For all of Biden's successes or failures, it's really about 'COVID, stupid'
President Biden held a nearly two-hour, very wide-ranging news conference Wednesday that, for all its headlines, underscored how external forces shape his presidency as it enters its second year — none more so than the ongoing pandemic.
He touted accomplishments in his first year, from millions of vaccinations to passing massive COVID relief and infrastructure bills.
Biden reflected on his struggles, too, painted a relatively optimistic outlook for the country, laid out how he wants to be president differently going forward, and even admitted mistakes.
"Should we have done more testing earlier? Yes," Biden said of the lack of widespread availability of coronavirus tests.
The news he made — admitting that his Build Back Better bill would have to be broken up to pass Congress — and his gaffes on Ukraine and the legitimacy of U.S. elections, both of which the White House had to clean up later, also stood out.
But it's also important to remember that most Americans likely didn't watch Biden's appearance as a whole. What they got were sound bites in news coverage — and in addition to his comments about Ukraine, a lot of what's been replayed is Biden pointing the finger at Republicans.
"I'm saying, what are they for?" Biden asked rhetorically in what has the makings of a line that will be repeated in 2022 ahead of the midterms. "What is their agenda?"
"What are they for?" is a line Biden repeated three times in his news conference.
The sheer length said something
Biden's news conference lasted an hour and 51 minutes. That length was significant for a couple reasons:
But because some of Biden's answers meandered and the White House had to issue clarifications later, there are probably some in the West Wing who are thinking it might be better not to let these go on so long in the future.
Ukraine: blurred lines
The president muddled the West's message on what NATO allies would do to punish Russia over a "minor incursion" into Ukraine, something he didn't clearly define.
"It's one thing if it's a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do, et cetera," Biden said.
In one sentence, Biden seemed to suggest that a degree of Russian aggression would be tolerable and that NATO allies are not united on what their response to it should be.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki issued a statement shortly after the news conference, trying to set things straight: "President Biden has been clear with the Russian President: If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that's a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our Allies."
Still, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted the next day: "We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties... ."
Secretary of State Antony Blinken flew to Geneva and met with his Russian counterpart after the news conference and also delivered the cleaned-up message.
The legitimacy of elections
Despite being given two opportunities to do so, Biden declined to explicitly say that this fall's elections would be legitimate. He seemed to imply that they would be — only if Democrats' voting rights legislation passes.
A reporter directly asked whether he believed, that as a result of some actions by Republican-controlled state legislatures, some elections could be "illegitimate."
"Oh, yeah, I think it easily could be — be illegitimate," Biden said.
Biden added later that "the increase and the prospect of being illegitimate is in direct proportion to us not being able to get these — these reforms passed."
Democrats' legislation failed this week.
So where does that leave Biden's position on the legitimacy of the election then?
Psaki clarified in a White House press briefing the next day, saying the president "was not intending to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 election. He was actually attempting to make the opposite point, which is that in 2020, despite COVID, despite many attempts to suppress the vote, a record number of voters ... turned out in the face of a pandemic. And election officials made sure they could vote and have those votes counted.
"He was also explaining that the results would be illegitimate if states do what the former president asked them to do in more than a half a dozen states in 2020 — after the 2020 election: toss out ballots and overturn results after the fact."
But Biden's hesitation to give a full-throated endorsement of this fall's elections may well be because of pressure he's feeling from the left.
And politically, he's in a bit of a vise. NBC polling this week showed that the percentage of independents who see him as less willing to compromise has jumped significantly since taking office, while people in his own party have marginally increased in the opposite direction.
The path forward
Biden said he's going to do things differently going forward, specifically three things:
Given that he's going to hit the road a bit more — in a year when Republicans are favored to take back the House — he said he is going to step back from being as involved on Capitol Hill.
"[T]he public doesn't want me to be the president-senator," he said. "They want me to be the president and let senators be senators. ... If I made a mistake, I'm used to negotiating to get things done... . But I think that role as president is a different role."
As goes COVID...
Biden tried to make the case that the country is moving in the right direction.
"I don't know how we can say it's not," he contended. "I understand the overwhelming frustration, fear and concern with regard to inflation and COVID. I get it."
The problem is despite economic gains — in jobs, wages and the stock market — significant majorities of Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction.
A big part of the reason is the pandemic and inflation, which is tied to COVID.
Look at the data: Back on July Fourth of last year, when Biden was close to declaring independence from the coronavirus, his approval rating was averaging 52%.
Today, it's 10 points lower.
Undoubtedly, the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan took a bite out of his argument that he can competently run the government.
And his struggles to get his domestic agenda through, plus the very public Democratic infighting, have deflated many in Biden's base. Key Democratic voting groups have softened in their approval, and independents have soured on him.
Those have all contributed to the sagging views of Biden. But without Americans feeling like they're seeing a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, it's very difficult to see Biden's political standing turning around very much.
No matter all the other problems and mistakes, successes or failures detailed and worked over in his exhaustive press conference, as goes COVID, likely so goes the Biden presidency.
James Carville, when he was a strategist to former President Bill Clinton, coined the phrase a quarter century ago that's now become cliché in politics: "It's the economy, stupid."
But Carville says that might need be updated — for now, it's COVID, stupid.
"One of the biggest parts of the economy is health care," Carville told me, adding: "It's having a suppressing effect on the economy, there's no doubt about it. ... COVID is a giant wet blanket across the country."
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