The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The media wants to paint Joe Biden as a failure. He won’t let that happen.

President Biden speaks during a news conference at the White House on Jan. 19. (Oliver Contreras/Bloomberg)
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President Biden, while marking the end of his first year in office on Wednesday, met a press corps anxious to paint him as a failure. While conceding that his voting rights bill and Build Back Better package have both stalled, Biden stuck to one core theme: The economy and the effort to crush the pandemic are improving because of his administration.

Many of the questions from reporters verged on self-parody. Fox News’s Peter Doocy comically asked why Biden is pulling the country so far to the left. (Disclosure: I’m an MSNBC contributor.) The right-wing outfit Newsmax asked about his mental fitness for the job. It seemed everything was his fault, from Republicans’ refusal to support virtually any proposal to the fight between airlines and telecom companies over 5G.

Biden, for the most part, remained a “glass half full” president. “I’m not going to give up and accept things as they are now,” he said. “I call it ‘a job not yet finished.’” He stressed that the situation with covid-19 is improving. On school closures, he emphasized that 95 percent remain open.

He also seems to have heard complaints from Democrats, who have practically been begging him to focus more on his legislative successes. He started the news conference with a lengthy and passionate recitation of the low unemployment, widespread vaccination and infrastructure investment he achieved during his first year. “It’s been a year of challenges but also enormous progress,” he declared, conceding the nation should have done more testing earlier in the omicron surge. He also vowed to spend more time telling the country what he’s done and stressed the need to contrast his ambitions agenda with the stand-pat Republicans.

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On inflation, he shifted attention to the Federal Reserve, which is responsible for price stability. He nevertheless took credit for untangling supply chains. Instead of austerity, Biden’s solution is a more vibrant economy.

While he argued that his BBB plan would have helped to address rising prices, such as for child care and prescription drugs, he recognized for the first time that the bill may need to broken into “big chunks.” While he initially denied that he was going to “scale back” his ambitions, this suggested he was doing just that. He speculated that investments in clean energy and universal pre-K might get through, but that an expanded child tax credit and free community college would not.

And while he has not given up on voting rights, he indicated he might be able to pass a bill to reform the Electoral Count Act. He remained upbeat about Americans’ willingness to defy voting suppression efforts and turn out in large numbers. He dismissed Republicans’ false claims that he compared them to Bull Connor and George Wallace in a recent speech. (In reality, the speech asked if Republicans would side with the segregationists of history over John Lewis.) Instead, Biden pointed out that 16 sitting Republican once voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act.

Biden also responded to demands from his base for tougher rhetoric against the do-nothing Republicans. “What are Republicans for?” he asked repeatedly. He also humorously needled the Senate minority leader. “I actually like Mitch McConnell … but he has one straightforward objective: Make sure there’s nothing that makes me look good … with the public at large.” Again, he asked: “What’s Mitch for?”

He did stumble at one point. In response to a question about Russia, he almost certainly caused his foreign policy team to cringe when he suggested that the United States might not retaliate to a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine. Even worse, he said cyberterrorism might not trigger a full-scale response. His discussion of Russia was at best confusing, and at worst an echo of Dean Acheson, the secretary of state under President Harry S. Truman who was blamed for triggering the Korean War. Indeed, minutes after the news conference, the White House issued a written statement reaffirming any invasion would result in severe consequences.

In a moment of candor, he confessed, “I haven’t been out in the community enough and I haven’t been connecting with people,” and that this was a problem of “my own making.”

In a show of bravado, he asked if the reporters wanted to continue the presser for another hour or two. (He gave them 20 more minutes.) By then, he had demonstrated he had far more patience than was necessary considering the questions’ low quality.

In short, with the exception of the Russia questions, Biden turned in a strong performance that belies the right’s accusation that he is feeble. He was determinedly upbeat, ready to defend a productive first year and more pointed than he has been in dealing with Republican extremism. The press corps, by contrast, revealed once more that they put more emphasis on sounding tough, asking unanswerable questions and creating conflict than they do on exploring some of the gravest problems our country has ever faced. Our democracy deserves better.