In first solo press conference, Biden admits omicron missteps
Battered by the whims of an unforgiving pandemic and a dysfunctional Congress, the recently press-shy President Biden plunged into a room of ravenous reporters on Wednesday and delivered a simple message: Brighter days are coming.
“I know there’s a lot of frustration and fatigue in this country, and we know why — COVID-19,” said Biden, whose approval rating sank to a paltry 33% in one poll released last week. “Some people may call what’s happening now the ‘new normal.’ I call it a ‘job not yet finished.’ It will get better.”
In a 112-minute, sometimes-testy news conference, the president said he intends to pivot in his second year in office as crises recede, meeting more frequently with the public, conferring more often with outside experts and supporting Democratic campaigns ahead of the midterm elections.
And he etched out a hopeful vision for a future America stripped of the constant disruptions generated by the virus.
“We’re not there yet, but we will get there,” Biden said in the seventh solo news conference of his presidency. “The best days of this country are still ahead of us, not behind us.”
On his 365th day as president, Biden faced immense obstacles: A COVID death toll growing at a rate of 1,700 people per day, an inflation rate higher than any time in 40 years and a Democratic Party at war with itself over voting rights legislation.
Biden, 79, has faced a drumbeat of criticism for his administration’s slow response to the omicron coronavirus strain, which led to widespread testing shortages. And he’s still licking his wounds after America’s bloody exit from Afghanistan, which he defended stridently in the summer.
On Wednesday, Biden acknowledged fault on the testing front.
“Should we have done more testing earlier?” Biden said. “Yes. But we’re doing more now. We’ve gone from zero at-home tests a year ago to 375 million tests on the market in just this month.”
The government is now in the process of distributing millions of free at-home rapid tests, which can be ordered at www.covidtests.gov. The White House has said that it is securing 1 billion tests for Americans.
Private health insurers are now required to cover costs from up to eight at-home tests per person each month, according to the government.
The president also pointed to progress in a raft of areas — most economic — that have marked his first year at the wheel of the federal government.
He ticked off impressive figures: more than 6 million new jobs, a plunging unemployment rate and a 40% drop in childhood poverty.
“It’s been a year of challenges,” he said. “But it’s also been a year of enormous progress.”
He expressed support for his beleaguered vice president, Kamala Harris, responding with a smile when asked if he would keep her on his ticket in a reelection run in 2024, and if he was happy with her performance.
“Yes,” Biden said. “And yes.”
But the president acknowledged that the inflation rate, which has reached 7%, is frustrating Americans. Sticker-shocked workers have met soaring gas pump prices, while shoppers have found themselves in hopeless searches for a decent price for eggs.
He suggested that the Federal Reserve will work to keep the inflation clip from spiraling out of control, and that his stalled Build Back Better bill will cut costs from childcare, prescription drugs and energy.
Two moderate Democrats, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have balked at the size and scope of Biden’s social spending bill. Progressives have been left stewing.
Biden said he was confident that he will get “chunks” of the legislation through Congress before the November midterms.
“I think we can break the package up, get as much as we can now, and come back and fight for the rest later,” the president said.
Democrats fear they will take a licking at the polls given the president’s poor approval ratings, internal Congressional squabbles and historic trends for parties in power.
And critics of all political stripes have accused the president of overshooting his mandate — and political powers — by pledging to deliver a bold legislative agenda and a quick end to the pandemic.
On Wednesday, Biden bristled at any suggestion that he had overpromised and underdelivered.
“I didn’t overpromise,” he told reporters. “I have probably outperformed what anybody thought would happen.”
Even as Biden jousted with journalists, Manchin was delivering a speech at the other end of Pennsylvania Ave. reiterating his opposition to changing the Senate’s filibuster. Republicans in the Senate are expected to use the procedure to block voting rights legislation.
Biden had endorsed a change to the filibuster to ram the voting rights bill through the evenly split Senate.
With the GOP putting up roadblocks to voting across the country, and Democrats struggling to pass comprehensive legislation, Biden indicated that he expects that voters of color will manage to overcome the ballot box hurdles.
“Maybe I’m just being too much of an optimist,” the president said in the marathon news conference, sounding uncertain of how the voting rights battle would shake out.
But he expressed total confidence in his overall track record across his first year in office.
“Can you think of any other president who’s done as much in one year? Name one for me,” the president told a reporter. “I’m serious. You guys talk about how nothing’s happened.”
“The fact of the matter is,” Biden insisted, “We got an awful lot done.”