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The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

Here’s how Biden profiled Putin and McConnell in his first news conference of 2022

The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

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The big idea

Here’s how Biden profiled Putin and McConnell in his first news conference of 2022

President Biden’s news conference Wednesday was a good reminder of the different ways those formal question-and-answer sessions are superior to drive-by exchanges with reporters as the commander in chief heads to the helicopter, or takes hastily shouted queries in the Oval Office.

Over nearly two hours in the East Room of the White House, Biden made plenty of spot news — predicting Russia will push deeper into Ukraine (and pay a steep price), admitting his stalled Build Back Better legislation needs to get busted into “chunks” that can pass the Senate, and so on.

He lost his temper with one journalist (“That is an interesting reading of English. I assume you got into journalism because you liked to write.”) and arguably had one gaffe, confirming a week’s worth of reporting (and a couple of decades of history) that the United States and its allies might not form a united front to punish Russia for a “minor incursion” into Ukraine as opposed to a sizable invasion.

Most of those things often happen in the far briefer exchanges Biden prefers.

Dual foes

But one thing you rarely get is the kind of long introspective analysis the president delivered Wednesday as he discussed how he thinks about two of his wiliest antagonists: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

To be sure, this is what Biden tells a roomful of reporters while the television cameras broadcast his words live to the world, so you have to apply a kind of candor discount. 

But still, it was interesting to hear the president openly ponder whether domestic pressures — other than democratic reformers challenging Putin’s power — might be shaping the former KGB officer’s decision-making about Ukraine.

“How can I say this in a public forum?” Biden began. “He has eight time zones, a burning tundra that will not freeze again naturally, a situation where he has a lot of oil and gas, but he is trying to find his place in the world between China and the West.”

“I think that he is dealing with what I believe he thinks is the most tragic thing that's happened to Mother Russia — in that the Berlin Wall came down, the Empire has been lost, the Near Abroad is gone, et cetera. The Soviet Union has been split,” Biden said of Putin. The Russian president is well known to regard the breakup of the USSR as a calamity and the ensuing reduction of Moscow’s influence in countries around Russia — the “Near Abroad” — as dangerous.

“I'm not so sure he is certain what he's going to do. My guess is he will move in,” the president told reporters. “He has to do something.” 

His comments brought to mind President Barack Obama’s remarks during another Ukraine crisis, this one triggered by Moscow’s Spring 2014 invasion of Ukraine's Crimea region, when he dismissively labeled Russia a “regional power” acting out of weakness, and threatened new economic and diplomatic sanctions if it pushed further.

“Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors — not out of strength but out of weakness,” Obama told reporters in The Hague after a summer on nuclear security. 

He went on to muse openly about prospects Moscow could send troops deeper into Ukraine.

“I don’t think it’s a done deal, and I think that Russia is still making a series of calculations. And, again, those calculations will be impacted in part by how unified the United States and Europe are and the international community is in saying to Russia that this is not how, in the 21st century, we resolve disputes.”

On Wednesday, Biden notably did not repeat the “regional power” jibe, avoided the professorial finger-wagging, and generally did not say anything that might obviously wound any egos in Moscow. It wasn't the first time he avoided his predecessors’ public assessments of Putin.

The New York Times reported last week that the White House had looked in recent weeks at the U.S.-led response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and found it damaged Moscow somewhat but fell well short of the goal of inflicting enough pain to make Putin reverse course. Biden aides have since described their potential retaliation as far more severe.

Obama’s relationships with Republicans also haunted Biden’s news conference, as the president claimed he never realized how much the GOP would obstruct his legislative agenda and described a complicated personal and political relationship with McConnell.

“I get on with Mitch. I actually like Mitch McConnell,” Biden said. “We like one another. But 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. And that's okay. I'm a big boy. I've been here before.”

(McConnell famously declared in October 2010 the GOP’s goal must be to make sure Obama didn’t win a second term.)

Biden went on to needle the GOP leader for his refusal to lay out a legislative agenda ahead of the midterms in an apparent effort to make the election a referendum on the president’s record, not give Democrats something to run against. “What’s Mitch for?” he asked.

“Everything is a choice.”

What's happening now

Workers are out sick in record numbers, exacerbating labor shortage woes

Between Dec. 29 and Jan. 10, approximately 8.8 million workers reported not working because they were sick with the coronavirus or caring for someone who was, according to data from the Census Bureau,” Eli Rosenberg reports. “Those numbers are nearly triple the levels from the first two weeks of December, before cases had started to peak around the country.”

Harris insists U.S. won’t accept a ‘minor incursion’ by Russia of Ukraine

Vice President Harris on Thursday insisted the United States would not accept a ‘minor incursion’ of Ukraine by Russia, as the White House continued to clarify remarks President Biden had made suggesting that it might,” Amy B Wang reports.

“We will interpret any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by Russia and Vladimir Putin as an aggressive action, and it will be met with costs, severe and certain,” Harris said on “Good Morning America.”

Federal prosecutors seek dismissal of grant fraud charges against MIT professor

“Federal prosecutors asked a court to dismiss charges against a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor accused of failing to disclose research ties to China, a request that represents a major public relations blow to a Justice Department program aimed at curbing economic espionage,” Ellen Nakashima reports.

Rep. Cuellar pledges cooperation following reports of FBI searches of home, campaign office

“Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) is pledging cooperation with ‘any investigation’ following local media reports that the FBI conducted searches of his home and campaign office in Laredo, Tex., on Wednesday,” John Wagner reports.

German investigation accuses Pope Benedict XVI of ‘wrongdoing’ in handling of abuse cases while archbishop of Munich

“The law firm that carried out the investigation said that Benedict’s claims to have no direct knowledge of the cases were not credible. And their findings amounted to a searing judgment on one of the most influential Catholic figures of the last century,” Chico Harlan and Loveday Morris report.

“At a news conference to unveil the report, lawyers said that Benedict could be accused of wrongdoing in four cases, including one in which he knowingly accepted a priest into his archdiocese even after the cleric had been convicted of sexual abuse in a criminal court.

Lunchtime reads from The Post

After one year in office, what has Biden done about the four crises he pledged to address?

“As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden sold himself as prepared to address four crises that were roiling American life in 2020. He laid them out clearly: fighting the coronavirus, restoring the economy, combating climate change and making the country more equal,” Annie Linskey, Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Jeff Stein and Brady Dennis report.

“Unforeseen issues and staunch Republican opposition have hampered his efforts to resolve or make progress on them, and left many who clamored for the changes Biden promised feeling that not enough has been done to this point. On the first anniversary of his inauguration, four Washington Post reporters, plus activists and other experts, assessed Biden’s performance in each of the four areas he emphasized during his campaign.”

… and beyond

‘Policing for profit’ is funding this tiny Alabama town

“Months of research and dozens of interviews by AL.com found that Brookside’s finances are rocket-fueled by tickets and aggressive policing. In a two-year period between 2018 and 2020 Brookside revenues from fines and forfeitures soared more than 640 percent and now make up half the city’s total income,” AL.com's John Archibald reports. “And the police chief has called for more.

By 2020 Brookside made more misdemeanor arrests than it has residents. It went from towing 50 vehicles in 2018 to 789 in 2020 — each carrying fines. That’s a 1,478% increase, with 1.7 tows for every household in town.”

  • “The growth has come with trouble to match. Brookside officers have been accused in lawsuits of fabricating charges, using racist language and ‘making up laws’ to stack counts on passersby. Defendants must pay thousands in fines and fees — or pay for costly appeals to state court — and poorer residents or passersby fall into patterns of debt they cannot easily escape.”

The Biden agenda

Biden renewed a free program to feed needy kids. Most states haven’t even applied.

“At its peak, 18.5 million kids relied on Pandemic-EBT, which began under the Trump administration and continued under President Biden. The program gave families forced home a debit-card benefit to use at the grocery store, for some online food shopping or even at farmers markets,” Laura Reiley reports.

Now the program is flagging. Most states have not applied for the school year that began in September. Experts say the pandemic has changed in ways that make maintaining the program an impossible burden for already strapped administrators.”

Biden administration’s contradictions on immigration overshadow his achievements

“D.C. Circuit Judge Justin Walker struggled to pin down the Biden administration’s approach to the border Wednesday. In one lawsuit, he said, government officials argue that a Trump-era program that sends asylum seekers into Mexico to await a hearing is too dangerous,” Maria Sacchetti reports.

“Yet government lawyers are defending a separate policy that is expelling far more migrants to nations such as Haiti, despite the dangers they might face there. He called their position, a ‘self-contradiction.’

‘I can still stand’: Biden offers defenses and regrets in marathon news conference

“It was a beleaguered president addressing a beleaguered nation, a commander in chief attempting to reset the outlook of both his presidency and the country over which he presides. And a president who has so often described the country as being at an inflection point found his young presidency at one, too,” Matt Viser reports.

Fact-checking Biden’s first 2022 news conference

President Biden held a news conference on Jan. 19, marking his first year in office. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Tonga volcano and the Pacific’s ‘Ring of Fire,' visualized

“As Tonga reels under the blanketing ash of a powerful undersea volcanic eruption that sent a tsunami crashing into the Pacific island nation — and coated its communities in a blanket of ash — experts are working to determine the broader impact of the massive explosion.” Rachel Pannett, Erin Cunningham and Matthew Cappucci explain what you need to know about the eruption, volcanic tsunamis and the Ring of Fire.

Hot on the left

Trump’s VA legacy: Human capital mismanagement

“Many career managers and caregivers at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) experienced the Trump administration as a four-year wrecking ball,” Suzanne Gordon writes for the American Prospect.

“More of the VHA budget is being spent on outsourced care, as part of Trump’s push to privatize the agency. The White House left 50,000 vacancies unfilled, until COVID-19 forced Trump’s VA secretary, Robert Wilkie, to spend emergency congressional funds on thousands of new hires in 2020.”

As one final blow to efficient VA functioning, Wilkie also implemented a human resources modernization (HRM) plan that has become a poison pill for VHA caregivers and administrators. The system, which remains in place today, has led to huge shortages in staff, closures in programs and services, and unacceptable delays in care for veterans. As dozens of concerned VHA staff members have told the Prospect, the VA’s ability to safely care for veterans—and fulfill its Fourth Mission as a national backup system during health care emergencies—is being severely compromised by the HRM scheme.

Hot on the right

House GOP plots policy agenda for 2022 midterm elections — with help from Newt Gingrich

Newt Gingrich, whose ‘Contract with America' in 1994 is linked with the GOP takeover of Congress in that midterm cycle, said he has been advising House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) on a set of policy items for Republicans to take to voters ahead of the November elections. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.) and other members of House Republican leadership are also involved in the project, which is not expected to launch until the spring or summer,” Jeff Stein and Laura Meckler report.

“Republicans are expected to focus their new platform on education policies aimed at tapping into parental discontent; countering the rise of China with new economic measures; and “oversight” of the Biden administration. They are also looking at invoking other traditional GOP goals such as cutting taxes, restricting immigration, criticizing Silicon Valley and repealing environmental rules.”

Today in Washington

Biden will meet with his Council of Advisors on Science and Technology at 4 p.m.

At 7 p.m., Biden and Harris will speak virtually at a Democratic National Committee grass roots event.

In closing

Biden marks his first anniversary with a hopeful video — narrated by Tom Hanks

“President Biden’s Presidential Inaugural Committee will mark his first anniversary in office by blanketing today’s airwaves — from breakfast to evening news to prime time — with a video promoting a recovering, resilient America,” Axios's Mike Allen reports.

“The video is narrated by Tom Hanks, who was part of Biden inaugural festivities, and features cameos by everyday Americans — a UPS driver, a Teamster from Michigan and a bed-and-breakfast owner in Wisconsin.”

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.

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