Joe Biden doubled his goal for coronavirus vaccinations to 200m in his first 100 days in office as he used to his first presidential press conference to claim progress against the pandemic and set the stage for new battles with Republicans on immigration, the economy and voting rights.
After waiting 64 days to meet formally with the White House press corps, the 78-year-old US president dismissed criticism that he was mishandling an increase in migrants crossing the southern border and said he intended to run for re-election in 2024.
In an indication of his determination to fight for the rest of his sweeping agenda, he sent his strongest signal yet that he supported changes to Senate rules that would make it easier for legislation to pass without Republican support.
“I’m a fairly practical guy. I want to get things done. I want to get them done consistent with what we promised the American people,” Biden said.
At the start of the press conference, Biden touted the recent passage of his $1.9tn fiscal stimulus bill, saying it was prompting forecasters to upgrade their growth estimates for this year to more than 6 per cent.
“We’re starting to see new signs of hope in our economy,” he said. “Help is here and hope is on the way.”
At the same time, Biden said his administration would aim to secure 200m coronavirus jabs in American arms by the end of April, within his first 100 days in office, doubling its original goal of 100m vaccinations.
But despite Biden’s desire to project confidence on the health and economic crises that have dominated his term so far, he has found himself on the defensive because of a rise in migrants arriving at the southern border with Mexico in recent weeks.
Pressed repeatedly on the issue by reporters, he responded that his predecessor Donald Trump had damaged the US government’s capacity to handle migrants and that much of the pressure at the border was seasonal.
“There’s no easy answer,” he acknowledged.
However, Biden pushed back against the idea that more migrants were coming to the US because he was a “nice guy” compared with Trump.
Biden insisted that people would not want to make treacherous journeys to a foreign country unless they felt desperate or oppressed — pointing to his Irish ancestors as examples. “They left because of what the Brits were doing, they were in real, real trouble.”
He challenged Republicans to begin negotiations on a comprehensive immigration reform bill, saying: “They have to posture for awhile. They have to get it out of their system. But I am ready to work with any Republican who wants to make the situation better.”
Biden’s press conference was held as he continues to post relatively strong approval ratings given the polarised US political landscape. According to the latest poll average by Realclearpolitics.com, 53.3 per cent of Americans approve of his job as president, and 42.3 per cent disapprove.
Biden notched a big victory this month with the passage of the “American Rescue Plan” — the relief package that is already delivering cheques worth up to $1,400 to most US individuals.
But the rest of Biden’s agenda remains in flux. He is next week expected to propose an additional $3tn in long-term spending on areas such as infrastructure, education and caregiving — to be at least partly financed by tax increases.
“It’s the place where we will be able to significantly increase American productivity — at the same time providing really good jobs for people,” Biden said. “I want to change the paradigm [so] we reward work not just wealth.”
He has also been under pressure to embrace legislation passed by Democrats in the House to bolster voting rights in response to growing restrictions on ballot access pushed by Republicans in many states.
Legislators in 43 states have proposed more than 250 bills that would make it harder to vote, according to the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice. On Thursday evening, Brian Kemp, the Republican governor of Georgia, signed legislation that will impose voter ID requirements, scale back early voting and limit drop boxes for absentee ballots.
Passing federal voting rights legislation would probably require a change in Senate filibuster rules but Biden suggested it was critical given the scale of Republican efforts to crack down on voting rights.
“What I’m worried about is how un-American this whole initiative is. It’s sick. It’s sick,” he said.
Foreign policy did not feature in a big way during the press conference, but Biden said he could not “picture” US troops remaining in Afghanistan next year even if it extends a May 1 deadline to withdraw.
“We are not staying for a long time. We will leave.”
The president’s appearance came shortly before he spoke to EU leaders by videoconference. Biden suggested he would stress the importance of democracies uniting to confront the world’s autocracies, including Russia and China.
“That’s where I make sure we’re all on the same page,” he said. “I predict to you: your children and grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded, autocracy or democracy. Because that is what is at stake here.”