Has the fever in American politics finally broken? After a sickness that lasted four long years, it seems the patient is on the road to recovery.
That was the impression of Joe Biden’s first presidential press conference on Thursday. For a start, there were no lies or insults or speculations about the medicinal benefits of bleach. Sometimes Biden was earnest, sometimes he was dull, sometimes he offered an avuncular chuckle. He was solid.
But equally telling were the questions from 10 reporters in the White House press corps. No look-in for the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed half a million Americans. Not much about the fragile nature of democracy except for Republicans’ assault on voting rights – a phenomenon that predates Donald Trump.
Instead the main focus at the hour-long event were hardy perennials about the US-Mexico border, the war in Afghanistan, relations with China, infrastructure, the next election and the filibuster, a Senate parliamentary procedure unlikely to excite the rest of the world.
In short, it was another victory for Biden in his quest to snap American political life back to normal and create the perception that the Trump years were a nightmare from which America has awoken. He seeks to replace it with a group yawn. That is why cable news ratings and news site traffic have plummeted since January. That is why people in Washington speak of having weekends again instead of jumping at every presidential tweet.
It is not that Biden has been idle. His $1.9tn coronavirus relief package was passed by Democrats in Congress without Republican support and is truly historic. But he has done without shouting from the rooftops or trying to dominate every news cycle.
The press conference took place on his 65th day in office, the longest such wait for any US president in a century. He has been less visible or audible than Trump. It has all been about lowering the national temperature. Ezra Klein of the New York Times, paraphrasing former president Teddy Roosevelt, paraphrasing a west African proverb, has characterized this approach as “speak softly and pass a big agenda”.
Another reason to speak softly, or not at all, is that Biden is a self-described gaffe-machine who once imploded as a presidential candidate by verbally plagiarizing the British politician Neil Kinnock.
On Thursday, he served up Bidenisms aplenty such as “Here’s the deal”, “Number one, number two”, “kidding” and “man”, and sometimes rambled into too much detail, but comfortably swerved past disaster.
Wearing dark blue suit, blue and white striped tie and white shirt, he entered the East Room of the White House with a spring in his step and a black mask that he removed once he reached the presidential lectern.
The president began with good news: “We will by my 100th day in office have administered 200m shots in people’s arms” – way ahead of his original goal of 100m shots over that period.
The pandemic will surely define his presidency. The fact that he faced no questions about it is surely the ultimate measure of success – a plane taking off and landing makes no news – and another night-and-day contrast from Trump.
The restoration of subtle traditions included calling first on the Associated Press. Its reporter, Zeke Miller, asked about Biden’s long-term goals while one aide held a microphone from a distance and the press secretary, Jen Psaki, double-masked, looked on.
“Here’s the deal,” Biden said. “I think my Republican colleagues are going to have to determine whether or not we want to work together or decide the way in which they want to proceed is to divide the country, continue the politics of division. But I’m not going to do that. I’m just going to move forward and take these things as they come.”
Biden has reportedly been consulting historians on the need to be transformational and has earned praise for daring to go bigger than Obama. He added: “I’ve been hired to solve problems, not create division.”
The second question came from Yamiche Alcindor of PBS, a Black woman who was a frequent target of Trump’s ire. From Biden, there was a polite “Yamiche”. Alcindor asked the question that Biden knew was coming about the escalating emergency at the US-Mexico border.
The president was ready, insisting that nothing had changed and increases like this happen every year in winter months. He also mocked the idea that migrants saw his election as a green light to come because he’s a “nice guy”.
“By the way, does anybody suggest that there was a 31% increase under Trump because he was a nice guy and he was doing good things at the border? That’s not the reason they’re coming.”
The real reason, he continued, is the time they can travel with the least likelihood of dying in the desert heat and the circumstances in their home countries. Trump, he noted, dismantled and defunded the asylum system, leaving Biden to try to rebuild it.
One matter that animated Biden was voting rights. He described Republican efforts to make voting harder as “despicable” and warned: “This is gigantic what they’re trying to do … What I’m worried is about how unAmerican this whole initiative is. It’s sick.”
Not so long ago, Trump had ruled the gilded East Room like a monarch. Now it was almost possible to forget him. Almost. One journalist noted that at this stage of his presidency, Trump had already set up a campaign for his re-election. Why hasn’t Biden done the same?
“My predecessor needed to,” the president quipped. “My predecessor. Oh God, I miss him. The answer is yes. I plan to run for re-election. That’s my expectation.”
Someone else asked if he expects to run against Trump in 2024. “Oh, come on. I don’t even think about – I have no idea. I have no idea if there will be a Republican party. Do you?”
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