What Biden revealed was a sense of confidence that he understands the rhythms of Washington learned over a lifetime in the capital, a sense of what is and isn’t possible at any given time, of what to push when and how to keep his focus on major priorities while adapting to both the crises of the moment and multiple demands for action as those arise. Call it self-confidence or call it hubris. Time will provide the answer.
The president has one of the most ambitious agendas of any president in the last half century: pandemic, economy, climate, infrastructure, immigration, voting rights. Added to that are pressures to move swiftly on guns in the aftermath of mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, Colo., and to rectify the problems on the southern border brought about by the influx of unaccompanied minors and overwhelmed detention centers under the control of Customs and Border Protection.
One clue to the way he sees things came near the very end of the news conference, when he was asked whether he had spoken to any of the Senate Republicans who say they won’t consider taking up broader immigration legislation until the current problems on the border are resolved. “No,” he said, “because I know they have to posture for a while. They sort of have to get it out of their system.”
Another came when he was asked about Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s suggestion that Biden has moved far to the left as president. “Look, I know Mitch well,” he said. “Mitch knows me well. I would expect Mitch to say exactly what he said. . . . I would like elected Republican support. But what I know I have now is I have electoral support from Republican voters.”
Biden could be overly confident about his command of things. The “posturing” on immigration could represent an insurmountable barrier. His newly passed stimulus package enjoys support from some Republicans but not a majority of them, although some pieces of the plan are more popular. What he seemed to want to convey is that he will try to avoid being pushed off course by what he regards as noise rather than something more serious.
Beyond that was a suggestion that he understands the pressures on McConnell as a leader of a divided Republican Party and that he assumes that McConnell understands where he is coming from. He did not address the more important issue of whether he believes they can eventually find a constructive relationship in a divided Washington.
There was another moment, too, that revealed how he is thinking. Biden was asked whether, after the shootings in Georgia and Colorado, he planned to send to Congress a gun bill that he had promised he would submit on his first day as president or move ahead with executive actions as Congress deliberates.
“All of the above,” Biden responded, but with a major caveat. “It’s a matter of timing,” he continued. “As you’ve all observed, successful presidents, better than me, have been successful in large part because they know how to time what they’re doing — order it, decide on priorities, what needs to be done.”
And with that, he made clear that his next major priority is a massive infrastructure and climate initiative, which he will outline in more detail on Friday. He spoke at length about the possibilities this new package offered. The normally empathetic Biden never got back to the issue of guns or the pain and suffering in two communities where 18 people were shot and killed.
His message, whether intended or not, was that he remains focused on trying to win passage for the main priorities upon which he campaigned, and for which time is of the essence. He also knows from experience as both a senator and as vice president that gun legislation could be another long battle in Congress with an uncertain conclusion. He said he remains committed but that the timing might not fit with what advocates of action are demanding.
One of the most telling moments came when he was asked whether he agreed with former president Barack Obama’s statement that the Senate filibuster is a relic of the Jim Crow era. He said he did, and immediately was confronted with a follow-up question: “Why not abolish it if it’s a relic of the Jim Crow era?”
Earlier, he had talked about the abuse of the filibuster over the past two decades and restated his position that the Senate should return to requiring anyone filibustering a bill to have to stand and talk continuously but suggested a possible need to go beyond that. But when confronted with why he favors retaining a relic of the Jim Crow era, a construct he had apparently not considered, he paused noticeably.
“Successful politics is the art of the possible,” he said when he finally gathered himself. Better for now, he continued, to deal with the abuses of the filibuster. “Let’s deal with the abuse first.”
On the emergency at the border, Biden gave little ground, neither accepting that his more compassionate posture has spurred even more crossings than normal nor apologizing for taking a more compassionate stance than that of the Trump administration.
“Is it acceptable to me? Come on!” he said when asked about the conditions in the detention centers. “That’s why we’re going to be moving a thousand of those kids out quickly. That’s why I got Fort Bliss opened up [to handle some of the children]. That’s why I’ve been working from the moment this started to happen.”
But he offered no timetable and while pledging to provide more access to reporters to see the conditions, he hedged on the timing. “You will have full access to everything once we get this thing moving.” Translation: We will not be rushed to accommodate press requests.
He was at his most passionate on the issues of democracy and voting rights, his voice rising as he condemned as “un-American” some of the changes to restrict voting proposed by Republican state legislators. And he was firm as he spoke about the great challenge of the era, the competition between democracy and autocracy.
Biden started his presidency by focusing on the issue that helped get him elected, the coronavirus pandemic — which strikingly prompted not a single question on Thursday afternoon. With that focus he has produced a major legislative victory, winning passage with relatively few changes for a $1.9 trillion stimulus package that carried on a party-line vote.
He also has made progress on the vaccination front, announcing Thursday a new goal of 200 million shots in arms by the first 100 days of his administration, double his initial target and a goal that appears eminently achievable given the current pace of vaccinations.
Now his plate is full, with the other priorities for which he has long planned and with newer issues he cannot ignore. “I’m a fairly practical guy,” he said. “I want to get things done.”
On Thursday, Biden tried to say he knows well how to do that, though the path ahead is long and uncertain and destined to test the self-assurance he sought to project in the East Room.