In 1st news conference, Biden doubles vaccine goal, calls filibuster ‘Jim Crow relic’

Biden to Hold First Formal Press Conference on March 25.According to a CNN analysis, Biden is the first president in the past 100 years to wait longer than 33 days after taking office to hold a news conference.White House officials say the delay has been due to the president focusing on pressing pandemic matters.I think the American people would certainly understand if his focus and his energy and his attention has been on ensuring we secure enough vaccines to vaccinate all Americans, .., White House press secretary Jen Psaki, via statement.... which we will do by the end of May, and then pushing for a rescue plan that will provide direct checks to almost 160 million Americans, White House press secretary Jen Psaki, via statement.That's where his time, energy, his focus has been. But in the meantime, he takes questions multiple times a week and looks forward to continuing to do that, White House press secretary Jen Psaki, via statement.White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre says Biden "believes in communicating with the American people" and "making sure that he's talking to reporters as well.".The news conference announcement comes as the White House launches its "Help is Here" tour to promote the president's COVID-19 relief package.Vice President Kamala Harris, second gentleman Doug Emhoff, first lady Jill Biden and Cabinet members will be present for the cross-country tour

Expects to run for reelection; says U.S. troops likely won’t be in Afghanistan next year

President Joe Biden opened his first formal news conference Thursday with a nod toward the improving picture on battling the coronavirus, but he was immediately pressed on thorny issues, including immigration and voting rights, now testing his administration.

Watch a replay of President Biden’s news conference here:

The president stood behind a podium against a backdrop of flags. But due to the pandemic, only 30 socially distanced chairs for journalists were spread out in the expansive room. The White House limited attendance due to the virus. Biden began the press conference more than 10 minutes past the scheduled 1:15 p.m. starting time.

Before taking questions, the nation’s 46th — and oldest — president gave an update on his administration’s progress in terms of coronavirus vaccines and COVID family relief payments. He also cited Thursday’s newly released labor statistics, which showed that claims fell from 781,000 the week before, the first time weekly applications for jobless aid have fallen below 700,000 since mid-March of last year.

President Joe Biden listens to a question during a news conference in the East Room of the White House. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Joe Biden listens to a question during a news conference in the East Room of the White House. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Credit: Evan Vucci

Credit: Evan Vucci

Biden also announced he was doubling his original goal by pledging the nation will administer 200 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines by the end of his first 100 days in office. Biden then called on an Associated Press reporter for the first question.

A pair of mass shootings, rising international tensions, early signs of intraparty divisions and increasing numbers of migrants crossing the Southern border are all confronting a West Wing known for its message discipline.

“I am going to deal with all of those problems,” Biden pledged.

President Joe Biden leaves after a news conference in the East Room of the White House. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Joe Biden leaves after a news conference in the East Room of the White House. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Credit: Evan Vucci

Credit: Evan Vucci

He then endorsed a modification — but not elimination — of the filibuster, without which it would be difficult to get his ambitious agenda through Republican opposition in the Senate. But he left the door open, at least on certain issues, to go further.

“If there’s complete lockdown and chaos, as a consequence of the filibuster, then we’re going to have to go beyond what I’m talking about,” he said.

“I want to get things done. I want to get them done consistent with what we promised the American people,” said Biden, who spent decades in the Senate. “I am going to say something outrageous: I have never been particularly poor at calculating getting things done in the United States Senate.”

President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Credit: Evan Vucci

Credit: Evan Vucci

Here are some other highlights of the press conference:

  • Biden said China’s ambition of becoming the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world is “not going to happen under my watch.” He said he’s looking at countering China’s rise by increasing American investment in science and research. It’s an area where he says China is thriving while the U.S. hasn’t kept pace. The president also says he’s made clear to Chinese leader Xi Jinping that the United States will continue to call out Beijing in an “unrelenting way” on human rights violations.
  • Biden said efforts in state legislatures aimed at voting restrictions are “un-American” and “sick,” mentioning prohibitions on bringing water to people waiting to vote and efforts to close polls at 5 p.m. The president compared the push to limit voting to Jim Crow laws that were once common in the South. He said he’d keep pushing for voting rights legislation that’s already passed the House but faces an uncertain future in a Senate split 50-50.
  • Addressing a nuclearized North Korea is Biden’s top foreign policy issue. He said North Korea has violated U.N. resolutions by launching ballistic missiles and the U.S. and its allies will respond if the North escalates the situation. “I’m also prepared for some form of diplomacy, but it has to be conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization.”
  • Biden said he makes “no apology” for undoing some of former President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.
  • “I can’t picture that being the case,” Biden said, when asked if U.S. troops will still be in Afghanistan next year. “We will leave, the question is when we will leave.”
  • When talking about challenges such as gun control, immigration and climate change, “Republicans are going to have to determine if we’re going to work together or the way in which they want to proceed is to divide the country, continue politics of division.”
  • Biden said he expects to run for reelection in 2024.
  • The president said he agrees with former President Barack Obama the Senate filibuster is a relic of the Jim Crow era.

Though Biden gave his first prime-time address to the nation earlier this month, the 78-year-old went longer than any president in the past 100 years before holding a full press conference. White House press secretary Jen Psaki has repeatedly pointed out Biden has periodically taken questions from reporters.

Biden is behind his recent predecessors in opening himself to questions in what historian Martha Joynt Kumar calls the “high-risk, high-reward” enterprise of presidential news conferences.

The last four presidents, back to Bill Clinton, each held one solo White House news conference in their first 60 days, picking up the pace to varying degrees later.

Adding in the joint, often very brief news conferences with visiting foreign leaders, Donald Trump held at least five news conferences by that point, Clinton at least four, and Barack Obama two. The pandemic has kept foreign leaders away from the White House this year.

The Biden White House is a notably tight ship, fully aware of his history of flubs, as is Biden himself, a self-described “gaffe machine.”

He went through the 2020 campaign with infrequent news conferences and often hunkered down in the pandemic. Yet he debated fellow Democrats a dozen times and Trump without apparent harm to his prospects or the country.

In one of the president’s few extended and open-ended sessions with the media before Thursday, an interview with ABC News, Americans gained insight into his thinking about Russian President Vladimir Putin — Biden called him a killer who “will pay a price” for U.S. election interference — as well as the surge of young migrants at the border, a possibly delayed troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, and more.

Biden has been criticized by conservatives and his political allies for his delay in holding a formal press conference. White House Correspondents Association President Zeke Miller told Vanity Fair earlier this month that news conferences were “critical to informing the American people and holding an administration accountable.”

The Washington Post Editorial Board also criticized the president, saying “it’s past time for Biden to hold a news conference.”

Biden will likely hear questions about several challenges that his administration faces, including the crisis at the border, the future of the filibuster and the recent $1.9 trillion stimulus that Republicans have criticized.

There have also been two mass shootings in the U.S. since the start of his presidency, including one on Monday in Boulder, Colorado, that resulted in 10 deaths, including a responding police officer.

President Dwight Eisenhower held the first presidential news conference that was broadcast on television, on Jan. 19, 1955.

“Well, I see we’re trying a new experiment this morning,” Eisenhower told the press corps. “I hope that doesn’t prove to be a disturbing influence.” In the scratchy black and white of 1955 TV sets, Americans saw those trademark Ike grins and heard him beef about being asked a “loaded question.”

Eisenhower’s news conference was one benchmark among several in the history of presidential news conferences tracked by Kumar, an authority on White House practices.

Woodrow Wilson gave the first presidential news conference in 1913. Calvin Coolidge made a habit of them, holding nearly 73 a year on average, explaining “the people should have a fairly accurate report of what the president is trying to do.”

Franklin Roosevelt, a radio pioneer who mastered communications on all fronts and nearly matched Coolidge’s unrivaled pace of news conferences, regularly summoned his favored reporters to his office, consigning the ones he didn’t like to his “dunce club.”

Off the record often meant giving the president a chance to clean up his remarks, unheard of today. At a March 1950 news conference, Harry Truman declared that Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the audacious canceler of communists real and imagined in U.S. government and society, was the Kremlin’s “best asset.”

“When one of the reporters commented that the president’s observation would ‘hit page one tomorrow,’ Truman realized he had better soften the statement,” Kumar writes. “He ‘worked’ with reporters and allowed the following as a direct quotation: ‘The greatest asset that the Kremlin has is the partisan attempt in the Senate to sabotage the bipartisan foreign policy of the United States.’”

Such manipulation became untenable when Eisenhower put the news conferences on the record and let broadcasters record them. Even so, segments were only televised later.

Although wanting to take advantage of the nascent medium of TV, Eisenhower did so with a partial step. Press secretary James C. Hagerty told the AP at the time that live telecasts would not be allowed.

It was John F. Kennedy who ushered in the age of live, televised news conferences, and he thrived in the practice. Smooth talking, authoritative and funny, Kennedy reached living rooms about twice a month with his news conferences.

But for all of JFK’s charms and smarts, he encountered a more aggressive White House press corps, Kumar says. In part that was because the previous administration had been caught in a lie, at first telling Americans the Soviets had shot down a U.S. weather plane when it was a spy plane. Even so, open secrets about Kennedy’s behavior with women and his health problems stayed off limits in the coverage.

Through Vietnam and Watergate, the adversarial relationship between the press and power took deeper root. So did the performative nature of the exercise, with the cameras watching.

Richard Nixon, like Trump after him, called the press an “enemy.” Yet Nixon was the first to hold White House news conferences in prime time. (Nixon’s famous cry of grievance in 1973, “I’m not a crook,” came in a question-and-answer session with newspaper editors at an Associated Press meeting in Florida, not in a White House news conference.)

Ronald Reagan also favored the big audiences and cachet of prime time, using the glamorous East Room as the backdrop just as Nixon did.

Through these years, news conferences became as much about watching a president think on his feet as about the policy substance, if not more.

There’s been squirming, as when Gerald Ford was asked whether his pardon of Nixon should be taken to mean the disgraced president was guilty. “Uh, the acceptance of a pardon,” Ford said very slowly, “uh, I think can be construed by many if not all as an admission of guilt.”

Obama in 2015 didn’t take kindly to being asked why he was “content” to trumpet the newly achieved nuclear deal with Iran when that country was still holding four Americans on fabricated grounds. His face wore a smile that wasn’t a smile.

“The notion that I’m content, as I celebrate with American citizens languishing in Iranian jails,” he said, “that’s nonsense and you should know better.”

The long-ago question that Eisenhower found “loaded” in the Indian Treaty Room of the sprawling executive office building that now bears his name was innocuous by today’s standards. He was merely asked if he might appraise his first two years in office and “tell us something of your hopes for the next two or maybe even the next six.”

Contrast that with a Feb. 6, 1998, Clinton news conference the month after he lied in a televised speech that “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” as the evidence built for his impeachment that fall.

He was asked in that news conference at what point he might decide the crisis was too much to put his family through anymore and resign.

“Never,” he said, stone-faced.

Clinton was flanked by the British prime minister, Tony Blair, who smiled the smile of a man who wanted to be somewhere — anywhere — else in that moment.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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