When President Joe Biden stepped to the podium Wednesday afternoon, the setting was a reminder of the biggest failure of his tenure and the reason for his current predicament: The number of reporters in the East Room was limited, courtesy of COVID-19, and everyone except the president wore masks.
Not that he needed a visual cue. The first question from a reporter touched on the course of the pandemic and the state of his presidency. Neither is in the condition that he had hoped when he was inaugurated one year ago, promising competence and compassion, a return to normalcy after four years of the turbulence that is Donald Trump.
"It's been a year of challenges, but it's also been a year of enormous progress," Biden said, citing the number of Americans vaccinated and jobs created. "Still, with all the progress, I know there's a lot of frustration and fatigue in this country."
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Through a sometimes combative news conference that stretched for nearly two hours, the president defended his record and sought to project optimism about the future even while acknowledging that many Americans are in a funk. At one point, he recalled his mother's advice about life. At another, he read a quote from New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, questioning the GOP's agenda.
As he begins his second year in office, Biden seems embattled in every direction, his foes emboldened and his approval ratings on a slide.
He overpromised and underdelivered on the pandemic, declaring "independence from the virus" six months ago only to have the delta and omicron variants sweep the country and the world. He brags about the creation of 6 million jobs, only to find Americans more worried about inflation, which is at its highest level in four decades. He ordered an abrupt and messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending the nation's longest war, but Russian troops threaten an invasion of Ukraine in a revival of the challenges of the Cold War.
And in Washington, his sweeping Build Back Better bill is stalled. The voting rights legislation he has passionately advocated was poised to hit a wall in a Senate debate that began as he spoke at the White House. Both measures are blocked not only by solid opposition among Republicans but also by fractures within his own Democratic Party.
What's a president to do?
Blame Republicans, for one.
"I did not anticipate that there would be such a stalwart effort to make sure the most important thing was that President Biden didn't get anything done," he said when asked about missteps by his administration. "Think about this: What are Republicans for?" One "change in tactic" will be to challenge Republicans on what they stand for and make more efforts to explain to Americans what Democrats support, he said.
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That was an implicit acknowledgment that his pledge during the campaign and his early days in office that some sort of bipartisanship could prevail, even in a sharply divided capital, was outdated, even naïve.
He predicted a crisis with Moscow. "My guess is he will move in," he said of Russian President Vladimir Putin's threats to invade Ukraine. That "will hurt him badly," Biden warned. His comment that "a minor incursion" would spark a debate over exactly how to respond immediately caused consternation in Kyiv.
Biden's troubles aren't unique, or even usual. Every modern White House has had ups and downs, including times when presidential mea culpas were demanded and delivered. Jimmy Carter fired five Cabinet members. Ronald Reagan apologized for Iran-contra. Bill Clinton overhauled his agenda to "triangulate" with a rising Republican majority on Capitol Hill. George W. Bush ruefully acknowledged that he got "a thumping" from voters in his first midterm election. Barack Obama described his setbacks as "a shellacking."
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What worries some Biden allies is that not every presidential attempt at a reset has worked – to rescue legislation, to protect his party in the midterms, to boost a bid for a second term. Democrats are braced for a brutal election in November, one in which Republicans are all but guaranteed to win control of the House.
Biden outlined some efforts for a course correction at his news conference, steps that in some cases reflected advice he's been getting from others.
Less could be more
For the first time, Biden said he was prepared to dismantle the $2 trillion bill that contains the heart of his domestic agenda, stuck in the Senate largely because of the opposition of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Biden said he was prepared to come back later to fight for a proposed child tax credit and provisions to help community colleges.
"It's clear to me that we're going to have to probably break it up," the president said. A measure with $500 billion in energy and environmental provisions might pass on its own, he said, along with separate legislation to fund prekindergarten programs. Those are among the provisions most likely to resonate with middle-class voters.
"It's time for him to pivot," said Matt Bennett, a veteran of the Clinton White House and co-founder of a centrist Democratic group called Third Way. "He needs to return to the Joe Biden of 2020, Joe from Scranton, who understands, deep in his bones, the lived experience of working-class Americans and who places himself squarely in the mainstream of political ideology."
Biden disputed a reporter who asked why he was trying to pull the party to the left. "I'm not Bernie Sanders," he retorted. "I'm not a socialist. I'm a mainstream Democrat."
That said, a move to the center at the cost of liberal priorities would dismay some Democrats, many of them vocal. Including the senator from Vermont.
It's COVID-19, first
Biden's intensified focus on COVID-19 reflects the reality that it's hard for anything else to succeed if the pandemic isn't under control. In recent days, the White House has announced initiatives to provide 1 billion free rapid-test kits and 400 million high-quality masks to American households.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., serving his second term in the Senate seat Biden once held, blames the pandemic for demoralizing voters – "Americans are tired of this pandemic, pure and simple" – and for making it harder for Biden to connect with them. "As vice president, as senator, nobody enjoyed working a diner, a union hall, a community center, a town hall like Joe Biden," Coons, who is close to Biden, said in an interview. "The most important thing that can happen in the next few months is that COVID recedes dramatically and quickly and the president is able to engage with the American people."
There's some hope on the horizon. Omicron seems to be in retreat, and the number of new cases has begun to plummet in some places. But it's possible a new variant could emerge, and the debates continue over when to wear masks and to open workplaces – as well as the question of when Americans will feel that things have gotten back to normal.
Find the bully pulpit
Biden famously excels at empathy; even some allies said he needs to show more steel. "Americans want to see a president in command," said David Axelrod, a senior strategist for Obama.
The marathon news conference was part of doing that, just his second solo news conference at the White House of his presidency. He took questions from reporters for Fox News and Newsmax, known for their critical coverage of him.
So was his promise to make more public appearances. "I'm going to be out on the road a lot, making the case around the country," including with Democratic candidates in the midterms, "of what we did do and what we want to do," he said.
Biden's next big event follows in six weeks, at the State of the Union address, set for March 1. That speech will be in prime time, the audience more partisan, the challenges likely the same.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden tries to reset a presidency embattled by COVID and inflation