The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden ramps up criticism of GOP in news conference marking his first year

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)

President Biden escalated his partisan rhetoric Wednesday during his first news conference in 10 months, laying the blame for his stalled agenda at the feet of Republicans and suggesting on the eve of his one-year anniversary that he has been surprised by their intransigence.

“I honest to God don’t know what they’re for,” Biden said at one point during his nearly two-hour exchange with reporters. “What is their agenda?”

He said the GOP is thoroughly cowed by former president Donald Trump. “Did you ever think that one man out of office could intimidate an entire party where they’re unwilling to take any vote?” Biden asked.

The shift intensified a harsher tone that Biden has taken this year toward Republicans, starting with an address commemorating the Jan. 6 Capitol assault and continuing in Georgia last week with a blistering address suggesting that those who do not support the current voting rights bills will be remembered in history alongside such notorious racists as Jefferson Davis, the leader of the Confederacy.

During the 2020 campaign, Joe Biden outlined four crises facing the country. One year later, four experts break down how President Biden has handled each issue. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

The sharp critique represents a major shift from Biden’s message during the presidential campaign, when he said that Republicans would have an “epiphany” and that partisan gridlock would ease if he took office. And it signals a shift from an inaugural year focused on congressional action to a hard-fought election year with control of Congress at stake.

Takeaways from the news conference

Biden also offered unvarnished thoughts about Russia’s intentions toward Ukraine, suggesting that President Vladimir Putin would probably invade the country. He suggested the U.S. response would be different if Moscow launches a “minor incursion” vs. a massive ground invasion, causing a furor that quickly prompted the White House to clarify that he was distinguishing a military and non-military assault.

The president also made news by confirming rumors that he plans to break up his roughly $2 trillion social welfare and climate legislation, called the Build Back Better package, into smaller bills.

He suggested that there is support for about $500 billion in climate proposals but acknowledged that there is less enthusiasm for a measure to extend the Child Tax Credit, a monthly check that’s gone out to most parents of young children over the past year, or for a pricey proposal to reduce the cost of community college.

The roughly two-hour exchange was much longer than expected or typical for a presidential news conference, and Biden called on far more reporters than he usually does. He joked about staying there for hours and even suggested that the journalists keep their questions short so he could answer more of them.

Biden gave the news conference in a moment when his polls are falling and he faces a nation that is exhausted by a lingering pandemic and economic uncertainty.

Inside Biden’s declining popularity

A recent Gallup poll showed that just 40 percent of Americans approve of the job that Biden is doing, while 56 percent disapproved. That’s the lowest rating for any recent president at their one-year mark, aside from Trump, whose rating was a few points lower.

He noted several times that the country is not where he had hoped and expected it to be. When asked if he’s done a good job unifying Americans he gave a nuanced answer.

“The answer is, based on some of the stuff we’ve got done, I’d say yes,” Biden said. “But it’s not nearly unified as it should be.”

Biden telegraphed that he will spend more time traveling the country and talking to voters and less time embroiled in prolonged negotiations with Congress.

“The public doesn’t want me to be the president-senator,” said Biden, who spent 36 years in the Senate before becoming Barack Obama’s vice president. “They want me to be the president and let senators be senators.”

Biden pledged that he’ll be less insular in the coming months, saying he would seek more input from outside experts and academics and deeply involve himself in the midterm campaign.

“I have not been out in the community nearly enough,” Biden said.

Wednesday’s news conference took on greater significance than usual because it came on the eve of the anniversary of his first full year in office and also a moment when many of Biden’s plans face turbulence.

In what appeared to be a carefully calculated message, he repeatedly excoriated Republicans, accusing them of having no goal except opposing him, no leader except Trump and no agenda at all.

“I did not anticipate that there would be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was to make sure Biden didn’t get anything done,” he said. “What are Republicans for? What are they for? Name me one thing they are for.”

But much of the session was taken up with the crisis developing on the Russia-Ukraine border. The Russians have massed an estimated 100,000 troops around Ukraine, triggering concerns that they may mount what some experts say would be the largest ground invasion in Europe in decades.

As for Putin, Biden said, “My guess is he will move in.”

Russia has denied that it is preparing to invade. Putin has asked for security guarantees, including assurances that Ukraine and Georgia will not join the NATO military alliance. The United States has rejected this demand — though Biden said Wednesday that it’s unlikely that Ukraine would join the alliance anytime soon.

Other questions focused on Biden’s domestic agenda and the country’s internal woes.

“I understand the overwhelming frustration, fear and concern with regard to inflation and covid,” Biden said at one point. “I get it.”

The president continued to push for more people to get vaccinated. But, given that the Supreme Court has gutted the most significant of his vaccine mandates, he has not offered a new strategy to increase vaccinations.

Still, he insisted that matters will improve. “It will get better,” Biden said, pledging there will be a time when “covid-19 won’t disrupt our daily lives.”

Biden also said he’s “satisfied” with how his administration has handled the pandemic, saying that it’s a fast-changing virus and that some missteps could not be avoided. “I think we’ve done remarkably well,” Biden said.

Biden did acknowledge, as he has before, that his team could have done a better job making coronavirus tests available.

The persistent pandemic has also been a drag on the economy, causing disruptions to the supply chain and shortages of goods that contributed to increased costs.

Prices increased by 7 percent over the 12-month period that ended in December, making 2021 the worst year for inflation since 1982, according to a report this month by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Biden on Wednesday pledged to make more oil available in a bid to lower prices and sought to shift some of the blame to large companies, which he said have unfairly driven up prices.

“We’re going to move on this competition piece to allow more and more smaller operations to come in,” Biden said.

Biden sought to clarify comments he made in a speech last week that suggested lawmakers impeding the Democratic push to expand voting rights were in line with segregationist politicians of the past. Those initial comments came under criticism from elected officials in both parties.

“I did not say that they were going to be a George Wallace or Bull Connor,” Biden said Wednesday. “I said we’re going to have a decision in history that is going to be marked just like it was then.”

At another point, Biden grew heated as he insisted that he was not labeling opponents of the voting rights initiatives as Bull Connor, the notorious Southern sheriff who persecuted, and physically attacked, civil rights activists. “Go back and read what I said,” Biden said.

Last week, Biden put his full support behind changing the Senate filibuster to make it easier to pass voting rights legislation. Under the Senate’s filibuster rules, most bills need 60 votes to pass, a high hurdle with the 50-50 partisan split in the chamber.

A push to change the filibuster rules was expected to unfold Wednesday evening, even though Democrats don’t appear to have the votes needed to change the Senate procedure. Blocking the change are all Republican senators, along with two Democrats: Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.).

Biden said he and other Democrats would not give up, even if Wednesday’s effort was not successful. “I haven’t given up,” he said.

The Democratic efforts are focused on two bills: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the federal government’s authority to review some state voting laws to prevent discrimination, and the Freedom to Vote Act, a broader bill that would create national rules for voting by mail, early voting and other parts of the electoral process.

Biden suggested Wednesday that not passing Democratic-backed voting measures could undermine the legitimacy of future elections.

“The increase and the prospect of being illegitimate is in direct proportion to us not being able to get these reforms passed,” Biden said.

Biden predicted that achieving something on the “electoral reform side” was possible but did not elaborate on his thinking.

Biden also pledged to continue pushing for parts of his Build Back Better agenda, the roughly $2 trillion effort to overhaul the country’s health care, education, climate, immigration and tax laws that is stalled in the Senate.

“I’m not asking for castles in the sky,” Biden said. “I’m asking for practical things the American people have been asking for for a long time.”

The president’s aides had hoped Biden would use the event to reset and remind Americans of the administration’s accomplishments at a moment when there’s so much focus on unfinished promises.

Hours before the news conference was set to begin, the White House issued a fact sheet detailing 11 areas where the administration has made progress over the last year. They touted ending the war in Afghanistan, restoring leadership on the global stage, adding more than 6 million jobs and slashing the child poverty rate.

Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan — a $1.9 trillion package — in March, legislation that included stimulus checks, created a new monthly payment for most parents and had funds for schools.

In November, Biden signed into law a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, which was passed with support from 19 Republican senators and 13 Republican House members. The measure upgrades the nation’s roads, bridges, water systems and provides for expanded broadband access.

Biden, at times, tried to steer the conversation to these wins. At one point he hit an exasperated note after ticking off some of his accomplishments, saying: “Can you think of any other president who has done as much in one year?”

John Hudson, Loveday Morris, Matt Viser and Jeff Stein contributed to this report.