During his first solo White House press conference in ten months, held to mark his first year in office, President Biden spoke for 20 minutes and then answered questions for another 100. The performance could be read as a rebuke to those who have questioned the president’s stamina, but he did manage to make trouble for himself on a few topics, most notably regarding a potential Russian “incursion” into Ukraine.
Biden’s prepared remarks showed he’s trying to get back to simple messaging about his accomplishments and the top two public concerns undermining his popularity: COVID-19 and inflation. First, the president rattled off evidence of his wins from the last year, citing vaccination statistics, decent jobs numbers, lower health-care premiums, and infrastructure investments. Then he addressed two alleged problems, denying that Democrats want to extend pandemic school closures, and dismissing claims that he’s been feckless in dealing with inflation.
The president did not bring up the two Washington obsessions of the day, the voting-rights legislation that is about to fail in the Senate, and fears that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is imminent. But these and other difficult topics dominated the long question period, and Biden made two potentially significant gaffes.
The biggie was Biden’s apparent acknowledgement that there is disagreement within NATO on how to respond if Russia launches a “minor incursion” into Ukraine. While Biden warned that Russia would face harsh sanctions if it launches a full-blown military invasion, he appeared to suggest that Moscow might see lesser consequences for a more limited attack. This is clearly horrifying Ukrainians, who according to CNN, viewed it as a “green light” to Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The White House rushed to clarify Biden’s remarks after the press conference. “President Biden has been clear with the Russian president: If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our Allies,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.
A less glaring but still troubling remark was Biden’s twice-stated suggestion that Republican voter suppression efforts (and GOP opposition to voting rights protections) might call into question the legitimacy of the midterm elections. Questioning election legitimacy, as opposed to fairness, could put Democrats on the same election-results-canceling track as Republicans under Trump’s demands.
Biden spent much of the presser parrying challenges to his long-standing expressions of faith in bipartisanship, and his recent contrasting rhetoric about Republican obstruction. Perhaps the most telling question concerned how he could have been surprised (as he professed to be) about Republican obstruction in 2021 after experiencing exactly the same thing in 2009 when he was Obama’s vice-president. He spent several minutes unconvincingly claiming there was plenty of bipartisanship during the Obama administration, which truly was a surprise to anyone who watched politics closely during those years.
Biden seemed to recover some momentum when asked what he intended to do to improve public perceptions of his presidency between now and the midterms, presumably because he had planned a clear answer. He promised to spend a lot more time explaining his and his party’s accomplishments to the public; to listen more to outside experts; and to actively campaign for Democratic candidates in 2022.
Biden’s Ukraine remarks may ultimately be all this long-winded and wide-ranging press conference is remembered for. But it’s clear that the president is at least trying to do what Democratic pollsters and pundits have been advising him to do: Convey a message focused on his key accomplishments and Americans’ biggest concerns. Whether this marks the emergence of a more disciplined president and party leader will soon be apparent enough.