WASHINGTON — In his first official trip away from Washington since taking office, President Joe Biden on Tuesday offered reassurance to Americans about the availability of the coronavirus vaccines and optimism that his $1.9 trillion relief bill was the kind of ambitious plan that could restore the U.S. economy.
“Now is the time we should be spending,” he said at a CNN town hall in Milwaukee, promoting a plan that so far has no Republican support in Congress. “Now is the time to go big.”
On the coronavirus, he said that every American who wanted a vaccine would be able to get one “by the end of July this year,” sounding a more optimistic note than he did last week when he warned that logistical hurdles would most likely mean many Americans would still not have been vaccinated by the end of summer.
“We’ll have over 600 million doses — enough to vaccinate every single American,” he said at an event that included not just his own supporters but Trump voters and independents.
Biden predicted that “by next Christmas, I think we’ll be in a very different circumstance, God willing, than we are today.”
The town hall’s question-and-answer format gave the president an opportunity to practice what has been his signature brand of personal politics for decades. When an independent voter asked him how her son with a preexisting condition could get the vaccine, for instance, Biden told her, “If you’re willing, I’ll stay around after this is over and maybe we can talk a few minutes and see if I can get you some help.”
At another point, he comforted an 8-year-old girl whose mother said she was scared of dying from COVID-19. “You’re the safest group of people in the whole world,” he said. “I wouldn’t worry about it, baby, I promise you.”
Expressing sympathy for the girl’s missed school time, Biden said that his administration’s goal was still to open most schools full time for students in kindergarten through eighth grade within his first 100 days.
The promise appeared to contradict the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, who said last week that the administration’s once ambitious reopening goal had been scaled back to aim for more than 50% of schools to have “some teaching” in person “at least one day a week” in the first 100 days. She later added, “We certainly hope to build from that, even at 100 days.”
But Biden bristled at the idea that he was lowering the bar to one day a week of in-person school. “That’s what was reported,” the president said. “That’s not true. It was a mistake in the communication.”
He also said he expected school to continue through the summer to give students an opportunity to catch up.
The trip to Milwaukee appeared to be something of a makeup visit for the city, which was set to host the 2020 Democratic National Convention last summer, before the coronavirus pandemic upended plans for in-person gatherings.
And the setting, in a state he won by less than 1 percentage point in November, made sense for a president promoting a plan to help Americans recover from the ravages of the pandemic.
A surge in coronavirus cases made Wisconsin one of the most affected states throughout the fall and early winter, although numbers have dropped significantly. The state’s 5.5% unemployment rate is also down from double-digit peaks it hit in the early days of the pandemic, but it is still higher than it was last winter.
On Tuesday night, Air Force One landed in a Wisconsin digging out from a blizzard, and as the country’s attention was finally more fully focused on Biden, after the end of the second impeachment trial of his predecessor, Donald Trump, over the weekend.
Continuing his practice throughout impeachment, Biden, appeared eager to avoid mention of his most recent predecessor. At one point, he referred to Trump as “the former guy.”
When asked by the moderator, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, about his thoughts on the verdict of Trump’s impeachment trial, Biden said he wanted to move on. “For four years, all that’s been in the news is Trump,” he said. “The next four years, I want to make sure all the news is the American people. I’m tired of talking about Trump.”
At one point, however, he could not resist a veiled dig, telling Cooper that all but one living former president had reached out to him by phone, making it clear that it was only Trump who had not.
Asked by Cooper how he was adapting to the presidency, Biden, who on Inauguration Day said that going to the White House felt like he was “coming home,” appeared humbled by the experience.
For one thing, he said he was not used to living with a butler who helped him with his coat, as well as with other staff in White House residence who were there to serve him. “I was raised in a way that you didn’t look for anybody to wait on you,” he said. “I find myself extremely self-conscious.”
Despite his close relationship with President Barack Obama, Biden said he had never visited the private part of the White House residence before moving in last month. And he said living there was big contrast with the vice president’s residence, where there was more room and privacy.
“It’s a little like a gilded cage in terms of being able to walk outside and do things,” he said of living in the White House. “I feel a sense, I must tell you, a sense of history about it.”
Biden repeatedly apologized when he felt his answers were too complicated or went on for too long and said he hoped he was up to leading the country in dealing with the challenges it faces.
“I literally pray that I have the capacity to do for the country what you all deserve need be done,” Biden said.
Psaki said Tuesday that Biden was hoping to have “a good conversation with people about the path forward and also even people who disagree with him on the trip. In fact, one of the president’s most vocal critics is Sen. Ron Johnson, the state’s Republican senator, who is vehemently opposed to the Biden relief plan. But Psaki said pressuring him was not the purpose of the trip.
In response to a question about the divisions in American society, Biden said the country was more in agreement about the need for relief than people think, noting that 69% of Americans supported his plan. “The nation is not divided,” he said. “You go out there and take a look and talk to people, you have fringes on both ends. But it’s not nearly as divided as we make it out to be.”
Outside the Pabst Theater, where the town hall took place, a group representing fast-food and other low-wage workers planned to hold a protest to urge Biden not to abandon his pledge to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
But asked by several small business owners about his support for a $15 an hour minimum wage, the president sought to reassure them that the increase would be phased in, as if to show that differences could be overcome. While “no one should work 40 hours a week and live in poverty,” Biden said, “it’s totally legitimate for small business owners to be concerned about how that changes.”
But he singled out white supremacists as a singular domestic terrorism threat that needed to be addressed. “I would make sure that my Justice Department and the Civil Rights Division is focused heavily on those very folks,” he said. “I would make sure that we, in fact, focus on how to deal with the rise of white supremacy.”