In his town hall on CNN, he repeatedly expressed his belief that Republicans will go along, even though some have been poisoned by conspiracies and others, he said, are “lying” on his record.
He was met with open skepticism by some of his questioners, especially in the area of voting rights. But he plodded on, exalting his belief in duality as nothing less than a quest to prove that democracy can work.
It was a reflection of where Biden is six months into his presidency. It is too early for him to give up on his promise to unite the country. Still, the window closes to get something done with the Republicans.
‘This is not a pandemic’
“There are legitimate questions that people can ask if they are concerned about vaccination, but the question needs to be asked, answered and people need to get vaccinated,” Biden said. “But this is not a pandemic.”
“It’s frustrating,” he continued, trying to downplay the current wave as a pandemic, only for those who have refused to get shots.
Amid the spike in cases, Biden’s aides have tried to underline the real progress they’ve made in the pandemic, recognizing that his ability to manage the crisis will be how overwhelming voters judge him. They have resisted returning to previous levels of crisis messages because they understood the effect this could have on national impressions of progress.
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Still, he and his aides have indicated that the coming weeks will be vital to executing his sweeping agenda before the midterm election season heats up. Likewise, the clock is ticking as he fulfills his campaign promise to work with Republicans to prove that democracy is still functional.
Biden acknowledged that it was a question he received from foreign leaders, who asked him whether the US “will ever get it done.” And he said a proliferation of conspiracy theories made working together more difficult, citing one that “Biden hides people and sucks children’s blood.”
Still, the president insisted that working together remain his north star, even when questioned by a member of the public about the “utopian need to get bipartisan support.”
“Maybe I’m the wrong person to talk to,” Biden warned, acknowledging he wasn’t about to give up on his insistence that Republicans and Democrats can work together.
He said he negotiated with both Republicans and Democrats, said the compromises are “real” and noted that there must be compromises within his own party “between the far left and the center and some of the more conservative people.” And without asking, Biden checked the name of Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman 25 minutes after the event. Portman is one of the senators negotiating the bipartisan infrastructure plan, and Biden’s flattering message was laced with his expectations.
“I come from a tradition in the Senate, you shake your hand, and that’s it, you keep your word,” he said. “And I found that Rob Portman does.”
Hard economic love
Politicians are usually wary of delivering bad news. Biden has maintained that he will not exaggerate the facts. And on Wednesday, in two separate replies, he delivered somewhat unwelcome economic news.
He acknowledged that current price increases were real when questioned about an overheated economy. And he honestly told a restaurant chain owner that he will continue to struggle with hiring workers for the foreseeable future — and suggested the restaurant owner raise wages.
It was a hard economic love. But Biden tried to make a point about the big changes he’s trying to make in the lives of American workers in his first year in office, convinced that the side effects felt now pale in comparison to the greater benefits further down the line.
“There will be inflation in the short term as everything is trying to pick up now,” he said, explaining how his economics team has advised him that current price increases will not continue as demand returns to normal levels.
Biden has come under fire from Republicans for injecting trillions of dollars into the economy at a time when inflation fears are seeping in. But he pointed to economists who say the two plans he is promoting in Congress would actually drive prices down.
When the restaurant owner stood up to ask how he can encourage employees to return to work amid a nationwide battle to retain employees, Biden acknowledged it could take time.
“I think it’s really a matter of people deciding now that they have options to do other things. And there’s a shortage of workers, people want to make more money and negotiate. And so I think your company and the tourist business is really going to be in trouble for a while,” Biden said.
But he said raising workers’ wages would be more certain, suggesting a $15 per hour rate could attract a more reliable workforce.
“But you can pay for that already,” he said.
Biden lamented that the two issues — voting rights and the filibuster — have become so intertwined, although legislative progress is inherently tied to the existence of a rule requiring a 60-vote threshold on most bills.
Biden has said he is open to changing the filibuster to require senators to speak on the Senate floor if they hold up bills. But he has stopped supporting some Democrats’ calls to eliminate it altogether.
It was probably an unsatisfactory response to the incoming law student who asked Biden about the logic of getting rid of the filibuster to “protect our democracy and secure voting rights.”
But Biden seemed to suggest that changing the rules now would prevent his legislative agenda from getting through — and while he insists voting rights are his top priority, there’s likely more progress in Congress with its infrastructure and family plans.
“The abuse of the filibuster is pretty overwhelming,” Biden admitted on Wednesday, but later said it would “pull the entire Congress into chaos and nothing will be done, nothing done at all.”
The cage is still gold plated
The last time Biden attended a CNN town hall, he compared living in the White House to living in a “gilded cage,” and told Anderson Cooper he wasn’t used to being served by staff.
Not much has changed since then: He said on Wednesday that he missed getting out of his bedroom in a bathrobe for breakfast in the morning. And he would like to put on shorts and a T-shirt to walk around outside.
The moment it dawned on him that he is now president — the leader of the free world — was during his June trip to Europe, Biden said, sitting as an equal to leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“He knows who I am. I know who he is,” he said.
Biden indeed seemed in his element abroad, seizing the four decades he’d spent climbing the ranks of US foreign policy to finally run the country’s affairs.
Still, he acknowledged that hearing “Hail to the Chief” when walking into events took some getting used to.
“I went, ‘Where is he?'” he said of the first time he heard the opening notes. “It’s a great tune, but you feel a little self-conscious.”
This story has been updated to include additional takeaways.