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

The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights

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, nearly an hour-and-a-half into his news conference, paused amid a battery of shouted questions, raised his arms and shouted, “Whoa, whoa! Hang on, guys!”

He didn’t seem to want to leave. He asked reporters if they wanted to go another hour or two. He said he had at least 20 more minutes, blew past that time, and kept working the room.

“I can still stand. It’s amazing,” he said in jest after nearly two hours, also offering to do push-ups.

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.

A politician who doesn’t doubt the strength of his persuasive powers kept trying to explain himself, defend himself and convince the growing number of Americans who disapprove of him.

Biden has never been one to hide his feelings, and his news conference on Wednesday displayed a full range of emotions. At times, he was defensive, growing angry at what he viewed as a lack of respect for his accomplishments and for the problems on his plate.

“I make no apologies for what I did,” he said of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“I’m satisfied. I think we’ve done remarkably well,” he said of combating the coronavirus.

“The report card is going to look pretty good,” he boasted, when asked to grade himself ahead of the midterms.

If voters were looking for any course correction, Biden was not offering one.

“I don’t think I’ve overpromised at all,” he said. “And I’m going to stay on this track.”

But at other moments, he made concessions. He hadn’t been out in the community enough, he said, pledging to fix that this year. He should have been on top of testing for the coronavirus, and he could have done a better job communicating on voting rights issues.

He also said he vastly underestimated the amount of Republican opposition he would face.

It was Biden who had once declared, “Not a joke, you will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends.” At the time, his Democratic presidential primary opponents said he was naive; on Wednesday, he seemed to concede the point.

“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,” he said.

He said that the Republican Party that he now faces is more dug-in even than it was under President Barack Obama, when he served as vice president.

“They weren’t nearly as obstructionist as they are now,” he said.

Five takeaways from Biden’s news conference marking one year in office

But throughout it also became apparent how much Biden is affected by two forces — former president Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin — and decisions made by these two men, whose actions he admits he has no control over and cannot predict.

He seemed still baffled by Trump’s power over Republicans. “Did you ever think one man out of office could intimidate an entire party?” he asked aloud. He claimed that five Republican senators had confided in him that they supported one of his policies but couldn’t do so publicly for fear of a primary challenge. (He wouldn’t name the five.)

“I’m not so sure he is certain what he is going to do. My guess is he will move in. He has to do something,” Biden said, saying he and the Russian leader had no problem understanding each other.

The pull between uniting the nation and rallying his party ahead of the midterms — and what they see as an obstinate force in the Republican Party — has become a guiding feature of Biden’s White House.

But if there was a question beforehand over whether Unity Joe or Base Joe would show up, it was decidedly the latter. Biden seemed to preview his midterm strategy by casting the GOP as a party that doesn’t stand for anything and doesn’t have any plans.

“I tell my Republican friends, ‘Here I come. This is going to be about what are you for,’ ” he said, adding later: “I don’t know what their agenda is now. … What are they proposing to do about anything? We haven’t heard anything.”

He dismissed criticism of his own agenda as far-reaching.

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

As a speaker, he displayed his typical audible range, going from sotto voce — leaning in and whispering into the microphone for emphasis — directly to fortissimo, while tapping on the lectern to drive the point home.

He can seem all too aware that he might say something he shouldn’t, cutting himself off after finding himself in a verbal cul-de-sac.

“I am a gaffe-machine,” he once confessed, and countless staffers over the decades would nod in agreement.

That’s one reason he has largely avoided events like the one he staged on Wednesday. He waited longer than any president in at least a century to hold his first formal news conference, as he did in May. The one on Wednesday was only his second domestically.

His strategy, like so much else, has been to avoid the one of his predecessor. Where Trump was ubiquitous in American culture, politics and entertainment — offering his commentary on everything from the Oscars to tax policy — Biden is restrained, at times holding a single public event in the late afternoon, like the one Wednesday.

He has preferred televised town halls, where exchanges with voters are aired in full. He does seem to enjoy the give and take with reporters, but he likes it far more than his on-message advisers.

During his campaign, he would often become most animated the day after a poor debate performance, when he was more unrestrained. Over the decades in public life, he has often seemed to relish the give and take.

But he can also have the loquaciousness of a senator — and, as one of the longest-serving in the history of the country, he seems to have earned more words as a result.

“Let me ask a rhetorical question,” he said, pausing midway through it. “No, I won’t.”

“Anyway, I’m talking too much,” he said late in it.

He dismissed poor polling numbers of himself and cited poor polling numbers on trust of the cable news media. He showed his age at times (calling bathrooms “lavatories” and talking of a desire to “put three squares on the table”).

On time at 4 p.m., Biden walked confidently to the lectern, without the normally stiff gait that his doctor noted in his last physical. While he often coughs and clears his throat — the result of what his doctor attributed to gastroesophageal reflux — that wasn’t apparent on Wednesday.

At one point, after Biden extended the allotted time, a reporter asked about his mental acuity and cited polling that a large number of registered voters don’t believe he’s mentally fit.

“I’ll let you all make the judgment,” he said.

Asked why he thought voters had come to that assessment, he responded, “I have no idea.”

He pointed for the next question, and went on for another 28 minutes.

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