In his first press conference as commander in chief, President Biden forcefully defended his administration’s response to the surge of migrants at the southern border and signaled he could be open to getting rid of the filibuster that is imperiling his legislative agenda.
Biden, who waited longer than his predecessors to take questions in a formal setting, made some news, saying he “can’t picture” having U.S. troops in Afghanistan next year and acknowledging his intention to run for reelection in 2024.
His appearance was composed and controlled as he fielded questions for about an hour on immigration, the filibuster, his future political plans and foreign policy. He notably was not asked about the coronavirus pandemic.
Here are some takeaways from the press conference.
The presser was dominated by the border
Biden received more questions about the swell of child migrants at the southern border than any other issue, underscoring the extent of the humanitarian crisis and the vexing political problem Biden faces only 65 days into office.
The president at times vented frustration under hostile questioning from reporters asking if his policies were responsible for the surge and if the conditions children are being kept in at Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities are “acceptable” to him.
“That’s a serious question?” Biden said to ABC’s Cecilia Marcellina Vega. “Is it acceptable to me? Come on … it’s totally unacceptable.”
The U.S. is in custody of 15,000 unaccompanied minors who have made the dangerous journey from Mexico or Central America.
Many thousands are being kept in overflow CBP cells for longer than the 72 hours that is legally allowed. The Biden administration is scrambling to move children into the care of Health and Human Services or foster homes, but border officials are overwhelmed.
Pictures emerged for the first time this week of the crowded CBP facilities, showing children packed into pods and lying on hard floors beneath space blankets. The Biden administration is limiting press access to the facilities, and the president suggested that policy would continue.
Biden on Thursday repeatedly blamed former President Trump for the border crisis, accusing his predecessor of “dismantling” the immigration system and leaving the current administration with too few beds and too little housing to deal with the swell of migrants.
The president denied that his own policies had anything to do with the border surge, dismissing allegations that people were sending their children on the dangerous journey believing Biden would accept those who arrive because he’s a “nice guy.”
Biden argued that progress is being made in propping up new housing facilities for the child migrants who will be allowed to stay in the country as their immigration and asylum claims are processed.
The president said he spoke to the Defense secretary on Thursday about opening up Fort Bliss, which could house some 5,000 unaccompanied minors.
“We’re providing for the space to get kids out of CBP facilities that no child should be in longer than 72 hours,” Biden said.
Biden’s patience wearing thin on filibuster
Biden made news last week when said he’d back a return to the talking filibuster in the Senate, and the president took it a step further Thursday when he said he had an “open mind” to making further changes if the GOP continued to put up roadblocks to legislation on voting rights.
“We’re going to get a lot done, and if we have to, if there’s complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster, then we’ll have to go beyond what I’m talking about,” Biden said.
Biden did not directly respond to questions about whether he’d support abolishing the filibuster, but he agreed with former President Obama’s assessment that the Senate rule is a relic of the Jim Crow era.
His comments were a warning shot that he may be willing to back major changes or eliminate the filibuster entirely if Republicans aren’t willing to come to the table on voting rights, immigration, gun control and other key agenda items.
He doesn’t see himself as a one-termer
One of the lingering questions hanging over the Biden administration is whether the 78-year-old president would run for reelection in 2024.
Biden answered on Thursday that he planned to seek a second term.
“Yes, my plan is to run for reelection, that’s my expectation,” Biden said.
When he was running against more than a dozen candidates in the Democratic primary — some of whom are younger than he is by decades — Biden went out of his way to cast himself as a “bridge” candidate who could defeat Trump in 2020 before handing over the mantle to the next generation.
But riding high with a strong favorability rating and with COVID-19 stimulus package under his belt, Biden on Thursday indicated he’d be in for the long haul, as long as “fate” doesn’t intervene with different plans.
“I’m a great respecter of fate, I’m not going to be able to plan three-and-a-half years ahead for certain,” he said.
Trump famously declared his reelection bid on his first day in office as president, so Biden’s relative coyness on the issue had raised speculation about his future plans.
“My predecessor needed to,” Biden joked. “My predecessor, oh God I miss him.”
The president also said that he expects Vice President Harris to be his running mate when he seeks a second term.
“I fully expect that to be the case,” Biden said. “She’s a great partner.”
Many viewed Harris as Biden’s likely successor if he declined to run again.
The Hill reported Wednesday that Biden did not see himself as a one-term president, and that he did not want people to assume he would not seek another term.
GOP’s proposed voting restrictions irk Biden
Biden appeared particularly incensed over the push among GOP legislatures across the country to restrict voting access, decrying it as “un-American.”
“The Republican voters I know find this despicable,” Biden said, raising his voice in one of the more charged moments of the hour-long press conference. “I'm not talking about the elected officials. I'm talking about voters… This makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle. This is gigantic what they are trying to do & it cannot be sustained.”
Republican-run states have moved quickly to restrict ballot access after the 2020 election saw record turnout and a surge in mail-in voting amid the pandemic. Overall, more than 250 bills have been introduced in 43 states that would restrict access to the ballot box.
Biden would not elaborate on Friday on what measures he might take to ensure access to the ballot, and elections are state run so his executive power is limited. But some allies, including House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), have backed an exception to the Senate filibuster rule for civil rights legislation, including bills that would strengthen ballot access.
No major gaffes in first press conference
Biden, who has admitted to being prone to gaffes, delivered a composed performance in the East Room of the White House even as he faced pointed questions on his response to the situation at the border and his position on the filibuster.
Biden called on 10 journalists in total of the 25 in the room, notably skipping over Fox News correspondent Peter Doocy, and read from prepared notes at points during the press conference.