Obstructionist Republicans, Covid and senility: Five takeaways from Joe Biden’s news conference

In a nearly two-hour stint in front of the press corps the president defended his record and sounded optimistic notes on the pandemic, voting rights and his Build Back Better agenda

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With his approval ratings at the lowest levels of his presidency and the number of Americans who think the United States is on the “wrong track” at roughly the same level as the week after voters chose him as the country’s 46th chief executive, President Joe Biden took to the East Room for just the second solo news conference he’s held there since taking office.

Mr Biden and his Democratic allies in Congress are reeling from a string of setbacks, ranging from inflation at levels not seen in decades, to the failure of Senate Democrats to move his agenda forward, to the continued persistence of the Covid-19 pandemic. But White House aides have expressed hope that Wednesday’s press conference could mark the start of a “reset” that will let him recover his standing with Americans before the November midterm elections.

Here are five key takeaways from Mr Biden’s outing with the White House press corps.

He’s no longer going to ‘shut down’ the coronavirus pandemic

Mr Biden came into office with plans to use Covid-19 vaccines to put an end to the pandemic in the United States. But variants — Delta and Omicron — spoiled those plans, leading to some embarrassing flip-flops by Centers for Disease Control officials on masking for fully vaccinated people, Covid-19 vaccine boosters, and whether vaccinated people can spread the virus.

The setbacks have dealt significant blows to Mr Biden’s approval ratings, with most Americans having negative views of his administration’s handling of the virus.

But the president appeared to strike a new tone when he began speaking to reporters on Wednesday, opening his remarks by predicting that the US was moving “toward a time when Covid-19 won’t disrupt our daily lives,” and suggesting that the coronavirus “won’t be a crisis but something to protect against and a threat”.

“We’re not there yet, but we will get there,” he said.

“Build Back Better” may be broken up to pass in more manageable pieces

For months, Democrats have been engaged in internecine warfare over the size and scope of Mr Biden’s signature “Build Back Better” social spending package, as well as whether it would be voted on before or after the massive bipartisan infrastructure bill he signed into law last year.

The social package appeared to have been dealt a killing blow just before Christmas when West Virginia senator Joe Manchin announced that he could not support moving the massive spending bill under Senate rules that would’ve allowed it to evade a GOP filibuster.

But in Mr Biden’s estimation Build Back Better may live on in a series of standalone bills he believes could garner enough support from both parties to pass the upper chamber.

“It’s clear to me that we’re going to have to probably break it up,” he told reporters. “It’s clear that we would be able to get support for $500-plus billion for energy and the environment.”

Mr Biden was surprised by the ferocity of Republican efforts to make his presidency a failed one

The president appeared to acknowledge the problem posed by Republican obstructionism early on in his remarks on Wednesday when he told reporters that he was caught off-guard by the vehemence of the GOP’s opposition to anything and everything he has proposed.

"I did not anticipate that there would be such a stalwart effort to make sure the most important thing was that President Biden didn't get anything done," he said before asking rhetorically what the GOP is “for”.

But Mr Biden did not accept the suggestion that his presidency has been one of gridlock rather than action.

“You guys talk about how nothing’s happened. I don’t think there’s been much on any incoming president’s plate that’s been a bigger menu than the plate I had given to me,” he told one reporter who asked why voters who believe his promise to “get things done” should believe him when he goes to campaign for Democrats in the November midterms.

“The fact of the matter is we got an awful lot done,” he added.

He thinks Democrats can overcome GOP voter suppression even without a new voting rights law

As Mr Biden spoke from the East Room, Senate Democrats were engaged in what is certain to be a doomed effort to advance the party’s long-desired voting rights bill.

Party leaders and voting rights activists say the bill, which would restore protections the Supreme Court gutted out of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, is necessary to combat a wave of restrictive voting laws enacted by GOP legislators seeking former president Donald Trump’s favour.

But Mr Biden said he is confident that Democratic voters will come out regardless of obstacles Republicans put in their way.

“No matter how hard they make it for minorities to vote, I think you’ll see them willing to stand in line and defy the attempt to keep them from being able to vote,” he said. “I think you’re going to see that people will try to keep from being able to show up, showing up and making the sacrifice … in order to change the law back to what it should be.”

Republican claims of his senility have been greatly exaggerated

Ever since Mr Trump dubbed him “Sleepy Joe” during his doomed bid for re-election, Mr Biden has faced a barrage of attacks from GOP-aligned media and politicians who have explicitly accused him of being senile.

Mr Biden, who frequently speaks of stuttering difficulties he experienced as a child and young man, has never been the most eloquent speaker, and his communications team has allowed him precious few opportunities to interact with reporters outside controlled environments.

As a result, the idea that Mr Biden is mentally unfit or has declined from the state he was in during his two terms as vice president has taken hold among many Americans. According to a Politico and Morning Consult poll, just under half of registered voters surveyed disagreed with a statement that he is mentally fit to serve.

But Mr Biden appeared to make an effort to put those claims to rest on Wednesday by taking questions for nearly two hours, far longer than initially expected.

When a reporter for the right-wing Newsmax network asked why “such large segments of the American electorate” would “harbour such concerns” about his fitness, Mr Biden replied: “I have no idea”.

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