A few takeaways from Biden's latest news conference

President Biden held a rare formal news conference Wednesday, one day before the first anniversary of his inauguration.

The event came with the president's poll ratings at a low ebb and as he is enduring one of his most difficult stretches to date. His legislative agenda has stalled, and he faces challenges ranging from inflation to Russian aggression. 

But the president, speaking amid the grandeur of the East Room of the White House, had a chance to reset the agenda with the midterm elections just 10 months away.

A big misstep on Russia

Biden’s loquaciousness has a history of getting him in trouble. So it proved again on Wednesday.

A predictable question on a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine produced an odd and damaging response. 

Biden suggested that a “minor incursion” by the Kremlin’s forces might not receive much aggressive pushback from the United States.

The comment lit up social media, and a second reporter asked Biden about it later in the news conference. 

Offered a second bite at the cherry, Biden missed yet again, this time implying that a limited Russian action would make it difficult for him to drive a unified response from NATO.

White House aides immediately scrambled to try to clear up the confusion. They had little success.

They core of the problem is that Biden’s remarks sounded weak and timid — liabilities that Putin will try to maximally exploit. 

The Russian leader has form. He annexed Crimea in 2014 and, for all its noble-sounding words of protest, the international community has not been able to reverse the move.

The entire thrust of Washington’s approach in its negotiations with the Kremlin has been to show seriousness this time around.

But Biden put a hole in his own strategy on Wednesday, for no obvious reason.

In terms of domestic politics, the remark will also feed into the conservative tendency to portray Democrats as puny on the world stage.

The news conference was long — very long

Biden spent almost two hours in the East Room, and even joked about the longevity of the event in its closing stages.

“How many more hours am I doing this? I’m happy to stick around,” he said.

There were pluses and minuses to the marathon approach.

On one hand, the briefing’s duration was proof of Biden’s stamina and mental acuity — a retort to conservative critics who suggest that, at 79, he is not up to the job. 

In fact, that issue was explicitly — and somewhat pompously — brought up at the news conference by a reporter for Newsmax, and Biden swatted it aside.

But the length of the news conference also played to two Biden-related weaknesses — an eagerness to talk at considerable length and a propensity for inexact language. Those aren’t functions of his age. They are traits that have marked his entire political career. 

In the later stages of the event, for example, Biden suggested he might not consider the midterm elections legitimate under certain circumstances— but the wording of his answer was rather unclear.

Some commentators complained the event grew dull because of its length. 

But that critique is not likely to matter much with the general public, relatively few of whom are likely to have watched the presser in its entirety.

Biden kicked off his midterm campaign

Next to the Russia gaffe, the most politically significant aspect of the briefing was Biden’s shift to a midterm election strategy.

He is not — yet — going full, scorched-earth negative. But he clearly wants to put a contrast between his party and the GOP in the front of voters’ minds

He claimed several times that Republicans were happy to position themselves against him but unwilling to state in plain terms what they favor.

“What would be the Republican platform right now?,” he asked rhetorically, citing issues including taxation, the cost of prescription drugs and human rights. “I honestly don’t know what they’re for.”

An old political dictum holds that elections are either a referendum on the incumbent or a choice between two options. 

Biden is doing what he can to make the 2022 midterms a choice — surely seeing this approach as his party’s most realistic chance to cling onto its razor-thin congressional majorities.

Relatedly, Biden also promised to hit the road more, talking wistfully about how he has not been able do more of the old-school politicking he relishes because of the pandemic.

“I don’t get a chance to look people in the eye, to go out and do the things I’ve always been able to do,” he said at one point. “Connect with people, let them take the measure of my sincerity.”

A bite-sized approach to his goals

Biden bowed to the inevitable on his legislative agenda — sort of.

In effect, he accepted that his Build Back Better plan, which he had hoped would be the capstone of his legislative agenda, would not pass in its current form. He acknowledged the same of voting rights legislation, more or less.

But he emphasized the fight for those goals was not over. Instead, he said he would move on to trying to achieve the same big objectives in bite-sized chunks over time.

“It’s clear to me that we are going to have to probably break it up,” he said of Build Back Better, noting as one example that even Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) was in favor of some of the big bill's provisions on early childhood education. 

He made essentially the same argument on voting rights and asserted that change happens incrementally.

“I don’t know many things that have been done in one fell swoop,” he said.

Whether that approach is enough to satisfy a restive Democratic base remains to be seen.

Did it move the needle?

It’s tough for any single event these days to shift the political realities of a deeply polarized nation.

Biden’s press conference was no exception.

The extent of the damage done by the Russia-related gaffe will only become clear after several days. 

Right now, it’s impossible to tell whether it will fade from relevance or instead come to be seen like other infamous verbal miscues — President Ford’s “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” debacle during a 1976 debate comes to mind.

On the flip side, Biden supporters can take heart from the vigor with which the president pressed the case against the GOP. They have been wanting more of that from Biden for a while and he delivered in spades on Wednesday.

His remarks hitting Republicans were a reminder that the presidential bully pulpit still holds power. 

Whether that power will be enough to reverse Biden’s current low fortunes remains to be seen.

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