Biden’s News-Conference Debut Puts Border, Guns, Covid in Focus
(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden will host his first formal news conference at the White House on Thursday, a high-stakes test for a president facing questions about two recent mass shootings, a surge in migrant children at the U.S. southern border and the ongoing pandemic.
Biden’s performance will be under close scrutiny after public appearances during his campaign and early presidency were limited by the coronavirus outbreak. While presidents traditionally hold a news conference within their first month in office, Biden has broken with that precedent, prompting critics to accuse his administration of not being transparent.
White House aides have pointed out that the president has repeatedly fielded impromptu questions from the media. He did so on Tuesday during a trip to Ohio, where he spoke about his administration’s response to the mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado as well as Democratic senators’ concerns that his cabinet lacks diversity.
Still, Thursday’s session in the East Room -- which is scheduled to begin at 1:15 p.m. and expected to feature about 40 socially distanced journalists -- will see Biden for the first time field questions on live television on the toughest issues that have dominated the first months of his presidency.
Here’s some of the most likely questions he’ll face:
How Will He Address Gun Violence?
Biden on Tuesday called for lawmakers to adopt “common-sense steps” on gun control after a shooting at a Colorado grocery store this week left 10 people dead. The president said lawmakers should again adopt the assault weapons ban he helped author in the 1990s, and urged the Senate to pass legislation that has already passed the House to toughen background checks.
But new legislation restricting firearms has eluded Democrats for decades. And Senator Joe Manchin -- the West Virginia Democrat who represents a tie-breaking vote in the upper chamber -- has already signaled his opposition to the House bills, which would extend the time a gun sale can be held for a background check and eliminate a loophole that allows private individuals to sell guns without conducting a background check on their customers.
Biden, who made gun control a key issue of his campaign, could signal at Thursday’s event that he’s ready to invest new political capital in trying to craft a bipartisan compromise. Or he could announce that he’s produced a bill repealing liability protections for gun manufacturers -- an unfulfilled “Day One” promise from the campaign trail.
With Congress narrowly divided and leaders there juggling a number of other priorities, attention is likely to shift quickly to what steps Biden can take unilaterally.
Activists have urged the White House to issue new regulations on so-called ghost guns, which are self-assembled and lack serial numbers. And the president may be able to toughen background checks through executive action, or give federal funding to state and local governments to target gun violence.
Has the Migrant Surge Become a Crisis?
Republican lawmakers have seized on the influx of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, attributing the spike to the Biden administration rolling back tough restrictions on migrants instituted by former President Donald Trump.
With some 16,000 migrant children in U.S. custody, the administration has tapped the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help with the response and sought to open emergency housing facilities along the border.
But Biden’s aides have repeatedly rejected the term “crisis” while acknowledging the challenging circumstances. And allies have argued that the surge is similar to child migration patterns that were seen under Trump and former President Barack Obama.
Still, the president is likely to face questions about what exactly would qualify as a crisis, and if two aides he dispatched to Central America -- Roberta Jacobson, his special adviser for border issues, and Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council’s Western Hemisphere director -- were able to make progress in meetings with officials from Mexico and Guatemala.
Biden could indicate whether his administration thinks it will need to ask Congress for more funding to assist with the processing of migrants or provide aid to Northern Triangle countries outside the sweeping immigration framework his administration already sent to Capitol Hill.
What’s in the Build Back Better plan?
Thus far, the White House has focused on passing and then promoting the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that Biden signed into law earlier this month. But that’s changing next week, when the president travels to Pittsburgh to begin detailing his mega-infrastructure and jobs proposal that officials have said could cost some $3 trillion. The White House is also expected to unveil top-line budget figures on discretionary spending later in the week.
Reporters will be eager to suss out early details of the so-called Build Back Better program – from whether Biden intends to break the package into two parts to what type of corporate or individual tax increases the White House might envision using to offset the costs.
Biden is unlikely to delve too far into the details, partially because aides say he’s still choosing from a menu of options. But he may reveal whether he favors the approach of focusing an initial package on infrastructure, while reserving his push on priorities like free community college and paid leave until later in his administration.
Should Vaccinated Teachers Be Made to Return to Class?
The White House so far has avoided becoming embroiled in contretemps between two key constituencies: teachers’ unions skeptical of resuming in-person schooling during the pandemic, and parents eager to have their kids resume normal learning.
But that could change Thursday if Biden is pressed on the subject of whether vaccinated teachers should be forced to return to the classroom, even if their students haven’t yet received shots. Biden will likely seek to sidestep the issue by noting his administration earlier this month ordered pharmacies participating in a federal vaccine program to prioritize shots for school staff.
Biden may also announce that his administration is doubling its goal of vaccine doses administered during the first 100 days of his presidency from 100 million to 200 million.
The shift underscores the recent acceleration in vaccinations, with around 70% of Americans over 65 years old receiving their first dose and shipments to states increasing to 27 million doses next week -- a 5 million dose increase.
But it also highlights the Biden administration’s propensity for less-than-ambitious goal setting during the pandemic. Reporters may press Biden on whether Americans should expect things to begin returning to normal before the White House’s stated Fourth of July goal.
Biden might also face questions about his plans for the AstraZeneca Plc vaccine, after federal health officials criticized the company for problems with its trial data.
Are You Concerned Over Tensions With China?
While Biden has acknowledged the significant challenges Beijing poses to American interests, administration officials have yet to say how or whether they’ll change the hard-line approach adopted by the Trump administration.
Reporters are likely to ask if last week’s meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and their Chinese counterparts – which quickly erupted into trading public barbs – has tempered Biden’s stated hope of working together on shared priorities like climate change and North Korea.
The meeting, held in Alaska, may have also persuaded Biden to maintain Trump-era tariffs that China is eager to see repealed. Earlier this month, the Commerce Department said it would implement a Trump administration rule to block transactions involving Chinese goods and services in the information and communications technology supply chain. And shortly after the meeting, the U.S. announced sanctions on Chinese officials for alleged human rights violations against the Uyghur Muslim minority in the western region of Xinjiang.
Beijing has denied the abuses and threatened to retaliate against the sanctions, which were also implemented by Washington’s European partners.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.