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5 takeaways from the Biden news conference

President Biden held a news conference on Jan. 19 as his administration approaches one year in office. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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President Biden held a rare news conference Wednesday — running nearly two hours — amid continued struggles both with the pandemic and his agenda at the end of his first year in office.

Below are some key takeaways from the back-and-forth.

1. The end of Biden’s wishful bipartisan epiphany

In case Biden’s voting rights speech last week didn’t make it clear, he reinforced that he has largely given up on his high-minded but far-fetched vision for bipartisanship on his watch. He instead cast his Republican opponents as principle-free, power-hungry legislators.

Biden said he underestimated how much resistance there would be to his agenda.

“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. “Think about this: What are Republicans for? What are they for? I mean one thing they’re for.”

At another point, Biden seemed to admit again that he misread the situation, pointing to the many sitting Republican senators who once voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act.

“What has changed?” Biden said, adding: “That’s not the Republican Party.”

Biden has long made clear his affinity for past days of bipartisanship in the Senate. But he was also vice president for eight years during Barack Obama’s presidency, when we saw the same kind of partisanship and obstruction we see today.

During his 2020 campaign, Biden was often criticized for a Pollyanna view of the potential for bipartisanship. Acknowledging that the idea is apparently unattainable is significant, even if it’s self-serving for Biden as an explanation for the failures of his larger agenda and a preview of 2022 campaign arguments.

Biden used the same “what are they for” line to refer to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), while saying that he liked McConnell.

“He has one straightforward objective: Make sure that there’s nothing I do that makes me look good in his mind with the public at large,” Biden said. “And that’s okay. I’m a big boy. I’ve been here before. … I think that the fundamental question is, ‘What’s Mitch for?’ ”

McConnell, of course, said early in Obama’s tenure that the “single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Pressed on why he expected something different during his own presidency, Biden maintained that Republicans then “weren’t nearly as obstructionist as they are now.”

2. Playing down a ‘minor incursion’ by Russia into Ukraine?

In a news conference on Jan. 19, President Biden responded to questions about a possible Russian incursion into Ukraine. (Video: The Washington Post)

Among the Biden comments that will probably be chewed over extensively was one suggesting that a smaller incursion by Russia into Ukraine might not merit the same response.

The comments were quickly clarified by the White House, which offered a significantly different message.

“I think what you’re going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades, and it depends on what it does,” Biden said. “It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion, and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do, etcetera.”

He added: “But if they actually do what they’re capable of doing, with the force amassed on the border, it is going to be a disaster for Russia if they further invade Ukraine. And our allies and partners are ready to impose severe cost and significant harm on Russia and the Russian economy.”

That is logical, but it’s one thing for it to be the approach, and it’s another to state it publicly. It seemed to suggest that maybe Russia could go into Ukraine without much in the way of a response, as long as it wasn’t a fuller invasion. It wasn’t long ago the Russia annexed Crimea; would something like that be considered a “minor incursion”?

In situations such as these, you generally avoid saying what might be acceptable — or more acceptable — even if you don’t want to commit to specific retaliatory action.

Biden reiterated later, “It depends on what [Vladimir Putin] does.” He also notably pointed to the negative impact severe sanctions on Russia could have on the West and suggested it would be harder to have a unified NATO response with a more minor Russian effort.

Shortly after the news conference, though, the White House put out a statement indicating a harder line and assuring the kind of unified response that Biden suggested he couldn’t guarantee.

“President Biden has been clear with the Russian president: If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe and united response from the United States and our allies,” press secretary Jen Psaki said.

3. A plea for patience from Black supporters

When asked about delivering on issues that matter to Black voters, President Biden on Jan. 19 said he has 'had their back.' (Video: The Washington Post)

Biden held his news conference even as his push for voting rights legislation was heading for defeat in the Senate, with not enough Democrats supporting changing filibuster rules.

When confronted with criticism that he hasn’t delivered on that, particularly for Black voters who make up much of the Democratic base, Biden asked for patience.

“I’ve had their back,” Biden said. “I’ve had their back my entire career. I’ve never not had their back. And I started on the voting rights issues long, long ago.”

Biden acknowledged criticism that he didn’t push the issue hard enough, early enough, but said people didn’t have the full picture.

“So the idea that I didn’t either anticipate or because I didn’t speak to it as fervently as they want me to earlier — in the meantime, I would spend a lot of time, spent hours and hours and hours, talking with my colleagues on the Democratic side,” Biden said. But he called it a “problem [of] my own making” that people didn’t see that.

Biden also suggested that perhaps this was driven by certain leaders who are understandably impatient, but that’s frequently the case with key groups.

“You find that when you deal with members of the Black Caucus and others in the United States Congress … it’s like every community,” Biden said. “I’m sure that there are those in the community — and I’m a big labor guy, I’m sure those people are saying why haven’t I [done] A, B, C or D? So it’s just going to take a little bit of time.”

4. An admission — and defensiveness — on the coronavirus

In a news conference on Jan. 19, President Biden admitted the U.S. should have expanded access to testing sooner. (Video: The Washington Post)

In recent weeks, the administration has come in for plenty of criticism for not sooner ramping up coronavirus testing amid the omicron variant’s surge and shortages in rapid at-home testing. And Biden momentarily acknowledged that the response wasn’t good enough, while leaving his words somewhat unspecific.

“Should we have done more testing earlier? Yes,” Biden said. “But we’re doing more now.”

The “we” could be read several ways. But Biden didn’t seem to be trying to put too happy a face on it — particularly in light of his White House scoffing at the idea of sending tests to Americans, and soon moving to do exactly that.

On a related issue, though, Biden seemed to lay blame on local authorities for not better using money from the pandemic relief bill to address ongoing problems.

“Many states and school districts have spent this money very well,” Biden said. “Unfortunately, some haven’t. I encourage the states and school districts to use the funding to protect our children and keep our schools open.”

Biden also bristled at questions about school closings in places such as Chicago, pointing to the overall number of schools that have remained open.

“Very few schools are closing; over 95 percent are still open,” Biden said. “So you all phrased the questions when people — I don’t think it’s deliberate on your part — but you phrase the question for anybody who watches this on television: ‘My God, all those schools must be closing. What are we going to do?' Ninety-five percent are still open.”

But Biden did agree later that closed schools “could be” a potent issue for Republicans in the midterm elections if they continue.

5. Acknowledging the inflation elephant in the room

President Biden on Jan. 19 said he would change three things heading into his second year in office. (Video: The Washington Post)

That wasn’t the only effort from Biden to acknowledge problems and say they’re not being ignored. He addressed inflation, initially played down by some Democrats but still rearing its head.

Biden described it as a significant issue that needs to be addressed — with his agenda.

“We have faced some of the biggest challenges that we’ve ever faced in this country these past few years,” Biden said before listing various concerns and adding: “We need to get inflation under control.”

At another point, he referenced the domination of certain economic sectors by a small set of companies.

“A handful of giant companies dominate the market in sectors like meat processing, railroads, shipping another areas. This isn’t a new issue,” Biden said.

He added: “It’s not been the reason we’ve had high inflation today. It’s is not the only reason. It’s been happening for a decade.”

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