On the eve of his first anniversary in the White House, President Joe Biden held a nearly two-hour news conference and reflected on a year full of triumphs and challenges.
“It’s been a year of challenges, but it’s also been a year of enormous progress,” Biden said as he opened his press conference touting some of his administration’s biggest victories.
On one hand, the Biden administration has overseen two major legislative victories: The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, a major boon to the economy and to millions of Americans struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, an unfulfilled goal of his most recent two predecessors, which will help rebuild roads, bridges, replace lead pipes, expand broadband access and fund other public works projects.
The White House has also coordinated a successful COVID-19 vaccination drive, which has seen nearly 250 million Americans roll up their sleeves for at least one shot, almost 80% of the U.S. population five and older, with 209 million fully vaccinated, or 63% of the total U.S. population.
“We went from 2 million people being vaccinated at the moment I was sworn in to 210 million Americans being fully vaccinated today,” Biden said.
Biden also touted a year of historic jobs growth, with more than 6 million created in his first year and the 6.2% unemployment rate he inherited dropped to 3.9%, the biggest drop in a single year in the country’s history.
“We created 6 million new job, more jobs in one year than any time before,” Biden said. “Unemployment dropped: The unemployment rate dropped to 3.9%. Child poverty dropped by nearly 40%.”
To add to that, the president touted a reduction in hunger and child poverty, major investments in clean energy and the fight against climate change, a diverse cabinet and a rebuilding of the federal judiciary.
But the administration has also been beset with struggles: Rising consumer prices, a chaotic withdrawal of U.S. military personnel from Afghanistan, a recently resurgent COVID-19 pandemic driven by the highly contagious omicron variant and a stalled voting rights and domestic spending agenda in the Senate have helped contribute to sagging approval ratings for the nascent president.
“Still, for all this progress I know there's a lot of frustration and fatigue in this country,” Biden said, citing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and rising consumer prices as the reasons to blame.
"We have faced some of the biggest challenges," Biden said. "But we’re getting through it."
With a number of challenges on the horizon, including Russian aggression on the Ukrainian border, getting inflation and a backlogged supply chain under control, calls to pass a sweeping social spending bill and election reform legislation and beating back the pandemic once and for all, the president sought to reassure Americans in his news conference that he and his administration are ready to tackle his second year in office.
Biden pledged in his second year as president that he will travel more and hold more public forums, seek more advice and input from experts and promised to get "deeply involved" in the 2022 midterm elections to stump for the Democrats.
“I have not been out in the community nearly enough,” Biden said. “I find myself in a situation where I don't get a chance to look people in the eye … to be able to go out and do the things that I've always been able to do pretty well: connect with people, let them take a measure of my sincerity.”
Here are six takeaways from President Biden’s news conference:
Biden’s press conference at the White House took place as just a few blocks away at the U.S. Capitol, Senators debated a sweeping election reform bill and changes to the Senate’s rules in order to get voting rights bills passed.
Much like his Build Back Better social spending bill, much of Democrats’ voting rights push rests in the hands of moderate Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. As Biden took questions from reporters, Manchin delivered remarks on the Senate floor reiterating his support for the 60-vote legislative filibuster threshold, all but dooming this slate voting rights legislation in the Senate.
When asked if the 2022 midterm elections will be fair and legitimate if Democrats’ voting rights legislation doesn’t pass, President Joe Biden said that “it all depends on whether or not we're able to make the case to the American people that some of this is being set up to try to alter the outcome of the election.”
Biden later admitted that the results of the 2022 midterm elections could “easily be illegitimate”.
“The prospect of an illegitimate [election] is in direct proportion us being able to get these reforms passed,” but promised that Democrats will not give up on voting rights should this current effort fail.
Slamming laws enacted at the state level, largely in Republican-led statehouses, which restrict access to the ballot box, President Biden said that “no matter how hard they make it for minorities to vote, I think you're going to see them willing to stand in line and defy the attempt to keep them from being able to vote.”
According to a tally from the Brennan Center for Justice, 19 states nationwide, largely with GOP-led statehouses, have enacted 34 laws that restrict access to the ballot box in the last year.
Biden predicted that “we will get something done on the electoral reform side of this,” signaling a willingness to come to a bipartisan compromise on the Electoral Count Act, which was challenged during the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Biden said he has "no reluctance" in regards to reaching out to Republicans to come to a bipartisan consensus on voting rights legislation, including Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“It's going to be difficult. I make no bones about that," Biden said of voting rights, but pledged: "We've not run out of options yet, and we'll see how this moves.”
When asked for his message to Black voters, who helped elect Biden and have urged the president to take action on voting rights sooner, the president said that “I’ve had their back for my entire career” and said he has been a staunch defender of electoral reform dating back to his time in the Senate.
But, Biden admitted, “I have not been out in the community enough,” and said that he has not communicated as much as he should have.
“I've been here an awful lot,” Biden said. “I find myself in a situation where I don't get a chance to look people in the eye because of both COVID and things that are happening in Washington to be able to go out and do the things that I've always been able to do pretty well connect with people let them take a measure of my sincerity.”
The president said he is satisfied with the job Vice President Kamala Harris has done on voting rights – and committed to keeping her on the Democratic ticket as his running mate in 2024.
Biden opened his press conference by focusing on the preeminent challenge facing his administration: The COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID-19 is not going to go away,” Biden said. “But I'm not gonna give up and accept things as they are. Some people may call what's happening now a new normal. I call it a job not yet finished. It will get better.”
The president touted the amount of Americans fully vaccinated against COVID-19, up from 2 million at the start of his presidency to over 209 million as of Wednesday, per CDC data. Biden said he hoped the “new normal” would include even more Americans getting vaccinated against the virus.
Biden also encouraged Americans to get their booster shot, saying individuals are “better protected” against severe illness and death from COVID-19 should they get the third dose – but demurred when asked if and when federal officials might change the definition of “fully vaccinated” to include the booster dose.
“We've been doing everything we can, learning and adapting as fast as we can and preparing for a future beyond the pandemic,” Biden said from the White House. “For many of us, it's been too much to bear. We're in a very different place now, though. We have the tools – vaccines, boosters, masks, tests, pills – to save lives and keep businesses and schools open.”
Biden also called the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn his vaccine mandate for large businesses a “mistake,” but said he was heartened by the many corporations’ independent decisions to still require their workforce be vaccinated.
The Biden administration has faced mounting criticism for the availability of at-home COVID-19 tests. As of Tuesday, a government website was live that will send an individual American four tests free-of-charge, and recently required that private insurance companies reimburse the cost of rapid tests for Americans with health care.
Still, the president acknowledged that his administration should have taken action sooner, particularly with an omicron-driven spike in COVID-19 cases occurring across the country.
“Should we have done more testing earlier? Yes. But we're doing more now,” he said Wednesday, adding: “[Omicron] is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”
While new cases have slowly begun to tick down in recent days, late December and early January saw record caseloads across the country, with the seven-day average nearing one million cases at its peak.
Hospitalizations for children, particularly those under the age of five who are still not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, skyrocketed in early January. Schools are still requesting National Guard support as teachers call out sick at record rates. Students across the country recently walked out of schools in protest of COVID-19 learning policies.
Despite the uptick in pediatric COVID cases and hospitalizations, Biden on Wednesday reiterated the administration’s position that schools should not go back to lockdown and should use remote learning as an option of last resort.
“We’re not going back to lockdowns, we’re not going back to closing schools,” Biden said. “Schools should stay open.”
When pressed, Biden said “very few schools are closing” due to COVID-related struggles. According to data from school tracker Burbio, 6273 schools were “actively disrupted” due to the pandemic last week, the highest number by far since at least late 2021.
Instead, the president highlighted the funds allocated to schools as part of his American Rescue Plan, saying it made “billions of dollars” for programs like school cleanings, testing and mitigation strategies.
With Russia poised to invade Ukraine and planning to soon add even greater military force to its neighbor’s border, President Biden predicted a Russian military incursion but reiterated that the consequences of an invasion would be severe, and he says he has made that clear to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“That decision is totally, solely, completely a Putin decision,” he said on the possibility of an invasion. “I don’t think he’s made up his mind.”
“He's never seen sanctions like the ones I promised would be imposed if he moved,” Biden also said. “We've had very frank discussions.”
“The cost of going into Ukraine, in terms of physical loss of life for the Russians — and they'll be able to prevail over time — but it's going to be heavy. It's going to be real. It's going to be consequential,” he added. “Putin has a stark choice: the de-escalation or diplomacy, or confrontation of the consequences.”
The U.S. this week announced it would provide another $200 million in military aid to Ukraine.
And President Biden on Wednesday predicted that Putin would ultimately feel forced to encroach on its neighbor in some way.
“I'm not so sure he’s certain what he's doing. My guess is he will move in — he has to do something,” the president said.
Russia has laid out two demands: a promise Ukraine would never be permitted to join NATO and a scaling back of NATO’s military expansion into Eastern Europe. The first is unlikely to be met, while the second demand leaves room for negotiation, Biden said.
“There's room to work if he wants that, but I think, as usual, he's going to … I think it will hurt him badly,” he concluded.
President Biden did not rule out the idea of another summit with Putin, calling it a “possibility.”
President Biden said he didn’t expect the intensity of pushback from Republican lawmakers over the last year as they moved to block his agenda on everything from COVID relief legislation to voting rights protections to social spending to immigration reform.
“What are Republicans for? Name me one thing they’re for,” he postured as a president who promised on his inauguration to be a leader for “all Americans.”
“I did not anticipate that there would be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn't get anything,” he also said.
Biden alternately praised several GOP lawmakers – offering that he “actually like[s]” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and calling Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, a “straight guy” – while also doubling down on Republicans as barriers to progress. Without mentioning his name, Biden placed some of the blame on former president Donald Trump.
“Did you ever think one man, out of office, could intimidate an entire party where they're unwilling to take any vote contrary to what he thinks should be taken, for fear of being defeated?” Biden asked.
But the president also admitted he had not communicated his priorities clearly enough to the American people, and promised to change his tactics by traveling more to deliver his policy message in his second year, noting that many of his ideas were broadly popular.
“The American people overwhelmingly agree with me on prescription drugs. They overwhelmingly agree with me on the cost of education,” Biden said. “And so we just have to make the case of what we’re for, and what the other team’s not for.”
The president also addressed resistance within his own party from Democratic senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, saying he still believes it is “extremely realistic” that a number of his legislative priorities will pass due to the high public support.
Both Sinema and Manchin have stymied aspects of Biden’s agenda, most recently when the lawmakers separately said they would not support changing Senate rules in order to push through voting rights and election reform legislation.
Biden later added that he has not had as much one-on-one face time with senators since he took office, but said he has “no reluctance” to reach out to any Republican or Democrat who might have questions about his agenda.
“The public doesn't want me to be the president senator, they want me to be the president and let senators be senators,” Biden said. “I'm used to negotiating to get things done, and I’ve been in the past relatively successful at it in the U.S. senate, and even as vice president. But I think the role of president is a different role.”
Speaking about his signature social spending and climate change legislation, the Build Back Better bill, President Biden said that “It's clear to me that we're probably going to have to break [the bill] up” in order to get it passed.
The bill, initially pitched as a $3.5 trillion measure, was whittled down to closer to $2 trillion to appease moderate Sens. Manchin and Sinema, and has stalled without the support of the two lawmakers.
With a 50-50 Senate and no Republicans willing to support the bill, Biden needs every Democrat on board in order to pass the legislation.
Biden said he’s confident that Democrats will be able to get “big chunks of the Build Back Better” bill passed by Congress and signed into law.
The president said that “it’s clear that we would be able to get support for the $500+ billion” to combat climate change and fund environmental initiatives, and said that there are a number of issues that Manchin and Sinema “strongly support,” specifically mentioning early education programs and some of the revenue sources of the bill.
"I think we can break the package up and get as much as we can now and come back and fight for the rest later,” the president said.
Biden said that he “feels strongly” about the child tax credit and free community college, which he said he isn’t confident he can get passed at this juncture, but pledged to continue fighting for those issues.
President Biden acknowledged early on in his remarks Wednesday that rising consumer prices have been a major burden to American families and a source of frustration nationwide — one issue which has dogged his administration’s economic recovery efforts.
“We need to get inflation under control,” Biden said, as inflation has risen to a nearly 40-year high.
Biden said that the Federal Reserve needs to do more to combat rising consumer prices, and touted his recent nominations to serve on the Fed’s Board of Governors as individuals who will help alleviate inflation.
“The critical job of making sure elevated prices don’t become entrenched rests with the Federal Reserve, which has a dual mandate: full employment and stable prices,” Biden said.
“Given the strength of our economy and pace of recent price increases, it’s appropriate, as Fed Chairman Powell has indicated, to recalibrate the support that is now necessary,” Biden added.
“The best thing to tackle high prices is a more productive economy,” Biden said, outlining his three-part plan to combat rising inflation:
- Fixing the supply chain: Biden touted that the “much-predicted crisis” around the holidays “did not occur,” and lamented that he “often” sees empty shelves on television, but the reality is that “89%” of shelves “are full.” The president said that his infrastructure bill will “supercharge” the economy by repairing roads, bridges and railways to unclog the supply chain.
- Build Back Better: Biden urged Congress to pass parts of his Build Back Better domestic agenda to help benefit workers, specifically discussing what the bill does to address prescription drug prices. “If price increases are what you’re worried about, the best answer is my Build Back Better plan,” Biden said.
- Promote competition: The president said that “capitalism without competition is not capitalism, it’s exploitation,” and that increased competition in the economy and cracking down on unfair competition will help drive down consumer prices.
“It’s going to be hard,” Biden admitted, but pledged to continue the work and urged Congress to pass his Build Back Better agenda, calling it the best way to take the burden off of the middle class.