The country has not been as ideologically estranged for generations. Two big blocks of Americans believe everything that they think their nation stands for could be ripped away.
Biden was elected to slake the poison, bridge divides and solve problems. But in his first year in office, political bitterness has deepened, partly because of ex-President Donald Trump’s corrosive and dangerous campaign to destroy American democracy. And Biden’s interpretation of tiny Democratic mandates in Congress might have delighted liberals but it has prompted some who saw him as a moderate to wonder whether they misjudged him.
In such an atmosphere, the President is under pressure to do more than advance a political program that is now almost certain to fall well short of his ambitious goals.
Extreme times call for presidents to restate a sense of common national mission, to assess simultaneous crises with clarity and to inject a sense of hope that some sense of normality may be on the horizon. Or if it isn’t, to at least demonstrate a strategy to slowly turn things around that voters can trust.
Most likely, Wednesday’s televised session with journalists will serve to stress the impossibility of the task before Biden and underscore the cruel, lonely reality behind President Harry S. Truman’s mantra that “the buck stops here.”
The White House called the press conference to highlight wins in Biden’s first term — including a quickly scaled-up vaccine drive to combat Covid-19, a rare bipartisan law that will spend $1 trillion on repairing infrastructure, large cuts in child poverty and Biden’s relaunch of traditional American leadership on the world stage following Trump’s tantrums at summits, genuflecting to tyrants and trashing of alliances.
But Biden’s victory lap will be short. Few presidents in recent times have faced such a staggering catalogue of crises as they prepare for a White House press conference. He is sure to be assailed by a flurry of questions to which the White House has yet to provide decisive answers. The event may ultimately point more to the stark challenges in the year ahead than to the achievements that Biden racked up in his first 12 months in power.
Here are 10 broad questions facing Biden on Wednesday.
Will Biden’s big Covid-19 testing push work?
By coincidence or design, Biden’s appearance takes place on the day that the White House’s new website, offering every American family four rapid Covid-19 tests, goes live. A critical moment for the President thus takes on even more intensity. If the distribution plan works, it could alleviate some pressure on his administration, which admitted it was caught off guard by the Omicron wave and didn’t stand up sufficient at-home testing ahead of time. If the website crashes or doesn’t work as smoothly as intended, it could become an emblem for a pandemic response that started out strong but became consumed by missteps, mixed messages and the relentless nature of a virus that defies management. Already, some problems have cropped up with a beta version of the site that went up Tuesday, with some people in apartment blocks having trouble registering their addresses.
Biden badly needs to restore confidence in his Covid-19 leadership and to specifically guarantee that people who wants tests can order them and that they will be delivered as promised beginning later this month, even if they’d have been far more useful weeks ago.
Where does Biden draw the risk equation between mitigation and normal life?
Omicron plunged Americans into a strange half-life. While the strain has generally been milder — leading only to minor symptoms for many vaccinated and boosted people — it was suddenly everywhere. The highly transmissible variant snarled transport, retail and schools and filled up hospitals with the unvaccinated. Biden, who came to power vowing that science would dictate public health decision making, leads a country desperate for a near-forgotten version of normality.
With signs of Omicron waning in the northeastern states where it hit first, does he have clear advice for Americans about how to resume their lives? Is it time to reassess the risk the virus poses in schools and the workplace if for most people it feels like a cold? Or does the risk of long-term health effects augur continued caution? How does Biden strike a balance given that many states are still yet to feel the full force of the Omicron tsunami — hospitals in Oklahoma, for instance, are already over capacity.
Does the President have any resolution to the ideological battle over keeping schools open and masking rules for kids? Did last week’s Supreme Court ruling striking down the administration’s vaccine mandates at big firms shatter his hopes of ending the pandemic? What message does Biden have for vaccine holdouts risking unnecessary deaths and for the frustrated millions whose freedom to live in a virus-free society has been subverted by those who politicized Covid-19 shots and thus allowed the virus to continue to rage? Ultimately, can the President give the country some hope that the end is near? And if he does, will anyone believe him after his premature July Fourth declaration of partial independence from the virus?
Does Biden understand fears over inflation are not transitory?
The great paradox of the Biden presidency is that he set out to help working Americans but is being accused of not doing enough to alleviate their economic plight in the short term. He wants to enshrine into law affordable health care, better care for the elderly, to alleviate child poverty, to provide free kindergarten, to make student debt less of a burden and to wean the country off carbon energy prone to price spikes caused by foreign geopolitics. Yet recent polls suggest many Americans don’t think he is tackling the problems that matter most to them.
Does the President now accept that the White House insistence for months that rising prices were “transitory” came across as dismissive to hurting families? Does he have any concrete plans through legislation or adjustments to taxes to offset the worst hike in year-on-inflation since 1982 other than measures already taken to unblock pandemic-clogged supply chains? Wall Street is, meanwhile, expecting oil prices to soon shoot up again, putting pressure on Biden to formulate plans to spare already hurting Americans pain at the pump that could turn into more political duress for his White House.
How are the US and Russia suddenly back in a Cold War-style showdown?
The United States and Russia are locked in their most dangerous standoff in Europe since the end of the Cold War. Can Biden explain to Americans how far the US is prepared to go to stop the Kremlin’s tanks rolling into Ukraine? Does the President believe that the threatened hammer blow of sanctions that could isolate Russia from the Western economy will ultimately deter Putin? Is he prepared to cede a little to Russian demands for a roll back of NATO in Eastern Europe that the US says are non-negotiable to avoid war? And how will he counter Republican claims such concessions would amount to appeasement?
Ultimately, is the United States prepared to follow through with backing a possible bloody insurgency in Ukraine akin to the effort to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan in the 1980s? Does the Russian expansionism put NATO allies at risk as well as non-alliance member Ukraine, especially in the Baltic states and in former Warsaw Pact nations? And how will the President ensure that such a standoff will not escalate into an even more disastrous clash between nuclear powers? Finally, Biden told American parents he wouldn’t send their kids off to any more foreign wars. Can he really make that promise given worsening tensions with Russia — let alone the next superpower threat China?
How will Biden contain the nuclear threat from North Korea and Iran?
What could be more alarming than an old school superpower face-off in Europe? How about a ground stop at US West Coast airports caused by a North Korean ballistic missile tests? That actually happened last week. Biden may face scrutiny on what his administration is doing to solve the issue of Kim Jong Un’s nuclear and missile programs and the true nature of the threat to the US mainland. Every White House since Bill Clinton’s has failed to unlock this intractable problem. Does Biden have any better ideas? And what is Kim up to anyway with his repeated launches? Is this a play for all the attention that Putin is grabbing?
While we’re talking nuclear weapons, foreign policy experts will be watching to see whether Biden can flesh out some surprisingly upbeat signs from previously deadlocked nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna. Is there a chance to revive the deal that was trashed by Trump? How would Biden sway a skeptical Congress on such a pact? And if he can’t, how close is Iran to the stockpile of highly enriched uranium needed for the bomb? And is Biden ready to order military action, which could trigger a wider war in the Middle East to stop it? Or will he let Israel try first?
What’s next for voting rights?
What answers does the President have for Black Americans, many of whom helped him win the presidency, who see betrayal in the Democrats’ impending failure to enact federal voting rights legislation to counter voter suppression efforts from GOP-led states? What can he say to those vital voters to keep them fired up for the midterm elections in which they can make the difference in swing states like Georgia?
Come to that, how does the President plan to restore his credibility after effectively putting his presidency on the line last week in Atlanta in a failed push for two voting rights bills stalled in the Senate? And how harsh will Biden be in censuring two moderate Democrats who defied his appeals and authority, opposing Democratic efforts to reform the filibuster to get around Republican obstruction tactics?
Can Biden build back Build Back Better ?
Those same two senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, also thwarted the President’s sweeping climate change and social spending plan — the foundation of an ambitious domestic program. So how much longer are Democrats going to bash their heads against this particular brick wall? Does the President finally have any ideas about how to get the two senators on board? If not, is he prepared to break up the legislation into smaller pieces — a child tax credit or a free kindergarten bill, for instance — and could he get some Republicans to join in thwarting the Senate filibuster?
Some moderate House Democrats who could lose their seats in the midterms back this approach. But it could trigger fury among progressives whom the party also needs to turn out in large numbers in November. Does the President have a plan to rebuild political capital shredded by defiant factions of his own party and make holdouts pay a price for defying him? And what does he say to other world powers that he pressured to make cuts to carbon emissions if he can’t deliver his own multi-billion program to combat climate change?
How will Biden counter the threat from Trump that never goes away?
Trump is gearing up to play a massive role in the midterm elections as a possible precursor for another presidential run based on his flagrant lies of election fraud and racial demagoguery, both of which were in evidence at a wild rally in Arizona on Saturday. Is Biden ready to take on Trump directly, after calling him out in his voting rights speech in Atlanta last week and on the anniversary of the US Capitol riot the week before? Can he demonstrate to voters and fellow Democrats that he has the political strength, endurance and energy to mount another campaign against an increasingly autocratic Trump and a new battle for America’s soul in 2024 if it comes to it? More broadly, how can the President warn the world that democracy is under threat if he is not able to safeguard America’s own democratic system?
Does Biden have answers on the southern border?
One key issue on which Biden is likely to be most exposed by Republicans is immigration and specifically the situation on the US border with Mexico. The White House spent months in his first term refusing to acknowledge claims by the GOP and conservative media that the border situation represented a “crisis.” But it wrestled with an unprecedented number of migrants crossing into the US, including an influx of unaccompanied children that stretched resources during the pandemic. Since July, when numbers of undocumented migrants caught crossing the border peaked at 213,593, apprehensions began to dip. But they were up 5% month on month in November, suggesting the administration is far from solving a politically troublesome issue.
How bad will the situation with China get?
All the challenges above demand short-term answers. But perhaps the most intractable long-term challenge to the United States is China. The building superpower clash across the Pacific will flare up again next month when the United States leads a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing in protest of human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims and the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong. The coming year is also likely to see new tensions over Taiwan, seen by many analysts as the most likely trigger for any armed conflict between the US and China. Biden is going to have to decide whether to make more overt US undertakings to defend the democratic island and water down the stated US policy of strategic ambiguity.