Joe Biden’s first six weeks in office demonstrate that a presidency built on the idea of bringing “normal” back isn’t concerned about being normal itself.
The first trip abroad. The first solo news conference. The first in-person world leader visit to the White House. The first speech to Congress. The first judicial nominees and major overseas ambassadorial picks. These are some of the traditional signposts that help measure a young presidency’s velocity.
Biden has yet to pass any of them.
The president faces the daunting dual challenge of smothering the pandemic and breathing new life into the economy. According to aides, congressional allies and foreign diplomats, anything that does not appear to advance those goals risks being labeled superfluous, at least for now, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Many of these items belong to the realm of style more than substance, but they can set the tone for a presidency in its early days.
Historically, presidents have used State-of-the-Union-like speeches to a joint meeting of Congress in February to promote their economic agendas to lawmakers and an audience of millions. Just based on the calendar, Biden has missed his chance.
Presidents possess other powers of public persuasion — like news conferences. Biden hasn’t done one of those since taking office, though he regularly takes questions in settings like the Oval Office.
The president is “behind his 15 most recent predecessors, who all held a solo news conference within 33 days of taking office,” CNN reported this week. It has been 44 days since Biden’s inauguration.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said a news conference, like a speech to Congress, will have to wait until his coronavirus rescue package is law and direct payments have started to flow to Americans.
“Once the American Rescue Plan has passed and relief is on its way to the families, the president will have more to say about more of his build back better agenda,” Psaki said by email. “He looks forward to having a press conference [in] the coming weeks.”
Presidential solo news conferences have always been something of an obsession for members of the White House press corps, who see the televised sessions as opportunities to get answers rather than replies on major issues of the day. Early in a president’s term, they can serve to set the tone of relations with Congress, allies, or hostile nations. (The chance to reach a vast audience doesn’t exactly repel reporters, either.)
In his four years in office, Trump did 44 regular news conferences, none of them in prime time, and another 44 joint news conferences. In his two terms, Obama did 65 regular news conferences, four in prime time, and another 95 joint news conferences, according to this database.
One of the presidency’s great perks is Air Force One. Biden has used the iconic blue-and-white liveried plane for domestic travel a few times, but has yet to embark on his first foreign trip.
Biden is no stranger to meeting dignitaries abroad. But ever since Theodore Roosevelt became the first sitting president to go overseas with a 1906 trip to Panama, the world has always watched when a new commander-in-chief makes his first foreign foray.
George H.W. Bush visited Canada, where he met with then-prime minister Brian Mulroney in February 1989. Bill Clinton also went to Canada, where he met with Mulroney, as well as Russia’s then-president, Boris Yeltsin, in April 1993. George W. Bush traveled to Mexico (February 2001), Barack Obama to Canada (February 2009). Trump’s first foreign sojourn was in Saudi Arabia (May 2017).
The president has held virtual summits with his Canadian and Mexican counterparts and attended a Group of Seven meeting via videoconference, but when he will finally look another foreign leader in the eye is an open question.
The White House has poured cold water on British reports that Biden would travel to the United Kingdom in June to meet with Queen Elizabeth II and attend a G7 meeting in person.
“In terms of whether or not he will travel, we haven't made a determination on that at this point either,” Psaki said this week. “It will be related to covid restrictions and the advice of our health and medical team.”
Biden’s special envoys for Yemen and Afghanistan, Tim Lenderking and Zalmay Khalilzad, appear to be the most senior U.S. officials to head overseas so far, exempt from coronavirus-related travel restrictions.
“There is a general disposition not only within the State Department, but across the Executive Branch against travel for all but purposes that are deemed essential or exigent,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said last month.
Or, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it more pithily this week: “We’re grounded.”
That doesn’t apply to Biden. But “a president traveling with a full plane of staff, press, security details is very different from one envoy traveling or even a cabinet member,” a senior administration official told me. “We will make decisions based on what is recommended by health and medical team.”
The president has yet to nominate ambassadors to overseas posts.
Aides blame a transition abbreviated by Trump’s refusal to accept his defeat.
And Psaki this week suggested Biden was in line with traditional timelines, saying: “Historically the timeline has been around the spring.”
Obama announced he was nominating career diplomat Christopher Hill as ambassador to Iraq and Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry as ambassador to Afghanistan on March 11, 2009. News of Eikenberry’s pick had leaked in January.
When Biden will start naming envoys to Paris, London and Rome “is a popular question,” Psaki said. “Including from some people who want to be ambassadors.”
What’s happening now
The vote-a-rama over the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill will likely drag into the weekend, Erica Werner, Jeff Stein and Tony Romm report. Once the Senate is done voting on amendments, the bill will go back to the House for final approval before landing on Biden’s desk.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) guaranteed that the Senate’s version of the bill will be passed in the House despite changes that will draw liberal pushback, including narrowing the eligibility for $1,400 checks and excluding a minimum wage hike. Biden will make a public pitch for the aid during a “roundtable on the American Rescue Plan," John Wagner reports.
A last ditch effort to include the minimum wage hike into the bill failed. Seven Democrats including Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) – plus Angus King (I-Me.) – voted against the amendment to include it.
Senate Democrats agreed to lower the bill’s weekly unemployment benefits to $300 a week, down from $400, but extend them through September – a month longer than the House bill, the WSJ reports.
The economy added 379,000 jobs in February. The level “surpassed analysts’ estimates but remains below the rate needed to regain the more than 9 million jobs lost since last year,” Eli Rosenberg reports. “The unemployment rate dropped a tenth of a percentage point to 6.2 percent.”
Capitol Police requested a 60-day extension of some of the 5,200 National Guard members activated in D.C. in response to the Jan. 6 riot, opening the door to a military presence in the nation’s capital into spring, John Wagner and Colby Itkowitz report.
House impeachment manager Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) is suing Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Rudolph W. Giuliani and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) over the Capitol riot. Swalwell claims “they should be held liable for injuries and destruction caused by their incitement of the” mob, Spencer Hsu reports.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) will likely be stripped of his emergency powers today. State Democrats are expected to pass a bill that would repeal some of Cuomo’s executive powers, ABC7 reports. The move comes after the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times reported that the embattled governor’s top advisers altered a July report on coronavirus nursing-home deaths, resulting in a significant undercount of the death toll attributed to these facilities.
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Lunchtime reads from The Post
- “More than 50 companies have vowed to be carbon-neutral by 2040,” by Desmond Butler and Steven Mufson: “There is a quickening rhythm of corporations with big carbon footprints pledging action to combat climate change. And their cascade of splashy announcements spans the worlds of retailing, technology and delivery services. Yet even the prodigious voluntary steps by a portion of the corporate world so far lack the speed, scale or scientific know-how needed to move the thermometer of the warming planet in the right direction.”
- “China needs a baby boom to avert a demographic crisis. Small steps won’t be enough,” by Lily Kuo and Pei Lin Wu: “Chinese officials have been telegraphing the possibility of further loosening or scrapping birth limits in place for more than three decades to combat an intractable demographic crisis that threatens the country’s long-term growth and prosperity.”
… and beyond
- “The rise of the Biden Republicans,” by Politico’s Zack Stanton: “In leaning too hard into white identity politics — and perhaps being too focused on what he thought Reagan Democrats wanted — Trump accelerated the rise of a new voting bloc that is, in many ways, the mirror image of the Reagan Democrats. Call them the Biden Republicans. Like the Reagan Democrats, they’re heavily white and live in suburbs. But where the Reagan Dems are blue-collar and culturally conservative, Greenberg sees the Biden Republicans as more affluent, highly educated and supportive of diversity.”
- “How Michael Madigan’s departure accelerates a shift in Chicago politics from old-school machine to new-era progressives,” by the Chicago Tribune’s Bill Ruthhart and John Byrne: “The result is a move away from iron-fist bossism toward a more diffuse leadership structure that’s more diverse and practices an increasingly progressive style of politics centered on economic and racial equity. Michael Madigan’s departure as party boss and House speaker is expected to accelerate that change, say more than two dozen Chicago elected officials and political operatives.”
- “Her journey from Guatemala to the U.S. ended with a crash near the border,” by the Los Angeles Times’s Brittny Mejia: “Yesenia Magali Melendrez Cardona told her father she wanted to follow in his footsteps. He had made the trek from Guatemala to the U.S. 15 years earlier in search of a new life. In February, she left a job and her studies behind and headed north. … On Tuesday, Yesenia found herself in a situation just as perilous as the one she had fled.”
The first 100 days
No surprises here: It's looking like the relief bill will pass with no Republican support.
- Democrats had been holding out hope that Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) would vote with them to open debate on the bill, but she didn’t. “However, Murkowski told reporters later that she was still examining the final version of the legislation,” Werner, Stein and Romm report, meaning she could change her mind for the final Senate vote.
- While Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) forced the Senate chamber to read the 628-page bill last night as a delay tactic, nearly 900 Americans may have died from the virus, Philip Bump estimates. And while Johnson asked for the lengthy read, he wasn’t there to object when Democrats reduced debate to three hours instead of 20, our colleague Paul Kane points out, meaning the bill will now pass faster, not slower.
Pressure grows on Biden to end the filibuster.
“Liberals have long pushed for sweeping changes like expanding the Supreme Court, ending the electoral college and banning gerrymandering. But as Biden faces a critical stretch of his presidency, even moderate Democrats are urging more immediate changes — particularly rewriting the filibuster, so that at the very least fewer bills need 60 votes to pass the Senate,” Annie Linskey, Sean Sullivan and Maria Sacchetti report.
- Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) both joined calls to abolish the filibuster this week. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), also a moderate, told The Post he could envision changing the filibuster if bills are floundering.
- For the moment, however, “Democrats don’t have the votes to abolish the filibuster altogether, since some in their own caucus, like Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), oppose it,” our colleagues report. “So advocates are looking for ways to limit the filibuster instead of ending it — and hoping Biden weighs in.”
Quote of the day
“It will be a Democratic Party Armageddon in 2022 if we sit here on our butts and say, ‘Oh, we’re sorry, we’re not as determined to get our agenda passed as Republicans were,’” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who is spearheading the effort to overhaul the filibuster.
Biden plans on working with Congress to pull back war authorizations.
- Biden wants to “repeal the war authorizations that have underpinned U.S. military operations across the globe for the past two decades and negotiate a new one that reins in the open-ended nature of America’s foreign wars,” Politico reports. This “marks the first time as president that Biden has publicly endorsed jettisoning resolutions passed by Congress a generation ago that have been used to justify military operations in places few envisioned at the time.”
- Psaki said Biden wants to “ensure that the authorizations for the use of military force currently on the books are replaced with a narrow and specific framework that will ensure we can protect Americans from terrorist threats while ending the forever wars.”
- Acting fast: Just two days ago, “a bipartisan group of senators, led by Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.), introduced a bill to repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force and one passed in 1991 ahead of the first Iraq War,” Politico points out.
FEMA would help with a border surge in Texas under a new administration proposal.
- DHS officials sent a request to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) this week asking for the state’s consent to proceed with FEMA assistance in handling the growing number of migrant adults and children crossing from Mexico, Nick Miroff reports. The federal government would absorb the costs. Abbott’s office has not yet said what it plans to do. The move signals that the White House views the influx as a significant emergency.
The Capitol Police Board, the secretive panel that oversees protection of the building, is headed for major changes.
- “Lawmakers of both parties in the House and the Senate, some previously unfamiliar with the sweeping authority of the [three-member] board, have expressed astonishment at its lack of accountability and its inability to rapidly respond to the riot at the Capitol,” the Times’s Carl Hulse reports. “Like many things on Capitol Hill, the board is a remnant of the past that has survived in large part because it suits those who hold power in Congress. A long line of House and Senate leaders in both parties have favored its existence because they handpick two of its three voting members.”
The future of the GOP
Republican governors scorn Biden's pandemic restrictions as they compete for primacy in the pro-Trump party.
- Abbott’s decision “to end [Texas'] mask mandate and lift all restrictions on business reflects a broader move by politically ambitious Republican governors to channel the rising anger of conservative constituents over government efforts to curb the coronavirus,” Isaac Stanley-Becker reports.
- Abbott’s announcement comes days after South Dakota’s Kristi Noem and Florida’s Ron DeSantis — two other GOP governors and potential 2024 hopefuls — boasted about their efforts to resist the same sort of restrictions during CPAC.
- With just 26 percent of Texas Republicans viewing the pandemic as a significant crisis (according to a UT-Texas Tribune poll), “the criticism directed at Abbott from the Biden administration isn’t a bug in his strategy. It’s a feature of its appeal for Republican voters influenced by Internet-inspired arguments portraying opposition to public health guidelines as a cultural battle against liberal elites.”
House GOP leaders have urged Republicans to make clear they’re not the party of white supremacy, but they are grappling with extremist episodes within.
- Republicans worry Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.)'s participation at the America First Political Action Conference, which was organized by known white nationalist Nick Fuentes, “tacitly signals the embrace of extremist groups that have no place in the GOP,” Politico reports.
- So far, however, only the House GOP’s No. 3 leader, Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) has publicly criticized Gosar’s participation.
Hot on the left
The FBI arrested a Trump appointee and former State Department aide on charges that he stormed the Capitol. Federico Klein, who is also a former Trump campaign employee, was still employed at the State Department on Jan. 6, Katie Shepherd reports. Meanwhile, Richard Barnett, the rioter infamously photographed sitting with his feet propped on a desk in Pelosi’s office during the attack, shouted during a virtual hearing that it’s “not fair” that he remains in jail, Meryl Kornfield reports. “This has been a bunch of crap,” Barnett yelled before the judge abruptly called for a recess.
Hot on the right
Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch said it is Fox News’s job to serve as the “loyal opposition” to the Biden administration. "The main beneficiary of the Trump administration from a ratings point of view was MSNBC. That’s because they were the loyal opposition," Murdoch said during a Morgan Stanley conference, per the Hollywood Reporter. "They called out the president when he needed to be called out. That’s what our job is now with the Biden administration, and you’ll see our ratings really improve from here."
People vaccinated by age group, visualized
This week in Washington
Biden and Vice President Harris will receive an economic briefing with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen at 2:15 p.m. At 5:30 p.m., they’ll receive a briefing from members of the Covid-19 Response Team.
A group of liberal House Democrats, including Reps. Terri Sewell (Ala.), Cori Bush (Mo.) and Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.) will meet with Amazon workers in Alabama today in a show of solidarity for their union drive.
Some conservatives said Biden insulted people of Eurasian ancestry when he used the world “Neanderthal” to criticize Republican governors. Trevor Noah said Biden should apologize, because “he forced [Republicans] to acknowledge evolution”: