Biden's new Build Back Better strategy: 5 takeaways from his long (and feisty) press conference

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WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden acknowledged "frustration and fatigue" in the country over a pandemic that's lasted two years during a rare news conference Wednesday, in which he also addressed record-high inflation, his stalled domestic agenda and Russia's threatened invasion of Ukraine.

The nearly two-hour news conference – the second time Biden has fielded questions in a stand-alone setting from the White House – came as the president caps a turbulent first year in office.

Biden's approval rating has been on a downward slide for six months. Inflation is on the rise, a surging omicron COVID-19 variant has overwhelmed hospitals and the president's legislative agenda is stalled in Congress.

Biden repeatedly pushed back at the narrative that his presidency has not met expectations, even as he conceded he would have to pursue a new strategy on key priorities, including his $1.75 trillion climate and social policy bill.

"What is the trajectory of the country? Is it moving in the right direction?" Biden said. "I don't know how we can say it's not."

More: 'My guess is he will move in': Biden predicts Russia will invade Ukraine in two-hour news conference

Despite framing his presidency early on around transformational change, Biden has failed to win the support of moderate Democrats in the evenly divided Senate for passage of his $1.75 trillion social-spending plan, Build Back Better, and a carve-out of the filibuster to pass voting-rights legislation.

"I don’t think I’ve overpromised at all, and I’m going to stay on this track," Biden said, though adding that he would likely have to split up components of Build Back Better to try to pass in the Senate.

Here are five takeaways from the press conference:

Biden willing to 'break up' Build Back Better plan

For the first time, Biden said he would be willing to break up his $1.75 trillion sprawling Build Back Better plan to try to get the most important elements passed in the Senate.

“I’m confident we can get pieces, big chunks of the Build Back Better (plan), signed into law,” Biden said. "It's clear to me that we're going to have to probably break it up."

Biden has been unable to win passage of his social spending and climate plan because of opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., over the price tag and scope. Some moderate Democrats have pushed for Biden to divide the measure into smaller pieces and try to get some of the most popular items passed before the midterm elections.

"I think we can break the package up, get as much as we can now and come back and fight for the rest," Biden said.

More: Free pre-K, Medicare expansion: What won't happen with Build Back Better likely dead

President Joe Biden answers questions during a news conference in the East Room of the White House on January 19, 2022 in Washington, DC.
President Joe Biden answers questions during a news conference in the East Room of the White House on January 19, 2022 in Washington, DC.

Biden singled out lowering prescription drug prices, climate initiatives, subsidized childcare and universal preschool as items that are popular among Americans but that Republicans oppose.

“We just have to make the case of what we're for and what the other team’s not for,” Biden said.

Biden said an extension of the federal child tax credit program and tuition-free community college are proposals he might not be able to get passed. He had already conceded the latter item in early negotiations.

Blames Republicans, lays off Manchin and Sinema

Biden spent much of his press conference slamming Republicans as unwilling to compromise with him on his domestic agenda and voting rights, ignoring the fact that it's two moderate Democrats – Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. – who remain obstacles.

"I did not anticipate that there'd be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn't get anything done," Biden said of Republicans. "What are they for?"

It was reminiscent of complaints former President Barack Obama had when he dealt with a Republican-controlled Senate. At one point, Biden singled out Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: "I think that the fundamental question is: What's Mitch for?"

More: As voting rights push fizzles, Biden's failure to unite his own party looms again

But it is Democrats who currently have control of the Senate, albeit by a razor-thin margin. Despite months of negotiations, Biden has failed to persuade Manchin to get behind Build Back Better. And neither Sinema nor Manchin have backed his push for a filibuster carve-out to pass voting rights legislation.

Biden took no swings at either Democrat – perhaps recognizing that putting pressure on them publicly might not be the way to win their support for future battles.

A balance between achievements and 'fatigue and frustration'

Biden walked a fine line in the press conference, balancing empathy for Americans still coping with a pandemic while touting what he claimed as his administration's biggest achievements.

He pointed to 210 million Americans vaccinated for COVID-19 under his watch, unemployment dropping from 6.4% to 3.9% and child poverty declining by 40%. He also talked about signing into law the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.

“Still for all this progress, we know there’s a lot of frustration and fatigue in this country,” Biden said in his opening remarks. “We know why: COVID-19 has now been challenging us in a way that it's the new enemy.”

More: Biden's approval rating drops to new low of 33% on concerns about his handling of COVID, economy: poll

Biden's approach was an acknowledgement of a country on edge. A USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll this month found 57% say the country is on the wrong direction and 30% the right direction.

He said "nobody has ever organized" an effort on par with the scale of his administration's work to get Americans vaccinated. "Now, should everybody in America know that?" Biden said. "No. They're just trying to figure out how to put three squares in the table and stay safe."

Yet at times, he was visibly frustrated over not getting credit for what the White House believes is true progress on improving the economy and fighting the pandemic.

"Can you think of any other president who has done as much in one year," Biden said. "I'm serious. You guys talk about how nothing's happened. I don't think there's been as much on any incoming president's plate ... than I had. I'm not complaining. I knew that coming in."

Biden predicts Putin will invade Ukraine, open to summit

Biden said he was open to a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin to head off that country’s possible invasion of Ukraine and defuse the simmering tensions with NATO.

At the same time, Biden warned Putin that Russian troops could suffer severe casualties in a major conflict with Ukraine, even if Russia might eventually prevail.

“My guess is he will move in. He has to do something,” the president said.

Biden reiterated the U.S. would impose “severe economic consequences” on Russia should it choose to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and said he doesn’t think Putin wants “a new Cold War” with the West.

More: Biden, Democrats call for sanctions on Putin, other top Russian officials if Kremlin invades Ukraine

Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border and made a series of demands – including that NATO bar Ukraine from ever joining the transatlantic alliance. Biden’s advisers have said that’s a nonstarter.

Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is preparing to meet with his Russian counterpart in Geneva on Friday. But U.S. negotiators have so far failed to produce any breakthroughs in the standoff.

No White House staff overhaul, Biden says, but other changes

Despite ending his first year with a series of setbacks, Biden said he’s satisfied with his White House team but pointed to three things he intends to do differently over the coming year.

Chief among them, Biden said he will go on the road more often to tout his administration’s work and what he wants to do next.

“I’m going to get out of this place more often,” Biden said. “I’m going to go out and talk to the public ... I’m going to make the case of what we’ve already done, why it’s important and what we’ll do if they support what else I want to do.”

Biden has gone on fewer presidential trips than his predecessors, in part because the pandemic has prevented some travel opportunities.

The president said he also plans to seek the advice of more outside experts “from academia to editorial writers to think tanks” to get their perspective and “constructive criticism.” Third, he said he would be “deeply involved” in the midterm elections to help Democratic candidates.

“We're going to be raising a lot of money. We're going to be out there making sure that we're helping all those candidates – and scores of them have already asked me to come in and campaign with them.”

Biden still wants to fight inflation with BBB

Biden sought to ease concerns about rising inflation – an issue that threatens to hang over his second year in office – and argued that passage of his Build Back Better bill could help curtail rising prices.

It's an argument Biden has made many times before. But with the legislation now stalled in the Senate, Biden is taking a risk by continuing to tie the bill to his efforts to combat inflation.

“If price increases are what you’re worried about, the best answer is my Build Back Better plan,” he said. He called its passage "the single best way to take the burden off middle class and working class folks."

More: What is driving US inflation to a 39-year high? The reasons and solutions are complicated

Inflation hit a 39-year high in December as prices jumped for everything from food to rent to cars. Biden said the way to tackle high prices is a more productive economy, where more small businesses are able to compete and goods can get to the market faster and cheaper.

Biden pointed out that he signed an executive order to tackle unfair competition, “and we’re going to continue to enforce it,” he said.

He blamed supply chain issues as the leading cause of the inflation spike and said his administration will continue to work on trying to increase oil supplies that are available.

The president said his administration will target ways to reduce the price of natural gas and take the burden off European countries totally dependent on Russia for fuel. He also addressed a lack of computer chips needed to manufacture automobiles.

“We have the capacity, and we're going to do everything in our power to do it, to become self-reliant on the computer chips that we need in order to be able to produce more automobiles. That's underway,” he said.

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison and Chelsey Cox at @therealco.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden's new Build Back Better strategy unveiled in feisty exchange