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Wake Up To Politics - March 26, 2021

Wake Up To Politics: Four takeaways from Biden’s first presser
Wake Up To Politics - March 26, 2021

Good morning! It’s Friday, March 26, 2021. Election Day 2022 is 592 days away. Election Day 2024 is 1,320 days away.

Programming note: There will be no newsletters next week while I’m on Spring Break. I’m looking forward to sleeping in and catching a break from Zoom classes. Hopefully there won’t be too much news while I’m gone, but if there is, I’ll be back in your inbox on Monday, April 5, to get you up to speed. I hope everyone who celebrates has a nice Easter or Passover!

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Four takeaways from Biden’s first presser

President Joe Biden spoke to journalists for about an hour on Thursday in his first formal press conference since taking office. Here are some takeaways:

1. Biden is evolving on the filibuster. As a senator, Biden was a chief defender of the filibuster, the Senate rule that requires a 60-vote supermajority for most pieces of legislation to advance. As recently as the 2020 campaign, Biden opposed making changes to the rule. But now he’s in the Oval Office, and despite promising to bring a new era of bipartisanship to Washington, he’s staring down the cold reality that most of his agenda will be blocked by Republican filibusters. That may be why Biden started singing a different tune on Thursday, going from defending the rule to agreeing with former President Barack Obama that it is a “relic of the Jim Crow era.”

Declaring that the filibuster is “being abused in a gigantic way,” Biden said at the press conference that he “strongly” supports reviving the talking filibuster, which would require senators to hold the floor while blocking pieces of legislation. “We're going to get a lot done. And if we have to — if there’s complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster, then we’ll have to go beyond what I’m talking about,” Biden added, his first indication that he might support even larger filibuster reforms in order to pass his agenda.

2. Biden is focused on the pandemic — unlike the reporters. When the president walked out to address the socially distanced group of journalists, he came prepared with an announcement: his administration is doubling its original goal for Covid-19 vaccines, aiming now to distribute 200 million doses in his first 100 days. Biden called the new target “ambitious,” although the U.S. is already on track to meet it. After speaking for a few minutes about the vaccine goal and other steps being taken to combat the pandemic, Biden took questions from reporters. But not a single one of them asked about Covid-19, which was clearly the topic Biden had hoped to focus on.

In fact, he made clear that most everything else is on the back burner. Pressed for his plans on immigration and gun violence — two pertinent issues amid surges in migrants at the border and mass shootings across the country — Biden kept returning to the pandemic, adding that he was being intentional about prioritizing one thing at a time. “It’s a matter of timing,” Biden said. “As you’ve all observed, successful presidents — better than me — have been successful in a large part because they know how to time what they’re doing. Order it, decide on priorities, what needs to be done.”

President Biden address socially distanced reporters at his first press conference. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

3. Biden is running in 2024 (probably). He may not have fielded any questions about the pandemic, but — to his overt annoyance — Biden received two about whether he plans to run for re-election in 2024. At first, he seemed to signal that the answer was yes. “My plan is to run for re-election. That’s my expectation,” he said. But later, Biden hedged slightly, correcting a reporter when she said he had answered affirmatively. “I’m a great respecter of fate,” Biden said. “I’ve never been able to plan four and a half, three and a half, years ahead for certain.”

The president refused to take the bait when asked if he thought he’d be headed for a rematch against his predecessor, former President Donald Trump. “Oh, come on,” he responded — although he also joked, “Oh God, I miss him.” Biden will be 81 on Election Day 2024; he is already the oldest president in U.S. history.

4. Overall takeaway: Biden stayed vague on almost everything. Throughout the hour-long press conference, Biden was asked clear, direct questions on a range of topics. His answers were rarely as straightforward. Instead, he remained opaque on almost every issue he was asked about:

  • Asked straight-up whether he believed it should require 60 votes to pass a bill in the Senate or 51, Biden refused to say, seeming to indicate that he didn’t believe the chamber’s rules allowed the threshold to be lowered — even though, as a veteran of the Senate, he surely knows that it already has been in the past.
  • Asked when journalists would be able to access the facilities where migrant children are being kept on the border, Biden said “I don’t know” and vaguely added that transparency would come “as soon as I am in a position to be able to implement what we are doing right now.”
  • Asked if he planned to meet the May 1 deadline to withdraw troops from Afghanistan set by a Trump-era agreement, Biden equivocated. “It’s going to be hard to meet the May 1 deadline,” he said, adding that he “can’t picture” that U.S. soldiers would still be in the country by 2022, without stating definitively that they would not be.
  • Asked how he intended to achieve his campaign promises on climate change, immigration reform, gun control, and voting rights, Biden said he plans “on making progress on all of them,” but declined to outline how.
  • Asked if he would take executive action to curb gun violence, Biden didn’t say, and instead gave a lengthy answer on infrastructure policy — dodging the question entirely.
  • Asked if he would run for re-election in 2024, Biden wouldn’t give a definitive answer. He made the future seem so cloudy that he suggested his opposition party might not even exist by then. “I have no idea if there will be a Republican Party,” he said. “Do you?”Analysis: In all, it added up to a press conference in which little news was made — and almost none was made on the main topic reporters asked about, the influx of migrants at the border. Why were there so many dodges? Part of it may have been Biden getting tripped up in his words: there were a few times where he launched into meandering filibusters of his own during his responses.

    But it also may have partly strategic, giving himself space to maneuver on most issues and not allowing himself to be boxed in on plans or deadlines he might have to modify later. Just as in the campaign, the vagueness allows Biden to maintain his moderate image — where, in lieu of direct answers, voters of all stripes can project anything they want onto Biden, without him overtly tipping his hand in one direction or the other.

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Ask Gabe

Q: What’s Kamala Harris up to? You report that she joins President Biden at briefings, she swears in various officials, and she’s been on the road promoting the big stimulus bill. But does she have any independent policy assignments or projects? — Cory S. of Portland, Oregon

A: Until this week, Harris actually didn’t have any solo assignments. Her portfolio had been fairly vague, and — as you can see in “Daybook” each morning — her schedule often consisted of remaining close to President Biden, joining him for most of his briefings and public remarks. (As Cory noted, she also does a lot of swearing-in ceremonies and also has been traveling to promote the American Rescue Plan lately.) Staying in direct proximity to the president has allowed her to appear as a close adviser and equal partner in the administration, but it made it unclear if there were specific policies she’s taking the lead on, as past VPs have done.

That is, until Tuesday, when Biden announced that Harris would be overseeing the administration’s response to the migrant surge at the U.S.-Mexico border. That assignment is Harris’ first, and it places her in a long line of VPs who have been placed in charge of some of the thorniest issues before their bosses: such as Biden himself overseeing the 2009 stimulus package and the war in Iraq during the Obama administration, or Mike Pence leading the coronavirus task force under Trump.

When announcing that he was deputizing Harris to handle the border crisis, Biden called her “the most qualified person” for the role. “When she speaks, she speaks for me,” he added, emphasizing their close relationship.

Vice President Harris listens as President Biden speaks at an event during the presidential transition. (Demetrius Freeman / The Washington Post via Getty Images file)

Q: What requirements for, or restrictions on, voter identification are included in H.R. 1, the voting rights bill? A conservative friend insists that it completely eliminates any need for a voter to prove who they are in order to vote. Is that true? — Donna P. of University Heights, Ohio

A: H.R. 1, the sweeping Democratic democracy reform package, would not ban state voter ID laws, as some Republican lawmakers have claimed. But it does create another option for voters without IDs to use in federal elections: the measure would allow individuals to get around their state’s identification requirements “by presenting the appropriate State or local election official with a sworn written statement, signed by the individual under penalty of perjury, attesting to the individual’s identity and attesting that the individual is eligible to vote in the election.”

This would only apply to federal races: voters would still have to follow the voter ID requirements in their jurisdiction for state and local elections. The provision is explained in H.R. 1 as being necessary because of “excessively onerous voter identification requirements” that the bill’s authors say “have eroded access to the right to vote,” especially for minority voters.

Studies have shown mixed results as to whether minority turnout is actually dampened by voter ID laws; Republican lawmakers have argued that the more stringent laws protect against voter fraud, while Democrats point to that rates of voter fraud are already extremely low in the U.S.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic lawmakers introduce H.R. 1 in 2019. (Saul Loeb / Getty Images)

Do you have a burning question about politics? Send it over to gabe@wakeuptopolitics.com and it might get answered in the newsletter! Don’t forget to include your first name and where you’re from.


All times Eastern.
Executive Branch
President Joe Biden will receive the President’s Daily Brief at 10:20 a.m. Then, at 2:10 p.m., he will receive his weekly economic briefing. At 3 p.m., he will participate in a virtual fundraiser for Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. The event, for one of his earliest campaign backers, is the first political fundraiser he has held since taking office. Biden will then depart for Wilmington, Delaware, where he will spend the weekend.

— White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki will hold a press briefing at 12:30 p.m.

Vice President Kamala Harris will ceremonially swear in Xavier Becerra as Secretary of Health and Human Service at 9:30 a.m. and Shalanda Young as Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget at 10:20 a.m. She will then join Biden for his daily intelligence briefing before traveling to New Haven, Connecticut.

At 2:35 p.m., Harris will hold a listening session at the Boys & Girls Club of New Haven on child poverty and education provisions in the American Rescue Plan. At 3:25 p.m., she will participate in a conversation with former President Bill Clinton as part of the annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting. At 4:35 p.m., the vice president will deliver remarks at West Haven Child Development Center. She will then return to Washington, D.C.

U.S. public health officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, will hold a press briefing at 10:15 a.m. on COVID-19 response.

Legislative Branch
The Senate is not in session.

— Texas Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn will lead a delegation of 17 other Republican senators to the U.S.-Mexico border. They will participate in a boat tour led by the Texas Department of Public Safety at 2:30 p.m. and host a media availability in Mission, Texas, at 3:30 p.m.

The House will convene at 2 p.m. for a brief pro forma session.

Judicial Branch
The Supreme Court will meet for its weekly conference.

Campaign Trail
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will speak at a breakfast event hosted by the Westside Conservative Club in Urbanside, Iowa, at 8:15 a.m. The speech in the first-in-the-nation caucus state will be the potential 2024 presidential candidate’s first public appearance since the end of the Trump administration.

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