President Joe Biden kicked off a press conference Wednesday by acknowledging challenges on the eve of his one-year anniversary in the White House.
It’s a year that has seen inflation soar; COVID-19 dip, then surge with the delta variant, then surge again with omicron; the passage of landmark infrastructure investment legislation and the stalling or failure of other legislative priorities.
And it comes in a month that has brought White House efforts to contain the further spread of the record-breaking omicron variant with the shipping of COVID-19 tests to households at no cost and masks to community spots where Americans can pick up three free N95s, as well as the deployment of the National Guard to help hospitals in six states.
The news conference, which started at 4 p.m. in the East Room of the White House, is his ninth such event, according to a tally by the Associated Press.
Free at-home COVID tests and N95 masks promised by Biden
President Biden also announced that 1,000 military medical personnel will begin deploying to help overwhelmed medical facilities.
STAFF VIDEO, USA TODAY
Biden pushed back against comments from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that the midterm election will be a “report card” on the Biden administration’s response to “inflation, border security and standing up to Russia.”
“My report card is going to look pretty good,” the president said.
He added that McConnell’s main goal is to make sure Biden and his agenda does not “look good.”
“I actually like Mitch McConnell. We like one another,” he said. “But he has one straightforward objective: Make sure that there’s nothing I do that makes me look good — in his mind — with the public at large. And that’s okay. I’m a big boy. I’ve been here before.”
— Rebecca Morin
Biden said he thinks Congress will pass parts of his Build Back Better bill if the mammoth legislation is broken into smaller, separate bills.
“It’s clear to me that that we’re gonna have to probably break it up,” he said in response to a question from USA TODAY.
Biden said he has talked to a number of lawmakers and believes there would be support for his plan to invest $500 billion into energy and environmental issues. He also said there is support for his plans to fortify early childhood education.
“I think we can break the package up, get as much as we can now, and come back and fight for the rest later,” he said.
— Michael Collins and Maureen Groppe
In a response to a question from USA TODAY, Biden said he thought the Supreme Court decision to strike down his vaccine-or-testing requirements on most employers was a “mistake” but insisted that thousands of corporations have implemented the policy anyway.
“I think we’ve seen an increase, not a decrease,” he said.
Biden declined to say whether he is considering requiring vaccinations for domestic air travel that some experts say could boost the country’s vaccination rate.
The Supreme Court decision struck down the federal rule last week, undercutting a critical component of Biden’s COVID-19 strategy to move the nationwide vaccination rate, which has been stuck around 60% of the U.S. population for months.
— Courtney Subramanian and Maureen Groppe
Biden reiterated the US would impose “severe economic consequences” on Russia should it choose to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“I do not think he wants a full-blown war,” Biden said when asked if Putin desired a new Cold War with the West.
“The idea that NATO isn’t going to be united, I don’t buy,” Biden said, noting that he had spoken with European leaders about the threat and that countries had reiterated their commitment to a united strategy.
He noted that Russia had much power still but saw the collapse of the Soviet Union as a historic tragedy that needs to be reversed in some way.
— Matt Brown
Biden reiterated the administration’s promise that schools would not close despite a record surge in infections that caused some to return to digital learning and frustrated parents left without childcare options.
“We’re not going back to lockdowns. We’re not going back to closing schools,” Biden said, adding the country was better off in combatting COVID-19 than a year ago.
He emphasized that 95% of schools remain open despite media coverage and insisted the administration has made funding available to keep up with sanitizing classrooms, standing up testing programs and investing in new ventilation systems. The administration recently announced an additional $10 billion to help schools address testing shortages.
Not every school district has used the funding “as well as it should be used,” he added, but he predicted the small percentage of schools that are closed would soon open.
— Courtney Subramanian
Biden vowed he would not scale-down his social-spending legislation, known as Build Back Better, despite it being stalled in the Senate, but said passage could come in “pieces” or “big chunks.”
“I’m confident we can get pieces, big chunks of the Build Back Better plan, signed into law,” Biden said.
Some Democrats have pushed for Biden to break up the $1.85 trillion social-spending bill to get some items passed before the midterm elections. Biden singled out lowering prescription drug prices and childcare as items that are popular among Americans but that Republicans oppose.
“We just have to make the case, what we’re for and what the other team’s not,” Biden said.
— Joey Garrison
Biden said he does not believe he overpromised on his agenda as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and his signature domestic legislation stalled in Congress.
“I didn’t overpromise. I have probably outperformed what anybody thought would happen,” Biden said, responding to a question on whether he over promised what he could get done in the first year of his presidency. He said that he made “enormous progress” on the pandemic, saying that deaths are going down.
The president added that he “did not anticipate such a stalwart effort” to obstruct his agenda from Republicans.
“I don’t think I’ve overpromised at all, and I’m going to stay on this track,” he said.
— Rebecca Morin
Biden acknowledged the hardship that rapidly rising prices have caused for American families but argued that his Build Back Better bill could help curtail growing inflation.
“If price increases are what you’re worried about, the best answer is my Build Back Better plan,” he said.
Inflation hit a 39-year high in December as prices jumped for everything from food to rent to cars. Biden said the way to tackle high prices is a more productive economy, where more small businesses are able to compete and goods can get to the market faster and cheaper.
Biden pointed out that he signed an executive order to tackle unfair competition, “and we’re going to continue to enforce it,” he said.
Despite the economic challenges, there has been progress on the economy, Biden said.
Biden said his administration has created 6 million new jobs, more in one year than any other time. Unemployment dropped to 3.9%, child poverty fell by nearly 40%, and new businesses applications grew by 30%, he said.
— Michael Collins
In touting progress the White House has on the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year, Biden admitted that his administration should have started boosting COVID-19 testing earlier.
“Should we have done more testing earlier? Yes,” he said. “But we’re doing more now.”
He acknowledged the criticism he’s faced for testing shortages across the country and pandemic’s persistence that has frustrated the country. But he pointed to the administration’s latest efforts, including the launch of a website where Americans can request free at-home tests.
While some people have suggested Biden should recalibrate his COVID-19 strategy to live with the virus, the president insisted he’s “not going to give up and accept things as they are now.”
— Courtney Subramanian
In opening remarks, President Joe Biden began his press conference touting progress on the economy, lowering unemployment and fighting-19 COVID but conceding that challenges remain.
“Still for all this progress, we know there’s a lot of frustration and fatigue in this country,” Biden said. “We know why: COVID-19 has now been challenging us in a way that it’s the new enemy.”
He said the pandemic will improve. “Some people may call what’s happening now the new normal. I call it a job not yet finished. It will get better.”
— Joey Garrison
Biden’s approval: More than half of Americans disapprove of Biden’s handling of key issues
While Biden looks to tout accomplishments during his press conference, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., is scheduled to speak on the Senate floor at 4:30 p.m. ET on his opposition to a filibuster carve-out to pass voting rights legislation.
The Senate is holding votes Wednesday on the doomed filibuster carveout proposal backed by Biden to change Senate rules to pass voting rights bills with a simple majority. Opposition from Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., is expected to prevent passage.
It will mark the second time in a week one of Biden’s fellow Democrats has undercut the president’s message. Sinema delivered a speech on the Senate Floor last Thursday reaffirming her opposition to filibuster changes less than an hour before Biden arrived at the Capitol to meet with Democrats to push voting rights.
— Joey Garrison
The U.S. is threading a delicate needle on Russia and Ukraine.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed to Ukrainian leaders on Wednesday that the United States and its European allies will support the eastern European country as it grapples with the threat of Russian invasion.
But while offering a diplomatic off-ramp to Russian leaders, Biden administration officials are suggesting the U.S. would support an insurgency in Ukraine should Russia invade the country, according to a report Wednesday in the New York Times.
The top diplomat’s trip is part of broader engagement between the West and Russia, after talks between the two countries hit a wall last week. Russia has repeatedly said Ukraine’s drift toward the West and NATO is a threat to its national security and that it is willing to use force to reverse the country’s trajectory.
Understanding what’s going on: Is a Russian invasion of Ukraine imminent? Here’s what we know
— Matt Brown
President Joe Biden did not get a single question about the coronavirus pandemic at his first solo press conference, held at the White House last March.
That’s unlikely to be the case Wednesday.
Infections have been on the rise since the highly contagious omicron variant began sweeping the country last month, causing workforce disruptions and once again overburdening hospitals.
Biden has faced criticism from public health experts and even members of his own party over the shortage of at-home tests and other matters. The president is likely to tout recent actions, including Tuesday’s launch of a website to distribute free, at-home COVID-19 tests. The White House announced Wednesday it will also distribute 400 million free, high-quality masks through pharmacies and community health centers.
Still, Biden could be pressed on whether those actions are too little, too late and what more the administration can do as the pandemic approaches its third year.
Biden began his presidency saying his top priorities were addressing the pandemic its economic fallout.
— Maureen Groppe
While COVIDTests.gov was expected to start accepting orders on Wednesday, an “Order free at-home tests” button was added Tuesday, which brings users to usps.com/covidtests to order four at-home free tests.
USA TODAY tested the site and got a message that “COVID-19 tests will start shipping in late January.” The Postal Service will only send one set of four free at-home coronavirus tests to valid residential addresses, the site said.
— Kelly Tyko and Maureen Groppe
Economy What is the filibuster?
One of the topics President Biden will almost certainly be asked about on Wednesday is the filibuster — but what is it, exactly?
The filibuster is a controversial Senate rule that can advance or stall key legislation.
Once an obscure procedure, it”s been increasingly used to stall priorities of the majority coalition, most notably on issues relating to race and civil rights.
When senators have been at their most intransigent, majority parties have created filibuster exceptions for key areas of legislating, including for executive and judicial appointments.
— Matt Brown
President Joe Biden nominated a Muslim woman for a federal judgeship for the first time in U.S. history Wednesday as part of his administration’s push to reshape the federal judiciary with diversity.
Nusrat Jahan Choudhury, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, is Biden’s nominee for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York. If confirmed by the Senate, Choudhury would become the first Muslim woman to serve as a federal judge and the first Bangladeshi American.
The latest round of eight nominations – the 13th since Biden took office one year ago – brings Biden’s total judicial nominees to 83 and continues his administration’s efforts to put more women and judges of color on the federal bench.
— Joey Garrison
On the same day that President Joe Biden is set to speak to the press, the White House announced that his administration will start shipping 400 million free non-surgical N95 face masks to distribution sites nationwide this week to fight the surging omicron COVID-19 variant.
Americans will be able to pick up their masks at one of “tens of thousands” of pharmacies, thousands of community centers and other locations across the country beginning late next week, the White House said.
The move comes as the rise in omicron COVID-19 cases has overwhelmed hospitals across the country, leading to mounting criticism over Biden’s ability to contain the pandemic. Recent polls have found more Americans disapprove of the president’s handling of the pandemic than approve, undercutting a onetime strength for Biden.
The White House expects the program to be fully up and running by early February.
Read the full story here: Biden administration to ship free 400 million N95 masks across the US starting this week
— Joey Garrison
President Joe Biden’s press conference comes as his approval rating has been on a slide for months, led by concerns over his handling of the economy and the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Quinnipiac University poll last week found only 33% of Americans approve of Biden’s job performance – his lowest mark so far of his presidency – while 53% disapprove.
The results prompted White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O’Malley Dillon to issue an internal memo calling the poll an “outlier.” She noted that Biden’s approval rating remains significantly higher, 43%, in the FiveThirtyEight average of polls and questioned the Quinnipiac poll’s methodology.
Despite the poll finding less than 40% of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the economy and coronavirus, the White House is touting these areas as Biden completes his first year in office.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki previewed a pair of charts at Tuesday’s press briefing that highlighted 6.4 million jobs created since Biden took office, 74% of Americans fully vaccinated and a fall in the unemployment from 6.4% to 3.9%, among other metrics.
– Joey Garrison