President Biden survived his long-delayed first formal press conference in a very Bidenesque fashion, mixing calls for bipartisanship with partisan threats and long-winded responses on policy that marked a dramatic break with his predecessor in both style and substance.
It was Mr. Biden’s most pointed threat yet that could support the so-called nuclear option to blow up Senate rules and ram through legislation with 51 votes. It currently takes 60 votes for legislation to survive in the upper chamber, which is divided 50-50 between the parties with Democrats in control because Vice President Kamala D. Harris casts the tie-breaking vote.
Mr. Biden said he would go nuclear “if there is complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster” and agree with former President Obama’s post-presidency assessment that the tool is a “relic of the Jim Crow era.”
The 78-year-old also said he sees his presidency as a bulwark against the rise of the autocratic model embraced by China and Russia.
“You children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded — autocracy or democracy?” Mr. Biden told reporters in the East Room at The White House. “This is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies.”
“We have to prove democracy works,” he said.
Coming 64 days into his administration, the press conference served as a public reset for a president that has invested most of his political capital on passing the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Act to help the nation recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
The focus on the coronavirus, however, fell by the wayside as reporters pressed him on what he plans to do about a surge of migrants at the southern border, global tensions with China, Russia and North Korea, and gun violence following the recent mass shootings in Colorado and Georgia.
Reactions to Mr. Biden’s performance broke largely along partisan lines.
Supporters praised him for showing a mastery of the issues, saying he effectively diffused some of the criticism that has been leveled at him. His critics said he made a series of false claims and said he came off as a bumbling, scripted fool.
“No wonder they kept him from doing this for so long,” said Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said, “This press conference is hard to watch.”
David Axelrod, a former senior Obama adviser, said Mr. Biden “navigated his presser well, keeping focus on his priorities, touting progress on the virus and recovery, and generally avoiding making big news on other subjects.”
“The dominant narrative from the right-wing industrial complex is that Biden is senile and being manipulated by shadowy leftists,” said Max Boot, a former senior foreign policy adviser to GOP presidential nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney. “It’s a charge so crazy it doesn’t deserve refutation.”
“But Biden’s crisp press conference shows he is fully in command of the issues,” he said.
Mr. Biden stressed his primary focus up until this point has been getting the coronavirus under control so people can get back to their normal lives.
His remarks opened with his announcement that the administration is doubling the vaccination goal he previously set of 100 million doses administered by April 30, his 100th day in office.
“That’s right, 200 million shots in 100 days,” Mr. Biden said.
He downplayed the role he played in creating the problems at the border. He said he should be “flattered people are coming because I’m the nice guy” and said former President Trump’s approach made a bad situation worse.
“Truth of the matter is nothing has changed,” Mr. Biden said. “It happens every single solitary year. There is a significant increase in the number of people coming to the border in the winter months.”
On foreign policy, Mr. Biden said he plans on pulling the troops out of Afghanistan, but suggested the May 1 deadline the Trump administration put into place was likely too soon.
It remains to be seen whether Mr. Biden can move lawmakers beyond some of the traditional political battle lines that have frustrated past presidents.
Mr. Biden said he “got elected to solve problems” and said the GOP has to decide whether it wants to stand in his way on immigration and other issues ranging from guns, infrastructure and climate change.
“Here’s the deal, 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 just to divide the country [and] continue the politics of division,” he said.
Mr. Biden struck a partisan note minutes later, making it clear he could support eviscerating the 60-vote filibuster threshold for passing legislation if the GOP stands in his way.
Previously, Mr. Biden would only go so far as supporting a rule change to reinstitute the talking filibuster that would require lawmakers to hold the Senate floor and literally talk a bill to death.
“We are going to get a lot done, and if we have to, if there is complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster then we will have to go beyond what I’m talking about,” he said.
Mr. Biden slammed the GOP-led “election integrity” efforts on the state level, calling them “un-American” and “sick.”
“I am convinced that we will be able to stop this because it is the most pernicious thing,” Mr. Biden said. “This makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle.”
Election-integrity activists called the remarks dishonest and “irresponsible.”
“The president’s portrayal of these efforts as somehow racist is dishonest,” said J. Christian Adams, president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation. “He disparages the millions of Americans who believe in safeguarding our elections.”
“To compare these reforms to Jim Crow not only lessens the severity of those laws and real racism but also demeans minorities across the country,” Mr. Adams said.