By Steve Herman
U.S. President Joe Biden took questions from reporters for one hour Thursday during his first formal news conference, an encounter partly intended to refute conservative critics who had predicted the oldest man ever elected U.S. president would not be up to the task.
After brief opening remarks about his administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, Biden responded to questions from 10 reporters, calling their names off a list on his lectern.
On his 65th day in office, the president found that most of the questions had to do with immigration, specifically about the government’s treatment of child migrants at the border.
On domestic issues, his remarks were generally ad-libbed, but on sensitive foreign policy matters, including those related to Afghanistan and China, he appeared to be reading from notes.
Biden made a bit of news in response to a question about the next presidential election, more than three years in the future, saying he does intend to run for reelection in 2024. He said he has “no idea,” however, if the opposition Republican Party — facing internal tumult — will still exist by then.
Replying to a question about the push by Republicans for voting restrictions, Biden said, “What I’m worried about is how un-American this whole initiative is. It is sick.”
The president lamented the long-standing filibuster rule in the U.S. Senate as an obstacle and said it is being misused by senators “in a gigantic way.”
Under the filibuster, 60 votes are needed to pass legislation in the Senate, which could make it difficult to pass some of Biden’s legislative agenda, including immigration reform, voting rights and possibly his infrastructure plan.
There were also some swipes by Biden at his predecessor, Donald Trump.
“I made it clear that no American president — at least one did — but no American president ever backed down from speaking out of what’s happening with the Uyghurs, what’s happening in Hong Kong,” Biden said when asked about China. “That’s who we are. The moment a president walks away from that, as the last one did, is the moment we began to lose our legitimacy around the world.”
Asked about apparent short-range ballistic missile launches by North Korea early Thursday into Asian waters, Biden said the United States is “consulting with our allies and partners, and there will be responses if they choose to escalate. We will respond accordingly.”
While Biden has restored daily briefings by his press secretary, and on many days has briefly answered one or two questions from White House correspondents in other formats, he was the first president in four decades to make it this far into his first term without holding a formal question-and-answer session with the news media. That had prompted criticism in recent weeks from across the political spectrum.
The avoidance of the White House lectern sustained chatter Trump had amplified during the 2020 campaign, when the incumbent referred to his Democratic Party challenger as “sleepy Joe” and claimed the former vice president was “mentally shot.”
“The dominant narrative from the right-wing industrial complex is that Biden is senile and being manipulated by shadowy leftists,” said Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Max Boot after Thursday’s press conference. “It’s a charge so crazy it doesn’t deserve refutation. But Biden’s crisp press conference shows he is fully in command of the issues.”
Biden avoided straying off topic to recite anecdotes, something he does frequently, and he cracked a couple of jokes, including a reference to joining the Senate “120 years ago.”
Biden’s performance, however, failed to quiet some of his detractors.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham termed Biden’s news conference “hard to watch,” contending the president failed to grasp the immigration issues.
“He does not have the situational awareness because he doesn’t understand the problem,” the senator said.
Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary during the George W. Bush administration, criticized Biden on Twitter for turning to a “study guide” to answer foreign policy questions, calling it unprecedented.
Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, considered a longtime conservative until the Trump era, commented that while Biden excelled, the reporters asking the questions embarrassed themselves.
“Their failure to ask about the pandemic, the recession, anti-Asian violence, climate change or even infrastructure (Biden had to bring it up himself) was nothing short of irresponsible,” she wrote. “They pleaded for a news conference and then showed themselves to be unserious.”