WASHINGTON, D.C. — By turns folksy and philosophical — and flashing a testy side at times — President Joe Biden conducted his first formal news conference Thursday.
The event, clocking in at just over an hour, ranged across politics (the future of the Senate filibuster and Biden’s own plans for reelection), domestic policy (mostly the situation at the southwestern border) and foreign affairs (primarily China).
Here are three takeaways:
Biden sees child migration as an issue of morality
Even within his own party, some critics think Biden moved too quickly to shift from the Trump administration’s policies of turning back even young migrants at the border. By easing up on exclusionary policies while telling people not to come, the administration has sent a mixed message that has effectively encouraged people to chance the journey north, the critics say.
Biden was having none of it.
“That’s not how this works,” he said at several points, repeating that the vast majority of migrants “don’t want to leave” their home countries, but do so because their situations are “desperate.”
Asked specifically if he had moved too quickly to change policies, he cast the border issue in moral terms.
“The idea that I’m going to say, which I would never do, if an unaccompanied child ends up at the border, we’re just going to let him starve to death and stay on the other side — no previous administration did that either, except Trump. I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it,” Biden said.
The Trump administration adopted policies including so-called Remain in Mexico that required migrants seeking asylum in the U.S., regardless of age, to stay on the Mexican side of the border until their cases could be adjudicated — a process that can take well over a year. Reporters in the region have documented the grim conditions in border camps where many of those migrants have lived, although Biden exaggerated in saying that children had been left to starve.
Biden similarly rejected the criticism that he had moved too fast. “All the policies that were underway were not helping at all,” he said, referring to former President Donald Trump’s efforts to block all immigration.
“Rolling back the policies of separating children from their mothers? I make no apology for that. Rolling back the policies of Remain in Mexico, sitting on the edge of the Rio Grande in a muddy circumstance with not enough to eat — I make no apology for that. I make no apologies for ending programs ... that have an incredibly negative impact on the law, international law, as well as on human dignity,” he said.
Biden thinks he can go around Republican leaders in Washington
Asked about resistance from Republicans to his legislative priorities, Biden repeatedly noted polls that show his biggest legislative accomplishment, the COVID-19 relief package, has the support of a substantial share of Republican voters.
“I would like elected Republicans’ support, but what I know I have now is I have electoral support from Republican voters, Republican voters,” he said, repeating the words for emphasis. They “agree with what I’m doing.”
That’s a bit of an exaggeration. Most polls show the vast majority of Republicans don’t approve of Biden’s performance in office.
Two things are true, however: The COVID-19 relief bill drew significant support, which is a prime reason why Republican elected officials have, instead, tried to focus attention on the border. And Biden continues to draw backing from a small, but potentially critical, slice of previous Republican voters who voted for him in the last election.
Holding their support will be key for Democratic chances in the midterm elections in 2022 and the next presidential election, in which Biden said he currently expects to be the Democratic candidate.
He has a big theme in mind
Most presidents want — and perhaps need — a grand narrative to tie their disparate actions together.
In Trump’s case, the big idea was his “make American great again” slogan, which for a significant number of his voters harkened back to an era when white men ruled the roost. For President George W. Bush, it was the idea of being a wartime president in the battle against terrorism.
For Biden, the big idea — at least so far — is competition between democracy and autocracy. He has tied that idea both to relations with China and Russia and to what he has characterized as the need to restore democracy at home by proving to Americans that the government can help solve problems faced by average families.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, Biden said, “thinks autocracy is the wave of the future”
“That is what is at stake,” he said. “Are democracies equipped — because all the people get to speak — to compete?”
“This is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies,” he added. “We’ve got to prove that democracy works.”