The president has long been answering questions from the press, but they have been at the end of an event dedicated to another purpose, as he has been moving from one place to another or when queries have been shouted across the divide. On Thursday afternoon, Biden had come to stay a while — long enough to apologize to reporters if he was getting into the weeds on the subject of immigration, to muse about the power of fate and to self-assess his political skills.
He came prepared to speak of politics and governance, politics and constituent services, politics and simple common sense. After more than four decades in public office, Biden is ably multilingual.
He began by announcing a new pandemic goal of giving out 200 million coronavirus shots in his first 100 days — twice as many doses as originally promised. That was the extent of any direct mention of the coronavirus, which has transformed from an out-of-control conflagration into a deadly fire that is slowly being tamped down. He noted that more than 1 million stimulus checks had landed in bank accounts. He referenced signs of new life in the economy.
Those in the room were especially keen on dissecting the history, impact and existential dilemma of the filibuster, which forces 60 votes to pass legislation rather than a simple majority and thus gums up the works of an equally divided Senate. When asked, Biden agreed that the filibuster has a specious history attached to the Jim Crow era and segregation. It was a favored way to stymie civil rights legislation. But he also acknowledged that in the past few years, it has been overused and abused, which is to say that Biden settled into the gray.
“I’m a fairly practical guy. I want to get things done. I want to get them done consistent with what we promised the American people and to do that in a 50/50 Senate, we’ve got to get to the place where I get 50 votes so that the vice president of the United States can break the tie or I get 51 votes without her,” Biden said. “And so I’m going to say something outrageous. I have never been particularly poor at calculating how to get things done in the United States Senate.”
It was the sort of statement that suggested that Biden understood that while there are folks who have the time to turn their attention to process, the person who is underwater in their own life isn’t really concerned about vote-counting and whether a filibuster should be eliminated — only that the thing they care about, such as enhanced gun control and climate change legislation, gets done. The how doesn’t matter, just give them a heads up when the paperwork is ready to be signed.
And so Biden alternated between the cryptic language of Washington and the broad strokes of casual conversation.
He spoke of moral imperatives and the stresses at the border, as well as the sanctity of the vote. He talked of wanting to unite citizens — and Republican legislators could come along if they’d like, but really it was their choice. He could only bring them to the table.
Biden, with an American flag pinned to his lapel, maintained a tone and volume that was both calm and reassuring as he spoke to a nation that remains skittish and uneasy. He only brought up his volume as a form of righteous indignation. He’d periodically move closer to the microphone and his eyes would get wide and his gaze fixed whenever he wanted to convey outrage.
Nowhere is the moral conundrum more obvious than at the border, where thousands of minors have entered the country without their parents.
“Well, look, the idea that I’m going to say, which I would never do, when an unaccompanied child ends up at the border, we’re just going to let them starve to death and stay on the other side,” Biden said. “No previous administrations did that either except Trump. I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it.”
Journalists want access to the Border Patrol facilities in Texas, where these children are packed into prisonlike holding centers long past when they should legally have been processed and moved into more humane quarters. When will that happen?
“I don’t know,” Biden said. It was not a good answer, or a satisfying one. It was accompanied by the promise of a kind of fuzzy transparency. The journalists could come take a look at the mess at the border after the administration has started to clean up that mess.
Still, it was also the sort of answer that all too often people want to hear from politicians because sometimes it’s the truest one. So many chronic problems bedevil this country, one of which is the morass known as immigration. Many times politicians believe that saying something loudly and with feeling — and pounding the table for good measure — is akin to a solution.
Getting to the answer may well begin with, “I don’t know.”
Just over two months into his term, those in the room wanted to know whether he planned to run for reelection. He patiently told them, “That’s my expectation.” And then he spoke for all those out there in the election-strafed hinterland who are still trying to patch up relationships broken by all the divisive falsehoods and lawsuits of the election that the country just barely survived: “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.”
The room wanted absolutes. The room wanted crystal-ball certainty. Politics is tough on this and soft on that. It’s fueled by phrases such as “Let me be clear.” And Biden knows them well. Biden sometimes pronounced himself clear even when he was vague.
But governance is politics that has been humbled by reality. Promises are contingent on luck and timing. Everything is calibrated by hope.
“I can’t guarantee we’re going to solve everything, but I can guarantee we can make everything better. We can make it better,” Biden said. “We can change the lives of so many people.”