Biden's First Presser

[ Posted Thursday, March 25th, 2021 – 16:47 UTC ]

Without having read much of what anyone else though about President Joe Biden's first formal press conference today, I'm going to just write my reactions down cold. This is always an amusing test for me, just to see if anyone else picked up on the same things I did.

Heading in, I had fairly low expectations for Biden. I'm not sure why this is, perhaps some of the angsty stories I've read in the political media over the past few weeks have rubbed off. Biden annoyed the press corps by waiting longer to hold his first press conference than any other modern president, so for the past few weeks they've been doing some endless navel-gazing about it all.

My low expectations were far exceeded by Biden's performance today, for many reasons. He stuck to his messaging, he said: "I don't know" when he didn't know the exact answer, and he showed us all once again not only how competent he is but also how much he values the public's opinion of him far more than what people inside the Beltway think. Which was all to the good, in my eyes.

The contrast with his predecessor was also quite notable. Biden answered questions fully (almost too fully, which he even made a joke about), but he fielded an astounding 28 questions (by one count) during only a single hour, so it wasn't like he was just "filibustering" everything (an accusation that was more accurately made against Barack Obama or Bill Clinton).

Part of the reason why there were so many questions was how abbreviated Biden's remarks were at the start. Normally, presidents will take up a good solid third of the presser by tooting their own horn in excruciating detail. Biden's opening statement only clocked in at somewhere close to five minutes. This left the entire rest of the hour for questions, which is indeed impressive.

Overall, Biden was confident and knew what he was talking about. That's another big part of the contrast with the previous occupant of the Oval Office. Biden was also a lot feistier towards Donald Trump than I ever expected. When things were to blame because Trump had actively screwed them up, Biden said so. Notably, nobody contradicted him because it is all true. And Biden continued hammering home the rhetorical masterstroke of his term in office (so far) -- the redefinition of how the press uses the word "bipartisan." To the punditocracy, this means: "getting enough members of Congress to cross the aisle and join you." To Biden, it means: "getting the support of a wide section of the American public, including people who did not vote for you." He drove that point home several times today. Here's but one example: "I've not been able to unite the Congress, but I have united the people," after which he cited polls which showed exactly that.

Even though he only spoke for five minutes at the start, he made some news with an updated promise. He also made news during several of his answers, and came up with a few memorable lines that will without doubt start to be repeated by his fellow Democrats. He only had one very minor gaffe that I noted, and one rather awkward moment (at least, on video). All in all, that's a pretty successful press conference all around.


The play-by-play

[Note: As usual with these snap reaction columns, almost all of these quotes were hastily jotted down and may not be word-for-word accurate, but I think I at least captured the essence of what was said.]

President Joe Biden's big lead-in promise during his incredibly brief opening remarks was that he was doubling his initial goal of having 100 million shots given during his first 100 days, up to 200 million shots. After all, as Biden noted, he had gotten to the 100 million goal on Day 58, which is pretty impressive. And Biden is right on this subject -- he doesn't get nearly enough credit from the media for this achievement. Yes, by the time he was sworn into office, the previous administration had gotten very close to one million shots per day, but when Biden made this pledge, that simply was not the case. When he initially said it, it was indeed a bold prediction to make. So is doubling it, at this point. No matter what you think of Trump's vaccine delivery record, you've got to admit that Biden's is a lot better. We're now up to 2.5 million shots per day. That didn't "just happen" -- Biden and his team made it happen.

Biden also touted his progress on school reopenings and the relief checks which are now appearing in taxpayers' bank accounts or mailboxes. And he had to brag that the weekly unemployment numbers had finally fallen below where they were pre-pandemic, which is indeed welcome news (and ought to improve even further, as more and more people get vaccinated).

Biden's first question was, in essence, what he would do if his agenda got stalled in Congress. He got off his first really good line of the presser in response: "I got elected to solve problems." First he reminded the press about his early victory on the COVID-19 relief package (which, amusingly enough for anyone who remembers his hot-mic moment with Barack Obama after Obamacare passed, Biden phrased: "It's a pretty big deal"). Then he talked of the impact of this bill on average Americans' lives. Astoundingly, for the entire rest of the press conference, he didn't get a single question on the pandemic itself. That's a failure of the press corps, plain and simple. But here's the thing -- there were no adversarial questions about his pandemic relief or vaccination program because there's not much to complain about with either one of them. Even the Republicans would just prefer it if everyone stopped thinking about it all, since it's such an obvious big win for Biden.

The second question, unsurprisingly, was about the situation at the southern border. This is what Republicans have been obsessing over in order to overshadow Biden's "Help Is Here" victory tour on the pandemic relief. The press has largely bought into either misleading or false GOP talking points on the issue, so everyone expected plenty of "gotcha" questions, and the White House press corps did not disappoint. This was easily the most-asked-about subject today.

Biden answered the first question by pointing out some facts -- like the fact that this surge happens every spring, and it mostly a function of the weather ("It happens every year"). And the fact that the problem of no outreach in the source countries was due to Trump dismantling the entire system. And the fact that if you compare the actual numbers of the increase, his are better than what Trump managed at the end. And that these problems cannot be solved overnight, but that he's working diligently on them and things are getting better, albeit slowly.

This all completely deflated both the Republican talking points and the media's gullible acceptance of them. This was also the answer during which Biden eventually joked: "Am I giving too long an answer? I'll stop." After which he really didn't, he continued talking about immigration even after the next (unrelated) question was asked.

The next question (from the same reporter, Yamiche Alcindor of PBS) was on where Biden currently stood on the question of abolishing the Senate's filibuster. Biden got a funny line out here, talking about the way things used to be: "When I came to the Senate 120 years ago...." This got an appreciative laugh from the room.

But then Biden made news by opening the door to filibuster reform just a little wider. He started with what he's already said (when he referenced the way things were when he arrived in the Senate), which is that he'd be in favor of bringing back the full-on Mr. Smith Goes To Washington talking filibuster, but then Biden ended with: "if there's a complete lockdown and chaos [in the Senate], then we'll have to go beyond that." He didn't clarify this further, he just let it hang as an open threat to obstructive Republicans. He also returned to his main theme: "I want to get things done." Biden pointed out that the American people didn't much care about parliamentary games, all they really care about was what got done and what didn't.

When later asked about the issue again, Biden pointed out: "I have the support of Republican voters," which the opinion polls do actually show, at least on the pandemic relief effort. Biden also demurred from saying he was already for completely getting rid of the filibuster by saying: "let's deal with the [filibuster] abuse, first," indicating that this is going to be a drawn-out process, over at least the next few months.

Biden got another accusatory question about immigration, where he took the opportunity to draw the contrast with Trump even further. Biden promised that he would not allow kids to starve just across the border, as Trump did, instead he would honor both U.S. and international law and let the kids in. Biden strongly rejected Trump's approach, saying: "We are not going to do it." He also took the time to point out exactly what foreign aid to Central American countries actually accomplishes and why it is so important to fight the flow of refugees in their home countries to avoid problems at our border. He slammed Trump for doing nothing after recent hurricanes hit the region, in his most poignant example. Biden again announced they were opening 5,000 beds in Fort Bliss to help alleviate the problem as well.

The next reporter asked if Biden intended to keep to the May first deadline to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Biden was a little vague in answering, first giving a big shoutout to all the NATO countries who also have troops deployed. Biden did admit it would be "hard to meet the May first deadline," if only for the safety of our troops, and that it is "not my intention to stay there for a long time." This led to perhaps the only instance of a journalistic follow-up question that elicited some newsworthy information, since Biden was then asked whether troops would still be in Afghanistan "next year." Biden's response? "Can't see that."

Biden then got asked about journalistic access to the border holding facilities, which is actually a valid point, since he ran on promising transparency. Biden said they're working on it, they will be allowing the press full access soon, and "I will commit to transparency." When asked when exactly journalists would have full access, Biden gave the most refreshing answer of the whole day: "I don't know." The ability to admit that used to be a very valuable trait in a leader, because it shows they are being honest -- if they really don't know, rather than faking it somehow, then just admitting it is really the best option. Which Biden did.

After a few more unrelated questions, the subject turned to all the Jim Crow measures Republicans are moving as quickly as they can through statehouses everywhere across the country. Biden was asked the question with a political spin ("will you lose control of Congress in the midterms if you don't deliver on voting rights legislation in Congress?"), but he answered it more personally: "It's sick. It's sick." He returned to his theme of "bipartisanship means the people not the politicians," and spoke about "Republican voters I know" who are "disgusted by this." He then uttered what could be the most memorable line of the day: "This stuff makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle." The phrasing needs a little work , perhaps (maybe: "this stuff isn't just Jim Crow, you should call it Jim Eagle"?), but that's a pretty good basic slogan for other Democrats to pick up on.

Biden was then asked perhaps the stupidest question of the day, whether he would run for re-election and did he think he'd be running against his predecessor again. He responded with: "My predecessor?" and a big laugh. Later, after saying he was planning on running again, when pressed on the issue after a question about keeping Kamala Harris on the 2024 ticket, Biden got off an even better line: "I have no idea if there will be a Republican Party [in 2024]... do you?"

After getting a few more questions, Biden pointedly looked at his watch, as he was nearing the one-hour mark. He framed America's position towards China (and, indirectly, Russia) by predicting that the children and grandchildren of people in the room would later study this period to see whether "autocracy or democracy" carried the day -- since that was the much wider struggle we're engaged in. Or at least, it used to be. Biden condemned China's human rights record and slammed Trump for his complete inability to ever do so. Biden sounded like a Cold War politician during this answer, which is no surprise since that's really where he started.

Biden took another question on gun control efforts (he asked for just a little patience on getting his own policy out), and ended with a preview of an event in Pittsburgh which will shift his focus to working on an infrastructure bill in Congress.

Right here in my notes, I wrote: "should walk off here," and he really should have. Because his next question was apparently a little hard for him to hear, as he tilted his head and leaned way forward when the woman reporter started speaking. Then at the end, Biden actually left the podium and moved towards her to better hear, but then started speaking before he got back to the microphone. Look for this clip to run as comedy, on the late-night shows. But all it may mean is that Biden might possibly need a hearing aid, really. He didn't "wander off" or anything, he was just trying to hear the question. But that's not how the political opposition is going to portray it, I immediately knew.

This was also where Biden uttered his only real gaffe (only one I noticed, at any rate). When asked about children who show up at the border clutching a phone number, and why it was taking so long to contact the parents or other relatives, Biden promised they soon would be doing so "within 48 hours." Only problem was, at the beginning of the presser, Biden had promised "within 24 hours." So that's going to require a correction, one way or the other.

Biden then abruptly ended things just after a full hour had passed, with a quick: "But folks... I'm going," after which he walked off the stage.


Overall, a very good performance all around. If he had just left right after previewing his upcoming infrastructure event, he would have avoided both the video clip problem and the gaffe. Oh, well, it's his first presser -- he'll bound to get better in the next one.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


13 Comments on “Biden's First Presser”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Heading in, I had fairly low expectations for Biden.

    Shocking. Positively shocking.

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    And Biden continued hammering home the rhetorical masterstroke of his term in office (so far) -- the redefinition of how the press uses the word "bipartisan." To the punditocracy, this means: "getting enough members of Congress to cross the aisle and join you." To Biden, it means: "getting the support of a wide section of the American public, including people who did not vote for you." He drove that point home several times today. Here's but one example: "I've not been able to unite the Congress, but I have united the people," after which he cited polls which showed exactly that.

    Excellent! Very happy to hear that!

  3. [3] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Very nice play-by-play ... I needed that as I was too upset to watch the rest after his opening remarks about vaccines.

  4. [4] 
    SF Bear wrote:

    How about Jim Vulture, or Jim Buzzard, or just That Old Buzzard Jim.

  5. [5] 
    John From Censornati wrote:

    I'm glad that he didn't hammer home with that last breath wheezing thing from yesterday.

  6. [6] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    i got the news feed "biden falls on steps" and thought did he break any bones, is kamala taking over? turns out he just stumbled a couple times, like i do rushing to class. don't scare me like that, news.

  7. [7] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Biden applies an old engineering axiom in his press conferences:

    Simplicate and add lightness.

  8. [8] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Did he flash his famous Biden smile?

    So happy this site is up and running again. I thought I might have been banned with that scary message about errors and being speechless. Heh.

  9. [9] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    there's a lot to be pleased with. whether from medium, forbes or the guardian, the key word seems to be "masterclass"

  10. [10] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Should a healthy 25 year old American get a Covid-19 vaccine before a health worker in Nigeria or a long-term care facility resident in any country?

    The whole point of COVID-19 vaccinations at this point in time is to prevent deaths, not the sniffles AND to reduce the chances of mutations that would render the vaccines ineffective.

    Unless the US wishes to close itself off to the rest of the world, it had better smarten up and start acting like the global leader it wants to be.

  11. [11] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    My original take on the change of administrations was that we traded a world-class asshole for an over-the-hill mediocrity.

    The good news is, that represents progress.

    The bad news is, "Biden's First Presser" did absolutely nothing to revise that evaluation.

  12. [12] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:
  13. [13] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    SUCCESS!!!! :-)

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