Biden doubles U.S. vaccination goal to 200 million doses in 1st 100 days
Pandemic-era news conference sees reporters sitting masked and far apart inside White House
U.S. President Joe Biden opened his first formal news conference Thursday with a nod toward the improving picture on battling the coronavirus, but he was immediately pressed on thorny issues, such as immigration and voting rights, now testing his administration.
Biden doubled his original goal on COVID-19 vaccines by pledging that the nation will administer 200 million doses by the end of his first 100 days in office. The administration had met Biden's initial goal of 100 million doses earlier this month — before even his 60th day in office — as the president pushes to defeat a pandemic that has killed more than 545,000 Americans and devastated the nation's economy.
But while Biden had held off on holding his first news conference so he could use it to celebrate progress against the pandemic and passage of a giant COVID-19 relief package, he was quickly pressed at the question-and-answer session about other challenges that have cropped up along the way.
A pair of mass shootings, rising international tensions, early signs of intra-party divisions and increasing numbers of migrants crossing the southern border are all confronting a West Wing known for its message discipline.
"I am going to deal with all of those problems," Biden pledged.
WATCH | Biden focuses on non-pandemic challenges in 1st press conference:
He then endorsed a modification — but not elimination — of the filibuster, without which it would be difficult to get his ambitious agenda through Republican opposition in the Senate. But he left the door open, at least on certain issues, to go further.
"If there's complete lockdown and chaos, as a consequence of the filibuster, then we're going to have to go beyond what I'm talking about," he said.
"I want to get things done. I want to get them done consistent with what we promised the American people," said Biden, who spent decades in the Senate. "I am going to say something outrageous: I have never been particularly poor at calculating getting things done in the United States Senate."
Biden's own political future came up at the press conference as well. The 78-year-old president said for the first time his "plan is to run for reelection, that is my expectation." He also said he is focused on current events, rather than a distant election.
Pace of vaccinations could increase further
While seemingly ambitious, Biden's vaccine goal amounts to a continuation of the existing pace of vaccinations through the end of next month. The U.S. is now averaging about 2.5 million doses per day. An even greater rate is possible.
Over the next month, two of the bottlenecks to getting Americans vaccinated are set to ease as the U.S. supply of vaccines is on track to increase and states lift eligibility requirements to get shots.
The scene looked very different from what Americans are used to seeing for formal presidential news conferences.
The president still stood behind a podium against a backdrop of flags. But due to the pandemic, only 30 socially distanced chairs for journalists were spread out in the expansive room.
Biden is the first chief executive in four decades to reach this point in his term without holding a formal news conference. While he has been on pace with his predecessors in taking questions from the media in other formats, he tends to field just one or two informal inquiries at a time, usually in a hurried setting at the end of an event or in front of a whirring helicopter.
Pressure to hold news conference
Pressure had mounted on Biden to hold a formal session, which allows reporters to have an extended back-and-forth with the president on the issues of the day. Biden's conservative critics have pointed to the delay to suggest that Biden was being shielded by his staff.
West Wing aides have dismissed the questions about a news conference as a Washington obsession, pointing to Biden's high approval ratings while suggesting that the general public is not concerned about the event. The president himself, when asked Wednesday if he were ready for the press conference, joked, "What press conference?"
Behind the scenes, though, aides have taken the event seriously enough to hold a mock session with the president earlier this week. And there is some concern that Biden, a self-proclaimed "gaffe machine," could go off message and generate a series of unflattering news cycles.
"The press conference serves an important purpose: It presents the press an extended opportunity to hold a leader accountable for decisions," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, presidential scholar and professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
"A question I ask: What is the public going to learn in this venue that it couldn't learn elsewhere? And why does it matter? The answer: The president speaks for the nation."
His appearance came just a day after he appointed U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris to lead the government's response to the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border, where the administration faces a growing humanitarian and political challenge that threatens to overshadow Biden's legislative agenda.
In less than a week, two mass shootings have rattled the nation and pressure has mounted on the White House to back tougher gun measures. The White House has struggled to blunt a nationwide effort by Republican legislatures to tighten election laws. A pair of Democratic senators briefly threatened to hold up the confirmation of Biden appointees due to a lack of Asian-American representation in the cabinet. And both North Korea and Russia have unleashed provocative actions to test a new commander-in-chief.
In a sharp contrast with the previous administration, the Biden White House has exerted extreme message discipline, empowering staff to speak but doing so with caution.
The new White House team has carefully managed the president's appearances, which serves Biden's purposes but denies the media opportunities to directly press him on major policy issues and to engage in the kind of back-and-forth that can draw out information beyond curated talking points.
Firmly pledging his belief in freedom of the press, Biden has rebuked his predecessor's incendiary rhetoric toward the media, including Donald Trump's references to reporters as "the enemy of the people."
Biden restored the daily press briefing, which had gone extinct under Trump, opening a window into the workings of the White House. And he sat for a national interview with ABC News last week.