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Biden’s first news conference provides glimpse of post-COVID challenges

President Biden said Thursday he wants the country to administer 200 million coronavirus vaccine shots by the end of his first 100 days in office, doubling his original goal.

President Biden opened the door to skirting the Senate’s filibuster rule for Democrats’ voting rights bills, acknowledged the U.S. military would not leave Afghanistan on schedule and defended his handling of migrants on the southern border during his first formal news conference since taking office.

In the hourlong session Thursday, he also began to outline his “next major initiative” — ambitious plans to invest in the country’s infrastructure and schools, to be detailed next week — and seemed unbothered by the possibility that Republicans in Congress wouldn’t offer their support.

“There’s so much we can do that’s good stuff, makes people healthier and creates good jobs,” he said.

Biden started the event by announcing that he was doubling his COVID-19 vaccination target, from 100 million to 200 million shots in the first 100 days of his presidency; the initial goal was reached in 58 days. He also said that nearly half the country’s schools serving kindergarten through eighth-grade students are open five days a week, significant progress toward his goal of returning more children to classrooms.

Here are five things to know about President Biden’s first formal news conference, two months into an already impactful presidency.

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No reporters asked further about the pandemic, though nearly 1,000 Americans continue to die each day of COVID-19 and the vaccine rollout remains uneven in some states. The omission was an early sign that the national agenda was shifting after a year of being dominated by the fight against the coronavirus and its toll on public health and the economy.

Nor was Biden questioned much about gun control, though two recent mass shootings in Boulder, Colo., and the Atlanta area thrust the issue back into the spotlight. When the topic was raised once, he quickly segued to talking about infrastructure.

Biden said he was “putting one foot in front of the other” and making progress toward his lofty goal of bringing Americans together even though he’s failed to reach bipartisan deals on legislation.

“I’ve not been able to unite the Congress, but I’m uniting the country,” he said.

Partisan gridlock has led progressives to push for an end to the Senate filibuster, which allows the minority party — currently Republicans — to block legislation. Though Biden has declined to endorse repeal, he said he’s willing to make some changes, particularly if it would help in “dealing with certain things that are just elemental to the functioning of our democracy, like the right to vote.” Some Democrats have already pushed for making voting rights legislation immune from filibusters.

Biden blasted Republican efforts in some states to restrict voting, most of which are based on false claims about election fraud stoked by former President Trump, who continues to lie about his defeat.

“What I’m worried about is how un-American this whole initiative is,” Biden said. “It’s sick. It’s sick.”

Biden confirmed that he expects to run for reelection — he’ll be nearly 82 years old by election day in 2024 — and that he plans to keep Vice President Kamala Harris on his ticket, calling her a “great partner.”

Asked whether he thinks he’ll be running against Trump in four years, Biden joked, “I have no idea if there will be a Republican Party.”

The news conference highlighted the new dynamic between the White House press corps and the president since Biden was inaugurated.

People sleep on dry grass.
Asylum seekers detained by the U.S. Border Patrol, including minors and babies, sleep on the ground while waiting more than 12 hours, without food or water, before being bused to facilities to be processed.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Unlike Trump, Biden refrained from insulting reporters or calling them fake news, and exchanges challenging administration actions did not devolve into angry recriminations. But Biden did not call on a correspondent from Fox News, his most powerful media antagonist, and he grew testy when asked whether he was accepting of the conditions that migrant children endure in U.S. border facilities.

“That’s a serious question, right?” he said. “Is it acceptable to me? Come on.”

The president has faced a policy and political test as increased numbers of migrants try to cross into the United States. The vast majority are single adults, but rising numbers of children and families, many seeking asylum, put a particular strain on a U.S. immigration system not geared toward them.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which is charged with the care of young migrants without parents, has added more than 15,000 beds for them in recent weeks, in facilities from the San Diego Convention Center to military bases in Texas, officials said.

But the U.S. Border Patrol is detaining the unaccompanied minors faster than the facilities can take them in or connect them with their families. More than 5,000 unaccompanied youths were being held in overcrowded jails as of Thursday, many for far longer than the 72 hours permitted under court settlements, according to figures from the Department of Homeland Security.

After months of careful scripting, Biden in his first formal news conference will be challenged as he gets questions on the border, guns and more.

Administration officials have limited the news media’s access to holding facilities near the border. Biden promised that would change but didn’t say when.

He rejected the suggestion that his more humanitarian approach to migrant issues was leading more people to cross the border, noting that there were increases during Trump’s presidency as well, especially at this time of year, before summer heat makes desert crossings particularly dangerous.

“Does anybody suggest there was a 31% increase under Trump because he was a nice guy, and he was doing good things at the border?” Biden said. “That’s not why they’re coming.”

Biden said he makes “no apologies” for ending some of Trump’s policies, such as the separation of children and parents, even as he emphasized that the majority of migrants are still being quickly expelled under a Trump-era pandemic policy that he’s chosen to continue.

Although the debate in Washington has often centered on issues of border security and enforcement, Biden tried to reframe it as a discussion about moral imperatives and deeply rooted problems in Central America, where many migrants begin their journey. The trips, he said, are the result of desperation among people seeking economic opportunity or refuge from violence.

No one, Biden said, is saying, “I got a great idea. Let’s sell everything we have, give it to a coyote” — a smuggler — “have them take our kids across the border, into the desert, where they don’t speak the language. Wouldn’t that be fun? Let’s go.”

The president on Wednesday announced that he has asked Harris to lead efforts to work with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Central America — El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — to stem the flow of migrants.

On a separate topic, Biden said it was unlikely that the U.S. military would pull out of Afghanistan by May 1, a deadline set by the Trump administration. U.S. commanders fear the withdrawal would embolden the Taliban, jeopardizing the country’s future nearly two decades after the war began in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“We will leave. The question is when we leave,” Biden said. He said that he “can’t picture” U.S. forces being in Afghanistan next year.

The president also spoke at length about his approach to China, one of the most far-reaching foreign policy issues on his agenda, with economic and security ramifications.

“We’re not looking for confrontation, although we know there will be steep, steep competition,” Biden said. China wants to become the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world, he added, but “that’s not going to happen on my watch — because the United States will continue to grow and expand.”

Biden said Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, “doesn’t have a democratic — with a small d — bone in his body. But he’s a smart, smart guy. He’s one of the guys like Putin who thinks autocracy is the wave of the future, democracy can’t function in an ever-complex world.”

The challenge, Biden said, will be proving him wrong.

“I predict to you — your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded, autocracy or democracy?” he said. “Because that is what is at stake.”

Times staff writers Molly O’Toole and David Lauter contributed to this report.


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