There were hesitations, a gaffe, and one senior moment. But for 59 minutes, President Joe Biden cleared the low bar for success by fending off questions about the crisis at the border, bringing home troops from Afghanistan, and his plans for gun control by simply saying wait and see.
“It’s a matter of timing,” he said when asked when he would follow through on his promises to tackle gun violence.
The CNN chyron remained unmoved by the need to advertise breaking news. “Biden gives first press conference since taking office,” it said throughout.
The result was a partisan verdict for a partisan country. Supporters welcomed the return of what they saw as humanity and normalcy to the White House, while Republicans picked over the verbal stumbles and began parsing the president’s words for ammunition to fuel attacks for days to come.
“It’s clear why Joe Biden waited 64 days to talk to the press, but American families can’t sit around and wait any longer for him to take action,” said Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel.
He was spared the full onslaught of the White House press corps. Instead of a room heaving with correspondents, COVID-19 restrictions meant questions came from just 10 reporters picked from a prepared list — much to the annoyance of Fox News’s Peter Doocy, who went uncalled.
And after weeks of conservative TV anchors suggesting Biden was the dementia-addled puppet of former President Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, he had only to clear the lowest of bars in punting questions on multiple crises facing his administration.
“As you’ve all observed, successful presidents better than me have been successful in large part because they know how to time what they’re doing,” he said as he quietly pivoted from questions about tackling gun violence to his plans for an infrastructure overhaul. “Order, deciding priorities, what needs to be done.”
On Afghanistan, he delivered a similar message for families wondering when their sons and fathers will return.
“We will leave,” he said. “The question is when we leave.”
And he promised to allow journalists back into border facilities just as soon as his policies were being implemented.
“So, this is being set up, and you’ll have full access to everything once we get this thing moving,” he said.
That might provide a target for TV’s talking heads, said Randy Jones of United Public Affairs, who worked as political director for Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign. But it also suggested much-needed humility and humanity in the nation’s commander in chief.
“He may get punished for that honesty by pundits on television, but he thinks that’s what he was supposed to do,” he said.
“I appreciate that in an American president. It’s very refreshing.”
Critics wanting to spot signs of Biden’s advancing years will find the ammunition they want in a handful of muddled moments.
Biden said he would be unveiling his infrastructure plans in Pittsburgh on Friday, when he is actually due there on Wednesday.
And a throwaway comment about Republican proposals to change voting laws that would make “Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle” might have left viewers scratching their heads, trying to work out if he was referencing some long-forgotten politician with a moderate line in racism.
At one point, he joked about arriving in the U.S. Senate 120 years ago, a moment that fell flat in a room of journalists, but undermined his point on the filibuster by apparently losing his train of thought.
He came up blank as he searched for an example of an important policy.
“So the best way to get something done, if you … if you hold near and dear to you that you like to be able to,” he said before trailing off. Anyway, we’re going to get a lot done.”
It was a brief moment in a news conference peppered with verbal pauses, but each side will see what it wants to see, according to veteran pollster Frank Luntz.
“Republicans will focus on his stumbles and think he is visibly unable to be president. Democrats will focus on his substance and his command of the issues and think to themselves, ‘Thank God, he’s president,’” he said.
“So, there was something for everyone in today’s press conference.”