27 January 2022
Pause for Laughter
by J.R. Thomas
Who said President Joe Biden could not handle a long press conference? There he was, looking fit and cheery, with two hours allocated for a “meet the media” session to mark his first year in office. His second solo press conference in a year! The boy is coming along. He took a risk: did he pull it off? The White House staff thought it was informative and insightful – but it would be a bit worrying if that was not their take on their boss’s performance. The Democratly sympathetic press – the New York Times leading the pack – praised him for taking on a conference longer than anything Mr Trump or Mr Obama had attempted (that could be double edged praise, we appreciate), but noted that the President referred extensively to his notes, even when answering questions, pointing out that at least some seemed to be sympathetically prepared (he didn’t read out “Pause for Laughter”). The Guardian though called it testy and rambling. So did the Telegraph; nice they agree on something. And the anti-Biden press, well, they were anti-Biden. Fox News we do mean you. They were also funnier. But funniest of all was Saturday Night Live who said that Joe had needed two hours to list all the things that had gone wrong.
As with all the best jokes, there was an element of truth in that. The President did refer, at length, to his disappointment that he had not been able to get much of his programme through Congress, due to the obstructive nature of the Republican Party. After over fifty years in politics you would think he might have worked out that is the opposition’s job, not least because that was how Joe ran things when he was in Congress himself. He praised the late Senator John McCain, a personal friend, and an example of the sort of Republican Mr Biden likes – one who is a nuisance to his own party. And he had a go at Mitch McConnell, leader of the Republicans in the Senate, asking “What is he for?”. Nobody answered that one but we can help, Joe – promoting the interests of the Republican Party.
His grumbling on the subject was also slightly undermined when a member of the Senate decided to stir things up just as the President was holding forth. Further evidence of Republican dirty tricks? No, the Senator in question was Joe Manchin, the Democrat Senator for West Virginia, who has consistently opposed the President’s tax and spend plans on the grounds that the poor working classes of West Virginia will be hit hardest of anybody by such a policy. (He does not need to add that the rich professionals who now control the Democrat Party can afford to pay extra tax.) Mr Manchin was on the floor of the Senate arguing against the President’s determination to abolish the filibuster – the technique used to talk out legislation by…er… talking and talking and talking and – you get the picture. Mr Biden says that this device is an affront to democracy; Mr Manchin was on his feet saying that it was an essential protection of democracy, preventing an over powerful executive getting its own way too easily. This was a gift to TV news-editors everywhere; many went to split screens showing the President arguing that the GOP was holding up his plans to save the nation – with in the other half screen a Democrat Senator doing just that.
There were things Mr Biden did not have time to get into. Will he run in 2024, for instance? He said in November he would, so that presumably has not changed. What does he think to Vice President Harris’s performance? He had recently lightly praised her so no need to go there again. What does he think to the opinion polls, given his are the worst ever approval ratings for first anniversary of any modern President? He did answer that one: “I don’t believe them”. That’s alright then.
This press conference was not just to review a year in office; a pretty disastrous year, though that can be at least partially put down to Covid – that and the pesky Republicans opposing everything. Those are Joe’s excuses and he is sticking to them. The other purpose of the press conference was to kick off the campaigns for the November mid-term elections to the Senate and House of Representatives. That has been a problem looming over the White House since the elections last year. The American people did not want President Trump as their President (sorry Donald, but that’s how it looks to us) but they were not keen on Democrat control of the Senate and of the House. Often a first term President will drag his party in to control of both houses on his coat tails, but this time the effect was rather odd; the Democrats won a much reduced majority of only ten in the House and although they improved their position in the Senate, the result was deadlock. That should have given the Vice-President a casting vote, but Senators Manchin (him again) and Sinema of Arizona have tended to vote with the Republicans on all key issues, citing the interests of their state electorates. The House is also not entirely reliable for the President and together with all those devices (filibusters; court challenges; two-third majorities on constitutional matters) that ensure the Founding Father’s checks and balances work to safeguard democracy, there is the reason that Mr Biden’s programme lies stalled on the steps of Congress.
The 2022 round of elections always held peril for the Democrats, simply because they are in seats that were historically favourable to the GOP but were won by the Democrats in anti-Trump voting last time. This time they are likely to swing back and that may well give the Republican’s control of both houses. That should ensure Joe has nothing much to do for the next two years.
At this point we would normally review what Senator Mitch McConnell might be saying, and the views of his counterpart leader of the House, Representative Kevin McCarthy, and even those of that Tribune of the people and the Glory of Florida, Donald Trump. Oddly, none of them is saying much at the moment. Mr Trump is having a bad time, at least in the media, with allegations about his connections with Russia (again), his tax issues in New York (again), alleged plans to seize voting machines at the last election, a developing row with former loyalist governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, and new court battles over document disclosures. Mr McCarthy and Mr McConnell, neither of whom could be described as Trump loyalists, are presumably hoping that all this may at some point fell the big man, but until then they surely think silence is wise.
But nature abhors a vacuum, and into this one steps none other than President Joe Biden. At that two hour conference he was asked if there could be circumstances in which the 2022 election result might not be legitimate. The correct answer is pretty much “No.” Joe, after a lot of rambling and misunderstanding and prompting, in effect said “Yes.” The White House did later clarify what the President might have meant. But that has done nothing for his reputation as defender of democracy and the constitution. The Republicans are wise to keep quiet; he does a better job for them than they could do themselves.