He couldn’t win, but he might have fought to a draw.
President Biden gave his ninth press conference in a year Wednesday afternoon—as journalists endlessly reminded us, that’s fewer than his recent predecessors’ first-year records. They’ve also been forecasting the tough, even hostile questions they’d be asking him; Politico rounded up some. I don’t want to pick on MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, since he had so much company in criticizing Biden, but he said something remarkable just before Biden came to the podium. He asked why Biden wasn’t touting the “green shoots” of the post-Trump economic recovery.
Where had I heard that phrase before? Oh, right: It’s how the media mocked the Obama administration in 2009, after Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke claimed to see “green shoots” of recovery after the Great Recession, even as unemployment remained high, homeowners faced foreclosure, and the stock market stalled. One of the critics was… Chuck Todd, actually, guest-hosting Hardball in July 2009. Interviewing White House Council of Economic Advisers member Austan Goolsbee about record-high unemployment, he waxed a little caustic: “All right, are these really green shoots? It‘s another unemployment rate up, more job losses. Can we still classify green shoots?”
No wonder Biden’s not touting “green shoots.”
At the longest presidential press conference in American history (one hour and 52 minutes), Biden walked a line between touting what he’s done to help Americans and acknowledging their pain, specifically on inflation and the continuing Covid spread. He could have, and probably should have, touted more: Specifically, he didn’t mention plummeting jobless claims, the soaring stock market or record GDP growth, or note that the rate of inflation has actually slowed in recent months.
But Biden did cite first-year successes underplayed by the media. “We created 6 million new jobs. More jobs in one year than any time before. Unemployment dropped. The unemployment rate dropped to 3.9 percent. Child poverty dropped by nearly 40 percent.” More than 210 million Americans have been vaccinated against Covid, he noted, though more ought to be. When one reporter asserted that he hadn’t been able to pass his “big” legislation, he chuckled. “I got two real big ones done,” he said, referring to the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. “Bigger than any president has ever gotten done.” When another implied that the Omicron spike is forcing massive school closures, Biden retorted: “Very few schools are closing. Over 95 percent are still open.”
Progressives had to like one of his explanations for rising inflation and the supply chain issues at least partly to blame: corporate consolidation. “A handful of giant companies dominate the market in sectors like meat processing, railroads, shipping, and other areas,” he said. “Over time, it has reduced competition, squeezed out small businesses and farmers, ranchers and increased the price for consumers. Look, I’m a capitalist. But capitalism without competition is not capitalism. It’s exploitation.” He promised to pursue unspecified executive action to deal with it.
Still, progressives had to be disappointed, even if it accurately reflects political reality, to hear him say that only “chunks” of his crucial Build Back Better bill are likely to get through Congress. He seemed to concede that the Child Tax Credit—responsible for that 40 percent dip in child poverty—won’t be renewed, but held out hope that $500 billion in climate spending as well as universal pre-kindergarten could pass the Senate. Those happen to be the two priorities West Virginia obstructionist Joe Manchin said he supported back in December. (As if to underscore what Biden is up against, Manchin took to the Senate floor while Biden was speaking to the press to lie about the history of the filibuster and explain why he wouldn’t vote to change the Senate rules abused by Republicans.)
But Biden’s overarching strategy seemed to be to get the media to examine the authoritarian cowards in the congressional GOP, instead of endlessly focusing on Democratic infighting and inadequacies. “I did not anticipate that there would be such a stalwart [GOP] effort to make sure President Biden didn’t get anything done,” he said. On that point, he’s either posing politically, or he’s hopelessly naive. He hammered away at Republicans’ continuing obeisance to Donald Trump.
“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 he should be taken for fear of being defeated in the primary?” Biden asked. Slyly, he quoted, at length, from an interview New Hampshire GOP Governor Chris Sununu gave about why he decided not to run for the Senate. “[GOP senators] were all, for the most part, content with the speed at which they weren’t doing anything,’’ Sununu told the Washington Examiner. “It was very clear that we just have to hold the line for two years. OK, so I’m just going to be a roadblock for two years…“I said, ‘OK, so if we’re going to get stuff done if we win the White House back, why didn’t you do it in 2017 and 2018?’” Sununu said the answer was “Crickets. Yeah, crickets.” Biden enjoyed that.
And he repeatedly asked: “What are Republicans for? What are they for? Name me one thing they’re for.” While saying he “likes” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (again, a statement I’d like subjected to a lie detector test), he asked: “What’s Mitch for? What’s he for on immigration? What’s he for? What’s he proposing? What’s he for dealing with Russia?… What’s he for on these things? What are they for?”
I’m not sure he got through. He faced some insufferable questioning. In one short sequence, NBC’s Kristen Welker went from channeling criticism that he’s been insufficiently attentive to Black voters to channeling criticism that he went too far by allegedly comparing opponents of the voting rights bill, as well as those who won’t change Senate rules to pass it (Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema), to 1960s segregationists like Birmingham sheriff Bull Connor and Alabama Governor George Wallace. He got at least three questions about his citing Wallace and Connor in his fiery voting rights speech last week, and at the last one he kind of snapped.
“Here’s the thing, there’s certain things that are so consequential you have to speak from your heart as well as your head,” he told Phillip Wegmann of RealClearPolitics. “I was speaking out forcefully on what I think to be at stake. That’s what it is. And by the way, no one, no one forgets who was on the side of King versus Bull Connor. No one. The history books will note it. I was making the case: Don’t think this is a freebie. You don’t get to vote this way and then somehow it goes away. This will stick with you the rest of your career, and long after you’re gone.”
That was good.
Will Biden’s Wednesday performance—almost two hours long, alternately friendly, cajoling, reflective and combative—make any difference in his media coverage? Probably not. The big headline was the president’s seeming to suggest Washington wouldn’t respond forcefully to a “minor incursion,” as Biden described it, by Russia into Ukraine. Press secretary Jen Psaki quickly clarified: “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.” I was OK with Biden’s original answer; it suggested tiers of response to Russia’s moves rather than immediate military action, but hawks found it unacceptable, and a lot of journalists pounced mainly because it was as close as he came to a “gaffe” in almost two hours.
He dispensed quickly with two stupid questions. Fox’s Peter Doocy asked why he’d moved so far to “the left,” and he answered: “I’m not Bernie Sanders; I like him, but I’m not a socialist,” and noted that priorities like lower prescription drug prices, infrastructure spending and expanded Covid vaccines and testing are mainstream. A nitwit from Newsmax asked why he thought some people in some poll might have suggested something rude about Biden’s mental capacities. “I have no idea,” he said curtly, and moved on.
I have no idea what it’s going to take to get the mainstream media to pay more attention to the creeping authoritarianism of the GOP than to Biden’s real or imagined shortcomings. He did a good job Wednesday, but it won’t be enough. A few hours later, the Democrats’ voting rights bill, predictably, failed to get the 60 votes it ridiculously needed to pass the Senate, so expect your mainstream media to return to its most ridiculous framing ever: Why did Biden spend so much time on voting rights when “Americans” care more about inflation and the economy? If you have to ask, you’ve obviously never had a problem voting, and that tells you all you need to know about the composition of the American press corps.