WASHINGTON — When President Joe Biden’s team announced last Tuesday that he would hold his first solo White House news conference this Thursday, they were optimistic that Biden would be able to offer an ebullient update about his early successes, including passage of a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package and dramatic strides in vaccinations.
But nine days are often more like dog years in the life of a president, and somewhere between planning and execution, reality intruded. When Biden steps behind the lectern Thursday, he does so facing myriad crises and challenges — a reminder of the whack-a-mole nature of governing that may imperil his ambitious agenda.
The nation is reeling from two back-to-back mass shootings, which left a total of 18 people dead — 10 at a supermarket in Boulder, Colo., on Monday and eight last Wednesday during a rampage at three spas in the Atlanta area. In response, Biden on Tuesday waded into a heated cultural debate over the role of guns in society, calling for tighter gun law restrictions that include an assault weapons ban and the expansion of background checks.
On immigration, Biden is grappling with a crisis at the southern border, where officials are dealing with a growing surge of migrants — many of whom are unaccompanied minors — without the necessary capacity or resources to meet the challenge. On Wednesday, he announced that Vice President Kamala Harris will lead the country’s efforts to stem the surge, working with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to enhance immigration enforcement at the border with Mexico.
In addition, Biden is facing intraparty tensions over the lack of Asian American and Pacific Islander representation at the highest levels of his administration; is working to manage another intraparty debate about whether to reform the Senate filibuster; and is monitoring the situation in North Korea, which recently fired off a series of short-range missiles.
After thrice tripping while walking up the steps of Air Force One on Friday, the 78-year-old president could also face questions about the stumble — or when he plans to release his updated health records, which he has not done since late 2019.
And all the recent challenges come on top of the four major crises — the coronavirus, the economy, racial inequity and climate change — that Biden identified as he took office.
“That’s the presidency,” said Rahm Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago who served as chief of staff to President Barack Obama. “You can have the best-laid plans but it doesn’t matter when you go toe-to-toe with reality. A White House earns its stripes by taking every challenge and then turning it into an opportunity to address an issue and move the ball forward.”
Former Republican National Committee chairperson Michael Steele said that the events of recent weeks are likely a preview of the twists and turns Biden will have to deal with in the months ahead.
“You don’t run on shootings and big immigration issues unless those are the issues that are staring you in the face in the campaign,” Steele said. “Issues will come and there will likely be an issue next week — or two weeks from now — that no one thought the administration would have to deal with coming in the door.”
The question confronting Biden, Steele added, is: “Are you prepared for that next thing that will be thrown at you?”
During his campaign, Biden ran as a unifying figure and emphasized noncontroversial issues, such as delivering pandemic relief and creating jobs. He often steered clear of the divisive cultural topics that typically highlight partisan divides.
“There is only one America. No Democratic rivers, no Republican mountains,” actor Sam Elliott said in one of Biden’s closing commercials last fall.
Entering the White House, Biden’s advisers have long felt that the pandemic is the top issue for voters, and that the president’s political fate rests heavily on his response to the deadly virus. They remain eager for him to promote the massive coronavirus relief package that he signed into law earlier this month, and he boasted last week of meeting his administration’s coronavirus vaccine goal — 100 million shots administered in 100 days — in nearly half the promised time.
Yet the recent deluge of developments on other fronts have largely overtaken the headlines, and are among the most polarizing topics now facing Congress.
Republicans have already seized on the controversies, using them to open new lines of attack on Biden and Democrats as they hope to win back control of the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections. Speaking of the border in a recent interview, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott, R-Fla., for instance, was quick to blame the Biden administration for the current surge.
“Now that there’s a crisis — I think it will be a big issue,” Scott said. “They’ve made it an issue.”
Against this backdrop, Thursday’s news conference — the first time reporters will be able to press Biden on a range of topics for an extended period — has taken on outsize import. The day the plan was announced, Dana Perino, who served as White House press secretary under President George W. Bush, pointed to the risks of such a long lead time.
“A Perino rule — never ever ever ever ever ever ever announce a news conference in nine days time,” Perino wrote on Twitter. “Wait until THAT MORNING, see what’s happening and THEN deploy. The press is gonna show up no matter what. But hey! It’ll be something to look forward to!”
A White House official said Biden still plans to use Thursday’s news conference to try to speak directly to the public about how the relief package is directly impacting their lives. Advisers also expect Biden to address some current challenges facing him and the nation, as well as talk about his vision for where the country goes from here, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a general preview of Thursday’s plan.
But the official added that while Biden’s team knows the president will be pressed on current news and challenges — “All White Houses have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time” — they think that anytime the president personally has a chance to sell his relief plan is a political win. A trip Tuesday to Ohio to talk about the package generated numerous positive headlines, including a Columbus Dispatch piece that read: “President Joe Biden in Ohio: COVID-19 stimulus boosts health care for Americans.”
Tommy Vietor, co-host of “Pod Save America” and a former Obama administration official, said the myth of the White House is that the president can somehow completely control the national narrative.
“People who have never worked in the White House think you have this bully pulpit and it is always there for you to use it and you can immediately dominate the political conversation,” Vietor said. “My experience with President Obama was that was just not the case, no matter what. You’re just constantly buffeted by events.”
Emanuel — who has long argued that most crises can be turned into opportunities — said the current moment presents Biden and his team with a chance to push for their own legislative agenda. “The paradigm of the argument,” he said, is that Biden and Democrats are continuing to agitate for change, whether on minimum wage or infrastructure, whereas Republicans are arguing that “the status quo is just fine.”
Yet issues like immigration and gun restrictions are highly divisive. The migrant surge has been spurred in part by Biden’s more welcoming message and policies, and shows no signs of abating. On Wednesday, a delegation of White House officials and lawmakers traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border to visit a migrant facility in Carrizo Springs, Tex.
Early in his tenure, Biden sent legislation to Congress proposing a broad immigration overhaul — including an eight-year path to citizenship for the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country — but lawmakers have already signaled there is little appetite or ability to pass such a wide-ranging plan.
The mass shootings also intruded on Biden’s plan this week to talk about the relief package. On Tuesday, before departing for Ohio, he delivered hastily arranged remarks on the twin tragedies, and called for stronger gun control measures. But asked later if he had the political ability to push gun legislation through a Congress in which Democrats barely maintain control, Biden crossed his fingers.
“I hope so. I don’t know. I haven’t done any counting yet,” the president said.
Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., a close Biden ally, said the president, a former senator, “is well aware of how hard it is to make progress on immigration and on gun issues.” But he said there is no one better prepared to deal with harsh intrusions of reality than Biden, who among other tragedies lost his wife and daughter in a car crash shortly after he won election to the Senate.
“I don’t know anybody who has had more experience handling real crises than Joe Biden, from the very personal and family crisis within weeks of his being elected in 1972 to the dramatic economic crisis that greeted him as the newly elected vice president in January 2009,” Coons said. “Joe Biden remains calm and focused and deliberately moves through preparing to heal the country and address the pandemic.”