Joe Biden spent decades in Washington, striving to reach the White House. When he achieved the goal a year ago on Thursday, at the age of 78, he spoke of a “winter of peril and possibility”, of cascading crises as an opportunity to think big and aim high.
It turns out the Washington he knows so well has proved more foe than friend, offering more peril than possibility. The 46th US president discovered that not being Donald Trump isn’t enough to get things done or make people love him.
Biden held only his second solo White House press conference on Wednesday – a testy and at times rambling near two hours – with his social and environmental spending agenda and push for voting rights laws foundering on Republican rocks.
Biden arrived with sepia-tinted nostalgia for the Senate of his youth, promising that he could still work across the aisle for the greater good. The Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, a grandmaster of obstruction, had other ideas.
“One thing I haven’t been able to do so far is get my Republican friends to get in the game at making things better in this country,” Biden told reporters in the East Room, flags and shiny gold curtains behind him. (Note that he still refers to them as “friends”.)
Biden went on: “I did not anticipate that there’d be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn’t get anything done.”
The president insisted: “I actually like Mitch McConnell. We like one another. 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 OK. I’m a big boy. I’ve been here before… I think that the fundamental question is, ‘What’s Mitch for?’”
The man who in his inaugural address declared, “We must end this uncivil war that pits red versus blue,” suggested that his biggest mistake had been underestimating the radicalisation of a party still tethered to Trump.
“Did you ever think that one man out of office could intimidate an entire party where they’re unwilling to take any vote contrary to what he thinks should be taken for fear of being defeated in primary?” the president asked.
Biden told the story of five Republican senators who privately told him they agreed with him but admitted: “Joe, if I do it, I’ll get defeated in a primary.” He turned the tables on reporters, asking if they thought we’d ever get to a point where not a single Republican would diverge on a major issue.
Biden will be praised for speaking plainly about one of America’s two major parties having gone off the rails. He was asked if he should have expected this after eight years as Barack Obama’s vice-president, in which he witnessed the Republican party organising around the principle of “no”. “They weren’t nearly as obstructionist as they are now,” he insisted.
This attempt to reframe the narrative by shining a light on Republicans instead of self-inflicted wounds was somewhat undercut because, at that very moment, a member of his own party was holding court in the Senate.
Joe Manchin of West Virginia was busy explaining his opposition to reform of the filibuster, a procedural rule that is standing in the way of the voting rights bills in an evenly divided Senate. As a symbol of presidential impotence, the split screen was hard to beat.
Manchin and his fellow holdout Democrat, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, seem determined to upstage the Biden presidency at every turn. Biden promised to unite the nation but has not even united his own party.
Biden has restored civility to the White House – even at its weirdest moments or even when he snapped at reporters, this event had nothing on insult-hurling Trump – but has conducted the fewest press conferences in his first year as president since Ronald Reagan.
Wearing a dark blue suit with handkerchief in top left pocket, white shirt and yellow and blue striped tie, Biden naturally began with some chest-thumping about his record. “I didn’t over-promise but I have, probably, outperformed what anybody thought would happen,” he claimed.
He fired off a barrage of statistics – more than 20m Americans vaccinated, more than 6m jobs created – that show him in a favourable light.
“It will get better,” he insisted from a lectern on a rug spread out on the shiny wood floor. “We’re moving toward a time when Covid-19 won’t disrupt our daily lives, where Covid-19 won’t be a crisis but something to protect against and a threat. Look, we’re not there yet, but we will get there.”
It was hardly “Morning in America” but it would have to do.
The president took question after question in a press conference that ran longer than any given by Obama or Trump. Biden admitted that more coronavirus testing should have been done earlier. He insisted that his Build Back Better agenda was the best antidote to inflation but conceded it would have to be broken into “chunks” to get through Congress.
He caused a diplomatic kerfuffle by seeming to imply that a Russian “minor incursion” into Ukraine would not be such a big deal, forcing the White House to clean up and clarify. Towards the end, he appeared to meander, drifting into talk about the cable news industry “heading south”.
One question, harking back to that inaugural address on a chilly day at the US Capitol, asked if the nation was less divided now than it was a year ago. “Based on some of the stuff we’ve got done, I’d say yes,” Biden said, “but it’s not nearly as unified as it should be.”
As for the year-two relaunch that many feel is now required, Biden promised to get out and talk to the public more often, bring in more academics, editorial writers and thinktanks for expert advice, and get “deeply involved” in the midterm elections.
He did not say he would expending his energies on wooing McConnell or other Republicans. “My buddy John McCain’s gone,” Biden admitted. Washington is a difference place now. The year of living naively is over.