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Opinion In Year Two, Biden needs to be The Boss

President Biden during his news conference Jan. 19 at the White House. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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Anyone who is surprised that President Biden can talk for two straight hours doesn’t know President Biden. The notable thing about his marathon news conference Wednesday was not its length but its impact: He made news, stated his case forcefully and laid out an agenda for everyone else to follow.

More of the same, please.

The most important words about Year Two of his presidency came at the very end, in response to a question about whether he would reach out to Republicans on reforming the Electoral Count Act. He gave a clear answer — yes, he will — and then rambled at some length, but in a telling way. Here is what he said:

“And one of the things that I do think that has been made clear to me — speaking of polling — is the public doesn’t want me to be the ‘president senator.’ They want me to be the president and let senators be senators. And so, if I’ve made — and I’ve made many mistakes, I’m sure. If I made a mistake, I’m used to negotiating to get things done, and I’ve been, in the past, relatively successful at it in the United States Senate, even as vice president. But I think that role as president is — is a different role.”

That sounded like an accurate self-assessment. And it sounded, encouragingly, like a plan.

Biden's report card is in. See how Post Opinions graded his first year.

I happen to believe that Biden had a successful and hugely consequential Year One. His biggest accomplishment, in my view, came in the battle against the covid-19 pandemic. When Biden took office, a small fraction of the country was vaccinated against the coronavirus. Today, more than 200 million Americans are “fully vaccinated” and more than 80 million have also had booster shots. Basically, everyone who is eligible — and who has not been brainwashed by anti-vaccine conspiracy theories — now has lifesaving protection against covid-19.

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This monumental logistical achievement has saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens. If the first duty of any president is to protect the American people, Biden has done his job.

Has the administration’s messaging on covid-19 been consistent? Of course not. Covid-19 is caused by a novel pathogen that is constantly hitting us with new variants. Yes, the White House, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Food and Drug Administration should better coordinate their pronouncements. But the message inevitably has to change as scientists’ understanding of the virus deepens. Critics who say otherwise are being disingenuous or just plain dumb.

Former surgeon general Jerome Adams: No, the pandemic 'goal posts' aren't being moved.

The Biden administration also got Congress to pass a $1.9 trillion covid rescue bill and a $1.2 trillion bill to revamp and modernize the nation’s infrastructure. Biden also persuaded the Senate to pass a $250 billion bill to improve technological competitiveness with China and got a record 41 federal judges confirmed in his first year. Only the most strident GOP partisans could call these achievements some kind of legislative failure.

No, Biden couldn’t muster the votes for his transformational Build Back Better package or for much-needed legislation to protect voting rights — because Republicans opposed these measures as a solid bloc. The president, finally, appears to have given up on his quixotic hope that GOP senators, some of whom he considers close friends, will ever have an “epiphany” that breaks the spell Donald Trump cast upon them and brings them back to their senses.

So now, one hopes, no more illusions. And no more letting others — opponents or allies — set the agenda.

Biden can and should give the nation more of what we saw this week, holding more formal news conferences and also dropping by the White House briefing room to make announcements and take questions. The news cycle is his to command whenever he wants, and doing so is part of his job.

As for legislation, Biden can split his Build Back Better package into smaller, focused bills, as he suggested Wednesday. He can dare Republicans to vote against lowering the price of insulin, or making child care and elder care more accessible, or guaranteeing universal pre-kindergarten. And on voting rights, Biden might be able to pick off enough Senate Republicans to fix the Electoral Count Act — and perhaps even to pass a version of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

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Progressive Democrats, who thus far have been supremely patient and pragmatic, would once again be asked to swallow hard and accept what they see as relative crumbs. Moderates, meanwhile, will be increasingly anxious about the coming midterm elections.

As he holds his party together, Biden should stop going to the Capitol to meet with legislators and instead have them go to him at the White House. He needs to keep reminding them — and maybe himself — that he’s not their colleague anymore. In Year Two, he needs to be The Boss.