He’s right: It’s near impossible to get 65 or 70 percent of Americans to agree on pretty much anything in the year 2021, yet poll after poll after poll reports staggering levels of support for Biden’s Covid-19 relief law.
Biden made clear on Thursday that he understands this, and that he was fulfilling his campaign pledge to unite the country. “Well, I’ve not been able to unite the Congress, but I’ve been uniting the country based on the polling data.”
The pressure wasn’t on him to convince Republicans to back his policy priorities. It was on Republicans to get behind policies with overwhelming public support. “My Republican colleagues are going to have to determine whether we want to work together or decide if they want to proceed to just divide the country, continue the politics of division,” he said.
AN ‘UN-AMERICAN’ WAR ON VOTING: Biden didn’t mince words when asked about the onslaught of Republican bills in state legislatures intended to make it harder for blacks, Hispanics, college students, and working-class people to cast their ballots. “What I’m worried about is how un-American this whole initiative is,” he said. “It’s sick.”
He said he supported legislation passed by the Democratic majority in the House, likely referring to H.R. 1, the For the People Act, a massive piece of legislation that would expand voting rights, automate voter registration, bring transparency to political dark money, and try to end hyper-partisan gerrymandering.
Biden said he would consider actions apart from legislation to push back against the Republican voter suppression blitz, but he declined to lay out what that strategy would be.
AUTOCRACY VS. DEMOCRACY: Biden took several questions about U.S. relations with rivals China and Russia, and he sought to frame his answers in a larger, more historic context.
For more than a decade, from Poland and Austria to Germany and France, from the U.K.’s Brexit referendum to Donald Trump’s 2016 election, different styles of right-wing populism have swept the planet. Russia has slouched ever closer to autocracy, and China has grown into a vast authoritarian surveillance state with ambitions to expand economically across the globe.
While Biden specifically vowed to call out China’s human-rights abuses, he talked about American foreign policy as part of a larger struggle over what form of government and society would emerge victorious in the 21st century. “I predict to you your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded, autocracy or democracy?” he said. Because that is what’s at stake.”
The issue was bigger than just what to do about China or Russia, he went on. “Look around he world: We’re in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution of enormous consequence,” Biden said. “Will there be a middle class? How will people adjust to these significant changes in science and technology, the environment? And are democracies equipped because all people get to speak to compete?…This is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies.”