Biden scales back policy plans and blames GOP obstruction

President Joe Biden addresses a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Wednesday, Jan 19, 2022. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
President Joe Biden vowed Wednesday to pursue a scaled-back version of his marquee domestic policy plan as he mounted a two-hour defence of his first-year accomplishments and repeatedly blamed Republicans for abandoning any serious attempt to govern the country.

In an expansive news conference in the East Room of the White House, Biden refused to accept criticism of how his administration has handled the coronavirus pandemic, saying that “we’ve done remarkably well.” And he rejected accusations that he called lawmakers who opposed voting rights legislation racists in a fiery speech this month.

Acknowledging that his $2.2 trillion social spending legislation will not pass the Senate in one piece, Biden said he would try to pass individual parts of the bigger bill in the Senate, where they might get more bipartisan support. He said he was confident that provisions on energy and the environment would get enough support to pass.

He specifically noted that there was too much opposition among Democrats and Republicans to two of his key agenda items, which were central to the pledges he made on the campaign trail in 2020: an extension of the child tax credit and free community college for all Americans.

He was pessimistic about voting rights, acknowledging the looming failure of legislation in the Senate. “It’s going to be difficult. I make no bones about that,” the president said, hours before Democrats’ latest attempt to pass a voting rights bill was blocked. But he added, “We’ve not run out of options yet.”

He expressed more optimism that some of his spending agenda might still be adopted.

“I think we can break the package up, get as much as we can now and come back and fight for the rest later,” he said. He noted that provisions on climate change and universal prekindergarten, and proposals to finance new spending might get enough support to pass.

The president said he hoped to find common ground with two Democratic senators who have resisted the legislation. In particular, he said that one of those holdouts, Sen Joe Manchin of West Virginia, “strongly supports early education, 3 and 4 years of age. Strongly supports that.”

He repeatedly laced into congressional Republicans, whom he accused of having no positive agenda and of conspiring to block everything that Biden has tried to do.

“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 done,” he said.

“What are Republicans for?” he asked in response to a question about his stalled agenda. “What are they for? Name me one thing that they are for.”

Referring to Donald Trump, Biden asked: “Did you ever think that one man out of office could intimidate an entire party?”

He said five Republican senators had privately told him that they agreed with him on various issues, only to say that they would lose in the primaries if they went public. The president declined to say who the five were.

Biden accused Republicans of refusing to get “in the game” on governing the country and said the party was to blame for his inability to unify the country — as he promised — because the GOP was far more unwilling to compromise than it had been in previous years.

“They weren’t nearly as obstructionist as they are now,” Biden said. He added: “I wonder what would be the Republican platform right now. What do you think? What do you think is their position on taxes? What do you think is their position on human rights?”

Biden faced reporters in a formal news conference for only the second time in his presidency and less than a day before the anniversary of his inauguration amid a stalled agenda and sagging approval ratings.

He was animated throughout the news conference, taking numerous questions and sparring with reporters for almost two hours. He ignored one question about his son’s connections to China and largely dismissed another on concerns about his mental fitness.

He also gave a grim assessment of the likelihood that President Vladimir Putin of Russia would soon send forces into Ukraine.

For most of the two hours, the president defended his record, noting record low unemployment, passage of a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill, millions of Americans getting vaccinated and his negotiation of a bipartisan bill to invest $1 trillion in the nation’s roads, bridges, pipes and broadband.

But the president said he still intended to take a new approach in the year ahead, promising to get out of Washington more often and pledging significant help for Democratic candidates as the party fights to retain control of Congress in the midterm elections in November.

“We’re going to be raising a lot of money. We’re going to be out there making sure that we’re helping all those candidates,” Biden said, promising to “go out and make the case in plain, simple language as to what it is we’ve done, what we want to do and why we think it’s important.”

In response to a question, Biden said that he intended to run for a second term and that Vice President Kamala Harris would be his running mate.

Biden also said he had grown tired of being drawn into endless negotiations with members of his own party during the past six months. He said his drop in popularity was partly the result of Americans seeing him acting more like a lawmaker and less like a commander in chief.

“The public doesn’t want me to be the president-senator,” he said. “They want me to be the president and let senators be senators.”

The president has faced a series of challenges since the summer, including a monthslong battle with two Democratic senators over his far-reaching social spending legislation and the inability to pass voting rights protections he describes as crucial to the fate of democracy in the country.

He also oversaw a rushed and chaotic exit from Afghanistan.

The president has not yet succeeded in meeting his own goals for combating climate change. And while he has reversed some of Trump’s harsh immigration policies, he has not yet delivered on his broader promise for a pathway to citizenship for millions of people living in the country without legal permission.

And on the central promise he made during the 2020 campaign — to “shut down” the pandemic that has upended school, work and social life in the country for two years — Biden has struggled to respond to the coronavirus variants that have killed more than 250,000 Americans since the summer.

The president defended his response to the pandemic, saying that his administration had succeeded in vaccinating nearly 75 percent of all adults. He said he wished he had “moved a month earlier” to ramp up testing capacity, but he rejected the idea that he should fire any members of his pandemic response team and he refused to accept that problems with testing should be seen as a major failure by his administration.

“Should we have done more testing earlier? Yes. But we’re doing more now,” he said.

The president took questions even as members of his party in the Senate delivered speeches on behalf of the voting rights legislation in what they already acknowledged was a doomed effort because of unified Republican opposition and refusal by a handful of Democratic senators to change the chamber’s rules.

The idea of the debate was to underscore Republican refusal to deal with what Democrats insist is election subversion and voter suppression in states across the country. But the vote also highlighted the limits on Biden’s ability to pressure members of his own party to fall in line behind their president.

Biden said he had not completely given up on passing some kind of voting rights legislation, and he rejected criticism from some African Americans who say he has not fought hard enough for voting protections.

“I’ve had their back,” he said. “I’ve had their back my entire career. I’ve never not had their back. I started on the voting rights issues long, long ago.”

Biden repeatedly urged Americans to have patience with him, acknowledging that he had “not yet” accomplished everything that he said he would when he ran for office.

On improving trade with China, Biden said that “we’re not there yet.” And on the pandemic, he had the same answer: I’m not done yet.

“Some people may call what’s happening now the new normal,” he said. “I call it a job not yet finished. It will get better.”

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