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New title, same Biden in first White House news conference

Jonathan Allen
·4 min read
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WASHINGTON — Joe Biden's first news conference as president was true to form: cautiously newsy, aimed at moderation and more cogent at the start than the finish.

Biden began by setting a new goal of 200 million Covid-19 vaccinations in his first 100 days in office, said he plans to run for re-election and emphasized that his administration is expelling "the vast majority" of migrants who come across the southern border. He also acknowledged he probably won't hit a May deadline for pulling troops out of Afghanistan and hinted that he might "go beyond" calling for senators to engage in traditional "talking filibusters" when they are blocking his agenda.

In that way, the new president gave the public a clearer view of his positions on a wide variety of topics, digging into substantive policy details in a way that his predecessor usually did not. On immigration, in particular, Biden was well prepared for the questions that came his way. And he distanced himself from both hard-liners who accuse him of implementing policies that encourage migrants to come to the U.S. and progressives who want him to reverse more of President Donald Trump's regime quickly.

"They should all be going back," Biden said. "The only people we are not going to let sitting there on the other side of the Rio Grande with no help are children.” He also committed only to allowing reporters into detention facilities "once we get this thing moving" to improve conditions.

Even though he misfired a couple of times, the change in texture from Trump-era news conferences was impossible to miss.

"It was refreshing to see a president that seemed acutely aware of the different fronts that he has to tackle to get the country back in order," María Teresa Kumar, CEO of Voto Latino and an MSNBC contributor, said of Biden's ability to address the details of voting rights, immigration, infrastructure and foreign policy. "It’s through that breadth of knowledge that we recognize why public service matters and why having a deep understanding of policy matters."

But if Biden's approach was familiar, so too was a style that became less smooth as the news conference wore on. He referred often to notes in front of him, stumbled over his own words and occasionally shifted course mid-response.

All around, it was an authentically Bidenesque turn at the podium.

That also provided fodder for his detractors.

When asked about his stance on the Senate's filibuster rule, which many in his party are anxious to scrap, Biden appeared to lose his train of thought before suggesting he might join those voices.

"The best way to get something done if you — if it holds near and dear to you, that you like to be able to — anyway, we're going to get a lot done," he said. "If there's a complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster, then we'll have to go beyond what I'm talking about."

Repeatedly, Biden pivoted quickly away from questions — perhaps a sign of political dexterity, rather than an inability to answer them. He refused to say whether he would maintain Trump's tariffs on Chinese goods or try to restrict Beijing's access to banking systems, choosing instead to play up his relationship with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and decry autocratic rule.

Similarly, when asked about gun control measures in the wake of mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado, he shifted into promoting his transportation, infrastructure and climate change goals.

"No wonder they kept him from doing this for so long," Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tweeted in reference to the more than 60 days that elapsed between Biden's inauguration and his first news conference.

Biden allies were encouraged by one grand omission of the White House press corps.

"Surest sign that @POTUS’s handling of the GLOBAL PANDEMIC - that continues to dominate every Americans’ life - is going well is that he DID NOT GET ONE QUESTION ABOUT IT," Jennifer Palmieri, who served as communications director on Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, wrote on Twitter.

Others pointed to what they saw as a leitmotif of Biden's answers that drew a sharp contrast with Trump and a throughline from domestic to global politics.

He called Republican attempts to restrict voting rights "sick" and later articulated his view of a changing world in which the ability of democracies to compete hangs in the balance.

"This is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies," Biden said. "If you notice, you don't have Russia talking about communism anymore. It is about autocracy. ... That is what is at stake."

Kumar said she was encouraged by the change from Trump, who frequently praised dictators.

Biden "stated clearly that autocracy is democracy’s biggest threat," she said.

Like him or not, the Biden who showed up in the White House East Room for his first formal news conference was exactly the one Americans have come to expect.