President Joe Biden faced the press on Thursday in an extended session, taking questions at his first news conference as president.
Below are some take-aways from what he said.
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1. Leaning into filibuster changes
There wasn’t much truly groundbreaking news in the news conference. But when it comes to something that could shake up Washington — getting rid of the filibuster — Biden leaned in more than he previously has.
Recent reports have indicated Biden might be more amendable to getting rid of it than he used to be. Axios reported that Biden was interested in the kind of bold agenda that could only be passed without the 60-vote threshold in the Senate.
And while Biden, a former longtime senator, has previously indicated that he supports maintaining the filibuster, he massaged that position Thursday.
Asked whether he’d like to get rid of the filibuster if Republicans stand in the way of his agenda, he signaled he would.
“If we have to, if there’s complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster, then we’ll have to go beyond what I’m talking about,” said Biden, who previously indicated support for returning to a “talking filibuster.”
This is significant. Biden resisted even dipping his toe in this for a long time. The fact that he’s threatening to get behind nixing the filibuster is significant.
But perhaps the bigger point is that this is largely out of his hands. Sometimes a threat is just a threat. Getting rid of the filibuster requires all the senators who vote with Democrats to be on board. The caucus has no votes to spare. Two of their moderate senators — Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. — have said they oppose getting rid of the filibuster and that they won’t change their mind.
Without their votes, it won’t happen and this is a lot of hot air. Manchin, in particular, has all kinds of reasons to hold out for a very long time, given he comes from the second-reddest state in the 2020 election.
Democrats have an interest in holding this out as a threat, given it could conceivably convince Republicans to come to the middle. But until Manchin or Sinema says what Biden just said, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., probably knows this isn’t a huge threat.
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2. A qualified commitment on border access
Amid an emerging crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border, Biden promised journalists access to key border facilities — but also made clear he’ll give them that when he’s good and ready.
The Biden administration has been swarmed with journalists’ complaints about their access to border facilities. It granted access this week to a Health and Human Services facility in Texas, but the real overcrowding problems are at Customs and Border Patrol stations, which were the subject of photos released this week by U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week that further access could eventually be granted.
“We’re also open to providing access there,” she said. “This is just the first step in a process of providing greater access to the media.”
Biden elaborated on that Thursday, but said it would have to wait until his policies are in place.
“I will commit when my plan, very shortly, is underway to let you have access to not just them, but to other facilities as well,” Biden said.
He added: “I will commit to transparency . . . as soon as I am in a position to be able to implement what we’re doing right now.”
Asked when that moment might come, Biden responded briefly: “I don’t know.”
There might be good reasons to prevent the press from being able to see what’s happening at those CBP stations, including that it might interfere with efforts to deal with a crisis. But just because your policies haven’t been fully implemented isn’t a great reason for people and the press to not see what’s happening. You can blame the prior administration — as Biden and his team have — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t something we should be able to see and evaluate for ourselves.
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3. Another calculated vaccine goal: 200 million in 100 days
One thing the Biden administration has proven much more adept at than the previous administration is setting goals that are actually manageable. If anything, it has been transparently setting goals that it pretty well knows it will beat.
There was more of that Thursday. Biden began his news conference by setting a goal of 200 million vaccination shots by the end of his first 100 days. That’s bigger than the 100-million goal he set during the transition period and suggests a significantly more ambitious goal.
But when Biden took over, we were already vaccinating about enough people on a daily basis to hit 100 million in 100 days. Now, we’re already on pace for 200 million in that time span, currently at more than 128 million doses and 2.5 million doses per day, figures that have steadily risen. Even if that rate doesn’t continue to increase, 2.5 million per day would put us well over 200 million doses by the 100-day mark at the end of next month.
That doesn’t mean the vaccine rollout hasn’t been a success. Relative especially to many European countries, it has been. But the administration has taken care to set these goals very carefully — including walking it back when Biden said in his early days as president that he was aiming for 150 million by claiming it wasn’t actually the goal. Biden in a recent prime-time address also oversold just how much doubt there was about that 100 million goal.
There are hurdles to getting to 200 million, including that we’ll be running into people who are more skeptical of getting the vaccine. But goals should be more aspirational, rather than something you know you’ll be able to chalk up as a win eventually — and are already on pace to do.
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4. The media’s questions
Members of the media have been waiting a while to directly question this president. The spotlight was on Biden, but also on the press when it comes to the questions they would ask. That’s especially the case given the adversarial role between the press and former President Donald Trump.
Most of the questioning was focused on the issues of the day: immigration, China and foreign threats. But others drifted into horse-race territory that didn’t seem nearly as pressing two months into a presidency. These included whether Biden intended to seek reelection — he said “the answer is yes, my plan is to run for reelection, that’s my expectation” — and whether, if he did so, Vice President Kamala Harris would rejoin him on the ticket. He was even asked if he expected he might face Trump again in that campaign, as if he knew anything about Trump’s plans.
There was also a distinct lack of deep questioning on the biggest current challenge facing our country and the world: the coronavirus threat.
Other critiques of the questions were more overwrought. Some on social media criticized a reporter asking about whether Biden thought his policies might be to blame for the border surge. That’s a valid question, given Biden’s own border ambassador acknowledged Biden’s, in her words, more “humane” policies might be more attractive to would-be border-crossers. Another asked about whether a failure to pass the Democratic voting rights bill might hurt the party in upcoming elections — also a valid question, in light of GOP legislatures pressing forward with voting restrictions in key states.
These news conferences are difficult. Not every question is going to provide a ton of insight. And everyone thinks they can do better. But that doesn’t mean the media can’t actually do better.