Updated Jan. 19, 2021 at 5:50 p.m. CT
Marking the end of his first year in office with a wide-ranging formal press conference, President Biden said it had been “a year of challenges, but also a year of enormous progress,” citing statistics on vaccinations, job creation and cuts to child poverty.
“Still for all this progress, I know there’s a lot of frustration and fatigue in this country,” Biden said during lengthy opening remarks, referencing the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns about inflation.
He acknowledged that his administration could have been quicker to boost testing for the virus. “Should we have done more testing earlier? Yes. But we’re doing more now,” he said.
He emphasized that the nation had endured “two years of physical, emotional, psychological” burdens as a result of the pandemic, but he said America still had a bright future.
“Some people call this a new normal — I call it a job not yet finished,” Biden said.
Wading into the thorny, increasingly political issue of how schools should manage the interests of students, teachers and parents amid the pandemic, Biden said that schools should remain open, citing funding and supplies provided to school districts to help better mitigate the threat of the virus.
On inflation, Biden said the White House was working to address supply chain snarls and urged Congress to pass the nearly $2 trillion social safety bill known as Build Back Better. He said the package, which would cut child care and prescription drug costs, might need to be divided into pieces in order to clear the Senate.
“It’s clear to me that we’re probably going to have to break it up,” he said, adding he had been talking to Democratic senators about trying to get as much of it passed as possible, and fight for the rest later.
‘Russia will be held accountable’
Biden was asked about Russia’s increasingly hostile posture toward the Ukraine and what the United States and its allies were prepared to do in the event that Russia launches an invasion.
“My guess is he will move in – he has to do something,” Biden said of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin, he said, has “never seen sanctions like the ones I promise will be imposed if he moves.” And he vowed that it would be a “disaster for Russia” if the country chose to invade its former Soviet neighbor.
Biden said that he has been in communication with the United States’ European allies and that he has had “very frank discussions” with Putin.
“My conversations with Putin — and we’ve been — how can we say it? We have no problem understanding one another. He has no problem understanding me, nor me him,” Biden said offering a small smile.
He said NATO leaders were united in their resolve.
“Russia will be held accountable if it invades,” Biden said — but added consequences would depend on how big the incursion into Ukraine was.
He said there could be “severe economic consequences” such as limiting Russia’s ability to do financial transactions: “Their banks will not be able to deal with dollars,” he said.
“I think he still does not want any kind of full-blown war,” Biden said, adding he thinks Putin wants to test the West — and would regret it. “I think that he is dealing with what I believe he thinks is the most tragic thing to happen to Mother Russia,” Biden said, explaining his thinking about Putin’s motivation.
Biden also said it was unlikely Ukraine could join NATO in the near term as it still needed to work on democratic reforms.
Sagging popularity ahead of the midterms
For Biden, Wednesday’s presser was a chance to try to focus on some highlights of his time in office, like the massive COVID-19 aid package and the infrastructure bill — even as major legislative priorities like voting rights, improvements to the social safety net and climate incentives have stalled.
When Biden took over from former President Donald Trump, the coronavirus pandemic was in full force, ravaging the national economy and education system, as well as overwhelming hospital emergency rooms and funeral homes.
Now, soaring inflation and supply-chain snarls have hit Americans in the wallet and grocery store. What’s more, the omicron variant of the coronavirus is raging and the Supreme Court ruled against Biden’s vaccine-or-test mandate.
He ended 2021 with the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.