The arc of history, in Biden’s view, comes down to pragmatism. It explains how he has approached his opening months in office, and how he is looking at the coming years. It illustrates how he can describe some Republican policies as “sick” and “un-American” while not doing everything in his power to immediately stop them. He called the filibuster a racist relic of Jim Crow, while also insisting that he wasn’t ready to remove it entirely in the hopes there would be some compromise.
“Successful electoral politics is the art of the possible,” he said.
Amid questions of whether Biden will be transformation or transitional — whether he’s a strong-armed, dealmaking man of the Senate like Lyndon B. Johnson or a New Deal, government-spending president like Franklin D. Roosevelt — the hour-long session with reporters revealed how Biden is attempting to be a combination, with his own twists.
Biden is a politician who craves simple language over soaring rhetoric. He often asks his aides to explain things to him, and the public, the same way they would talk to their mothers. And as he stood in the ornate East Room of the White House on Thursday, the distillation of the Biden governing doctrine is one that relies on basic nuts and bolts.
“When I took office, I decided that it was a fairly basic, simple proposition. And that is I got elected to solve problems,” Biden said.
He sought to speak to the frustrations around inaction on gun control, or the multipronged crisis around immigration, or the threats to voting rights. But on many of those issues, he urged a bit of patience, saying that the coronavirus and the economic devastation were more urgent priorities and that the country’s political system can handle only so much at once.
“We’re gonna move on these one at a time, try to do as many simultaneous as we can,” he said. “But that’s the reason why I focused as I have.”
Biden also witnessed up close some of the decisions former president Barack Obama made, attempting to pursue health-care legislation in a way that took more than a year, only to see immigration and gun control fall into his second term — and both of which were stymied in Congress.
Deeming himself “a fairly practical guy,” Biden said, “I’m going to deal with all those problems. The question is the priorities as they come and land on my plate.”
It was in many ways a reflection of Biden as a candidate. During the Democratic primary, he urged voters to be pragmatic, saying that even if they didn’t agree with him on everything, he was the best hope to defeat Donald Trump. During the general election, he repeatedly said that he was a realist on how hard the country’s problems would be to solve.
And he largely resisted engaging in the news of the day, instead focusing on his agenda and often avoiding overly partisan spats. When Democrats obsessed over whether and how Republicans would replace deceased Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Biden mostly avoided the topic. When Democrats moved to impeach Trump a second time, Biden refused to say whether he agreed with that approach. When a movement to defund the police took root, he avoided joining.
Now he’s seeking to avoid becoming overly engaged in Senate procedure and how it might change — a major topic in Washington.
“I think Biden is of the school of thought that a president can get one or two big things done at a time,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian.
“When you say ‘No Drama Obama’ — he’s trying to be ‘One Step At a Time Biden,’ ” he added. “He wants to present himself as a ‘Steady Eddie’ with a lot of experience and the ability to use patience and diplomacy as tools.”
It’s an approach, baked into Biden over decades in office, that can be frustrating to some liberal activists who want him to display more urgency or reshuffle his priorities. And even some of Biden’s close allies acknowledge that the president’s aspiration for controlling the sequencing of his agenda will be difficult.
“There is no way in any presidency that you can spend every day for weeks at a time without outside events commanding your attention,” said Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.). “He’s done a good job of addressing issues that have to be addressed in real time but also continuing to focus on the rescue plan.”
Casey said that, beyond the broad brushes, it’s not clear to him what exactly Biden’s major infrastructure package will include. Part of the uncertainty, he said, comes from the administration but also from the fact that Senate Democrats haven’t coalesced around the details of the next major piece of legislation. “We’re going to have to think really hard about what is next week because you can’t do seven things at once,” Casey said.
To the frustration of some Democrats, Biden also often told voters that he believed that the Republican Party would change its ways once Trump was defeated. At times on Thursday, he still seemed to adopt that theory, holding up the need to seek bipartisanship and give Republicans a chance to become a willing partner. But at other moments, Biden questioned whether the Republican Party would even exist by 2024.
“I have no idea if there will be a Republican Party, do you?” he asked after a reporter quizzed him on his plans for the next presidential election. “I know you don’t have to answer my question, but I mean, you know, do you?”
Yet in an era where politics has become biting and personal — where members of Congress request to move offices away from one another and question their safety — Biden’s demeanor seemed to signal a different course.
On Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has talked about “a scorched-earth Senate” if filibuster rules are changed, and who has said Biden’s bipartisan rhetoric is ringing hollow?
“I know Mitch well. Mitch knows me well,” Biden said. “I would expect Mitch to say exactly what he said.”
Has he spoken with Senate Republicans criticizing his immigration proposals?
“No, because I know they have to posture for a while,” he said. “They sort of got to get it out of their system.”
But Biden also issued some blunt warnings, tucked behind a grin. He sought to distinguish between polls that show his policies have support from Republican voters, and the same policies that are opposed by Republican members of Congress.
“Republican voters agree with what I’m doing,” he said, citing the $1.9 trillion recovery package that passed without Republican votes. He suggested that if McConnell thinks what Biden is doing is too liberal, “well then, he ought to take a look at his party.”
On the filibuster, one of the issues that has most animated his party with broad implications for whether his agenda can pass in the Senate, Biden continued to urge some degree of caution.
“I believe we should go back to a position of the filibuster that existed just when I came to the United States Senate 120 years ago,” Biden said, jokingly referring to his 36 years in the chamber.
“It used to be you had to stand there and talk and talk and talk and talk until you collapsed,” he added. “And guess what? People got tired of talking and tired of collapsing . . . I strongly support moving in that direction.”
As some Republicans have questioned Biden’s mental acuity — or pointed to an incident last week in which he fell three times climbing the steps to Air Force One — Biden showed few signs of stumbles. He came armed with statistics and specifics, talking at length on a range of topics.
“Am I giving you too long an answer?” he asked on immigration.
“I apologize for spending more time on it,” he said of infrastructure.
Asked about North Korea’s missile launch, he quickly responded by citing the United Nations violation (Resolution 1718).
Still, he showed his tendency to meander. A question about gun control led him to pledge to put pipe fitters and miners to work capping wells.
He also grew defensive at times, when asked about whether the conditions in migrant detention centers were acceptable to him.
“That’s a serious question, right?” he said. “Is it acceptable to me? C’mon.”
And while he said that he planned and expected to run for reelection, he said he couldn’t be certain.
“Look, I don’t know where you guys come from, man,” Biden said. “. . . I’m a great respecter of fate. I’ve never been able to plan four and a half, three and a half years ahead for certain.”