Republicans spent the last year helping to set an incredibly low bar for Joe Biden. And for the last year, Biden has benefited from being, as George W. Bush might say, “misunderestimated.”
But Biden’s first presidential press conference tested him in ways he managed to avoid during much of the campaign. He was forced to think on his feet and, despite repeatedly consulting his notes, make unscripted comments in real time. The result wasn’t a total disaster, but it wasn't pretty, either.
It revealed a president who was shaky, sometimes incoherent, and not terribly skilled at this part of the job, all of which might have made him the equivalent of chum in the water during a press feeding frenzy if the press had been nearly as frenzied as it was with his predecessor.
Biden started off by discussing his progress on COVID-19 (including the $1.9 trillion relief bill he signed), a topic that played to his strengths. “I got elected to solve problems,” he declared, starting with COVID-19 and the economic dislocation it caused. He said lots of folksy, Biden-esque things like, “I’ve been hired to solve problems, not create division.” He said the fundamental thing was for people to have “peace of mind” regarding their healthcare and economic futures. Biden said Republicans would have to decide “whether or not we want to work together” or whether they want to “continue the politics of division.”
That’s when things started to go a little off the rails.
In response to a question about the border crisis (a term Biden refuses to use), Biden discounted the notion that migrants might be flocking to the border because he was perceived as a nice guy. He argued instead that the surge was cyclical and that “It happens every single solitary year.” While there are elements of truth to this rationale, it also doesn’t jibe with The Washington Post report that said we are witnessing the “biggest surge in 20 years.” Biden also said, “We’re sending back the vast majority of families that are coming,” but according to CNN’s Daniel Dale, “That was incorrect in February, when 41 percent of migrants in family units were being sent back. (The vast majority of single adults, 79 percent, were being sent back.)”
Of course, policy changes regarding the border (and gun violence, and voting rights) are contingent on Democrats overcoming the filibuster, which explains why reporters circled back to that issue several times.
Biden joked that we should go back to the way it was “when I came to the United States Senate 120 years ago” and seemed to endorse the notion of reviving a talking filibuster, explaining that eventually “People got tired of talking and tired of collapsing.” It is debatable whether this reform would make filibusters more rare (since Republicans would have to actually talk) or more common (since Republicans would get to eat up more of the Senate’s time in the process, making it that much tougher for Biden to pass his agenda items).
At one point, Biden seemed to be on the verge of making big news by telling us he wanted to blow up the filibuster. Indeed, he stressed he wanted to “get things done,” and even warned us that he was going to say something “outrageous.” He must have thought better of it, though, because he did not follow up with anything outrageous, settling, instead, on some vague, discursive comments about possibly having to go “beyond what I’m talking about,” whatever that means. He also made some mistakes, including saying the filibuster was “being abused in a gigantic way” and then citing—as evidence—statistics from last year when Democrats were in the minority.
That’s right, Biden’s best argument for why we need to get rid of the filibuster rested on Democrats’ efforts to stymie Trump’s agenda. Amazing. Later, he agreed that the filibuster was a “relic of Jim Crow” but added, “Successful electoral politics is the art of the possible. Let’s figure out how we can get this done… Let’s deal with the abuse of the filibuster first.” This was an odd disconnect. If the filibuster is really a relic of Jim Crow, then the problem is the instrument itself, and not how it's been more recently abused. (Speaking of Jim Crow, in response to a question about Republican voter laws in the states, Biden said that it “makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle.” It’s unclear to me who or what Jim Eagle is, but I suspect he or it got a lot of Google hits today.)
When asked about gun violence, Biden responded by noting that successful presidents prioritize things. Then he ignored the question while segueing into a riff about how his next major initiative would be infrastructure. This seemed to signal that reforming our gun laws was not his priority. While this might be a smart strategy to follow (a president only has so much political capital), it also seemed like the sort of strategy that could alienate many progressives and others who support common-sense gun laws in the aftermath of two high-profile mass shootings. Or then again, he might have just lost track of the question he was supposed to be answering; it was hard to tell.
The good news for Biden is that he did nothing that would undermine his reputation as a decent, likable, moderate, commonsensical guy. Even as he was evasive and noncommittal, Biden generally came across as friendly and kind—and in the post-Trump era, that amity goes a long way. But whether you are a conservative who believes Biden’s bungling of the border and lack of transparency (Biden suggested he would indeed allow unfettered media access to border facilities—after he cleaned up the problems) deserves more scrutiny, or you are a progressive who believes Biden should be bolder when it comes to passing immigration reform, electoral reform, and gun control, this press conference did little to assuage your concerns.
Why does it matter? In the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency, expectations are low, but the American public has a right to expect more than just a president who clears a low bar—especially when he aspires to be a transformative president who, according to Axios’ reporting, “loves the growing narrative that he’s bolder and bigger-thinking than President Obama.”
If Joe Biden gets the big things right, it won’t matter that he isn’t good at press conferences. But that’s a big “if.” Based on Thursday’s performance, it’s easy to understand why he’s been dragging his heels.